I’ve given a lot of thought to church planting, though that is not the direction in which God led me when I finished school. The first church which I pastored as senior pastor was only 9 years old and had an average attendance in the 20’s when I went there. During the 15 years that I pastored there we went through the processes of legal incorporation and tax exemption, writing a church doctrinal statement, constitution, and by-laws, electing officers, creating and maintaining budgets, purchasing and remodeling a building, supporting missionaries, starting ministries, etc. So, I’ve had some similar experiences to what a church planter will go through during the early stages. However, I do not claim to be a church planter.
Church planting is a popular topic among evangelical Christians. Many missionaries and mission organizations use this phraseology to define their work. Books, instructional conferences, and college/seminary classes all give guidance to the church planter on the best and latest methods of starting and building a church.
Before I get into the bulk of this post, I want to assert that this is not a negative post. The Bible teaches that once a person has been evangelized, the remainder of his/her life on this earth is to be occupied with edification, which is primarily accomplished in the church. So, if a new believer is going to be edified, a church is necessary. Furthermore, Jesus promised, “I will build my church,” so it is a very Biblical expectation to be seeing churches planted wherever evangelism is taking place.
Most modern church planting instruction will be gleaned from the history of the growth of the N.T. church as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. A couple of things should be remembered about the book of Acts: 1) the book of Acts should be interpreted as descriptive (telling us what happened), not necessarily prescriptive (telling us how it must be done); 2) the church planting that is seen there will have been accomplished by those who functioned with apostolic authority and had been endowed with miraculous power and sign gifts.
Frankly, there is no place in the N.T. that gives specific instruction on how a new church is planted. The epistles of Paul to Timothy direct him as the pastor of a church that is already in existence. The letter of Paul to Titus instructs him to ordain elders in the cities on the island of Crete (which is an insinuation that churches were being planted on the island, but no specifics are detailed). We can only speculate as to why there is no N.T. epistle on how to start a church. What we call “The Great Commission” simply says to “make disciples.”
Many principles about church planting, leadership, structure, administration, and etc., can be gleaned from the entirety of the N.T. However, I believe that deep within the history of the church in Colossae, we can observe the birth of a church that was accomplished without apostolic authority and miraculous power, but rather by a follower of the Lord Jesus who fulfilled his responsibility to make disciples. For a 21st Century believer who desires to be a tool through which Jesus will continue to build His church, I’m convinced that Epaphras is the best model.
The History of the Colossian Church
The epistle was written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment around 61-62 A.D. In 4:3, 10, and 18, Paul wrote of his imprisonment. Apparently, Paul had never been in Colossae (at least as a believer); in 2:1, Paul grouped the Colossian and Laodicean believers with those who had never met him in person.
The Colossian church met in the house of Philemon (Philemon 1:2), whom Paul had evangelized (Philemon 1:19) in another place at another time, possibly in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). It was currently pastored by Archippus (Colossians 4:17), who was facing a difficult task of dealing with the false teachers and their errant or non-existent Christology (Colossians 4:17). It is probable that Archippus was the son of Apphia and Philemon (Philemon 1:2).
The Colossian believers had been evangelized and discipled by Epaphras. In the introductory sentences of the book as Paul was describing his thankfulness for their knowledge of the grace of God, he clearly stated that they had learned these truths from Epaphras (Colossians 1:3-8; 2:7). Epaphras’ hometown was Colossae and he had a deep love for the Colossian people, as well as those in the neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:12-13).
As nearly as we can reconstruct the history, the Colossian believers received the gospel and were discipled as a result of the labors of Epaphras. He or others from Colossae, also went and evangelized in the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. These other two towns had born in them churches that had a close relationship with the Colossian church (Colossians 2:2; 4:13, 15-16). Evidently, leaving Archippus to lead the church in Colossae, Epaphras traveled to Rome and ended up in prison with Paul in Rome (Philemon 1:23); it is possible that Epaphras went to Rome for the purpose of finding Paul, perhaps to relate to him the struggles with the false teachers. At the same time, Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, was imprisoned, and under the witnessing of the Apostle Paul was converted (Philemon 1:10). After Paul learned of the issues in Colossae, he wrote this letter back to the church to instruct them with a correct Christology. The primary purpose of the Colossian epistle is an accurate Christology; it serves that purpose beautifully in its contribution to the body of Scripture. The letter, along with the one to Philemon, was carried back to Colossae, by two men: Onesimus, the runaway and now converted slave, and Tychicus, the seemingly ubiquitous emissary of Paul.
Facts about Epaphras
- He was not an apostle
- He was a native Colossian (4:12).
- He was a faithful minister of Christ, a dear fellow servant of Paul, and a fervent prayer partner on behalf of the Colossians, and jealous of the spiritual well being of the Colossians, Laodiceans, and those of Hierapolis (1:7; 4:12-13).
- He was an energized spiritual leader who diligently established converts in truth (1:7, 23; 2:7).
- Though he likely told Paul of the doctrinal struggles, he certainly relayed to Paul the spiritual strengths. (1:4)
Presumptions About Epaphras’ Ministry
- He left a successor when he departed (4:17).
- He and the Colossian church reached out into neighboring communities (2:1; 4:13, 15-16).
Lessons From a N.T. and Non-Apostolic Church Planter
1. You do not have to be the apostle with supernatural abilities. We know nothing of Epaphras’ secular background or family. We only know what is recorded of him in the Epistles of Colossians and Philemon. Epaphras was just a normal Christian man Christ had gifted for this ministry (as He does all evangelists and pastors/teachers – Ephesians 4:8,11) and implanted a desire for this ministry (1st Timothy 3:1). Epaphras was no different than any gospel minister, whether in the First Century or the Twenty-First Century. There is no record of miracles performed by him, no raising from the dead, no speaking in tongues, he did not receive special revelation and inspiration to write any N.T. Scripture, he was not called an apostle. In fact, he was called a beloved fellow-slave, a faithful servant (deacon by etymology) of Jesus Christ, one of you, a slave of Jesus Christ, and a eventually a fellow prisoner of Paul. He was not called an elder, a bishop, or a pastor, but it is clear from the kind of work that he did, that he was that kind of a minister of Christ to the church. A missionary or a church planter is under no compulsion to be anything other than what God created him to be. One of the most liberating lessons I ever learned came from Philipps Brooks book, The Joy of Preaching, in which he basically described preaching as “truth presented through personality.” God intended me to be me and He intended to use who He had made me as a vessel to convey His truth to people.
2. You should connect with your culture. Paul wrote to the Colossians that Epaphras was “one of you.” Colossae was not a great city in Asia Minor. It was not on the scale of Ephesus or Corinth and certainly not Rome. This city, community, and culture were familiar to him. He understood the people, their habits, their strengths and weaknesses, their philosophies, their educational system, their religions(s), their societal structure, their economy, their entertainments, their idiosyncrasies, and even their secrets. He was uniquely able to communicate with them. I have at various times considered starting a church or even moving to an existing church in both the Northeast and the Northwest, but each time, the Lord would not give peace that I would be able to minister effectively in either of those regions. In fact, every one of the three churches in which I have ministered has been a mid-western church. I’m from Missouri and my wife is from our border state of Illinois; I have pastored in Illinois and in Missouri. Mid-westerners are my people. I can get along in either midwestern city of St. Louis or Chicago; I am completely at home in a cattle or grain farm culture, I can hunt and fish, I love morel mushrooms – both finding and eating, I love the midwestern sport of baseball, I can drive in snow and ice and I can sweat in hot and humid weather. The midwest is my country. Does this mean that a midwesterner can’t plant a church in any other region? No! Consider missionaries that go to other countries. But I was a missions major in my undergraduate studies and well remember the classes called “Culture Shock” and “Life and Work on the Mission Field.” I’ve travelled to a few other countries and have talked to missionaries and know that culture shock is a real thing. This is true not only of foreign countries, but also of new regions even in your own home country. Even as a midwesterner, when I moved to northern Illinois to begin in vocational ministry for the first time, I realized that the men of our church spent time together – golfing and playing basketball – at basketball, I was a novice and at golf, my experience had been putt putt only – so I bought left-handed clubs and attempted to learn the game. When you are in your own culture, you have an advantage of understanding your audience and them understanding you, whenever you begin to interact. I’m convinced that this is why the Apostle Paul usually began ministering in a new city in the synagogue – even though he was a believer in Jesus Christ, he was still an ethnic Jew and was better versed in the Jewish religion than even the rabbis in their synagogues. The contrast of this is that all of the apostles who lived for any length of time after Pentecost, ended up going to a foreign place, none of them stayed in Israel. So obviously, you are not restricted to your birthplace as a place of ministry. However, Epaphras, worked and labored effectively in his home town. He had a deep love for these people as evidenced by the way that Paul reminded the Colossians of his ministry of teaching and praying on their behalf.
3. Your Christian character should be genuine and observable. I would love to have all of the things which Paul said about Epaphras to be said of me. Paul described him as a dear fellow servant; this is literally a beloved brother slave. The idea of this kind of slave is similar to the bond-slave of the O.T. who had decided that life with the good master was better than life on his own and he therefore submitted himself to having his ear bore through with an awl to publicly mark that he was committed for life to the master. Not only did Epaphras share this status with Paul, but as a fellow slave, he was deeply loved. Paul respected Epaphras. He was also described as a faithful servant of Christ. Faithful, indicates a steadfastness of character as a minister of Christ. The word minister is the root from which we get the word deacon. This context does not lend itself to the idea that he had the office of the deacon in the church of Colossae, but rather that he essentially served Christ by serving His church in Colossae. The deacon is often referred to as the “table waiter.” Epaphras was their teacher of truth, but everything that he did was in service to Christ. Paul continued by telling the Colossians (if they didn’t already know) that he always labors in prayer for their spiritual growth and well being. Epaphras was aware of the philosophies which were of men, but not of Christ which were being introduced into the church there. Obviously, this was a great burden to him (it is possible that one of the reasons he was in Rome was to consult with Paul on this very subject). In his physical absence from Colossae, Epaphras was devoted to spiritually contending on their behalf through agonizing prayer. This description indicates time, energy, tears, sweat, probably fasting and focus for the individual believers who made up this assembly in Colossae. This commitment to the spiritual well being of the Colossians was not limited to just that church and city, but Paul said this zeal was also poured out on those of Laodicea and Hierapolis. These other cities were several hours walking distance away, but the energy of Epaphras was also spent on the believers and churches in these sister cities. Incidentally, the connection between these sibling churches should serve as an example to N.T. churches today. Paul told them to share their epistles, which indicated that the problems addressed and corrected by Paul in one letter, was to be used for the edification of the other churches. They were not to be myopic and isolated.
4. You should demonstrate love with positivity. Epaphras’ character was recognized by his positivity, his candid commendations of them, and in a sense his hopefulness. He demonstrated love in the way that Paul spoke of in 1st Corinthians 13, “love thinketh no evil” and “love believeth all things.” I haven’t been sucked into the psychology of positivity, but I must acknowledge that though Epaphras was most probably the one who told Paul of the infiltration of false teachers and the twisted principles they sought to introduce into the church (2:8,17-23), he was also the one who would have told Paul of the love and faith which they had toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints (1:4). The distinct (Greek) prepositions for the English repeated word “toward” carries two different meanings. The first was that their love and faith was “toward” the Lord Jesus and indicates that their love and faith was founded and established on the Lord Jesus. The second was that the love and faith established on the Lord Jesus and “toward” all the saints means that it penetrated the lives of other believers; their love and faith had a deep and penetrating influence into the lives of other saints. Epaphras carried this news to Paul, they have their lives established on Christ, and that foundation is carrying a deep impact in other believers (and his concern was that they had philosophers who were turning them after things other than Christ). Furthermore, Paul ended that section by telling the Colossians that Epaphras had “declared to us your love in the Spirit.” Most of these people (except for Philemon, and possibly Apphia and Archippus) had never met Paul, yet their love has been relayed to him by Epaphras.
5. You must be established in truth yourself and then tirelessly preach it and teach it! For the purpose of this article, there is too much doctrine in 1:4-6, 23 and 2:7 for me to unpack and explain its necessity to a church-planter. But suffice to say that Paul was praying that they would understand the truths: of Christ, of the gospel and its global expectation and impact, of Christian relationships, of the hope of eternity, of the grace of God, and of continuity of faith and growth in sanctification – all things which they had learned from Epaphras! This man taught them the whole counsel of God! (You might be inclined to think, “then why were they in danger of being led away by false teachers? The answer is that the canon of Scripture had not been completed. Epaphras didn’t have a New Testament to preach to them. The letter which Paul wrote to them was later recognized as God-breathed and therefore was received as Scripture.) Evangelizing and the resulting establishing of a church today is much more than just seeing people make a profession of faith. Every church needs to be being taught in doctrine, whether that church has just been established and is only a few weeks/months old, or whether that church is 48 years old (the age of the church I’m blessed to pastor) and has seen several generations of believers pass through it.
6. You should plan for the future. It is possible that Epaphras only left Archippus to lead in his absence. However, considering the likelihood that Epaphras was also laboring and leading in both Laodicea and Hierapolis, it is possible that the church in Colossae had been committed into the leadership of Archippus. The letter from Paul to the church ended with the exhortation to the congregation to encourage this man “take heed to the ministry which thou has received in the Lord, that thou fulfill it!” We don’t know the details of the transition, but somehow or another, when Epaphras left, Archippus was given leadership in the Lord. How this happens in each church is going to be different. The N.T. doesn’t give samples of bylaws on how an official transition takes place or how or even if a new pastor is elected, but Paul did lay the ground work for the perpetuity of the church by telling Timothy, “the things which thou has heard of me of many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2nd Timothy 2:2) If you weren’t counting, that verse expresses 5 generations of truth repeaters: Paul to many witnesses to Timothy to faithful men to others also!
7. Evangelize in other places too. I know that I risk splitting hairs here, but there isn’t a command in the N.T. for men to go start churches. There is a command to preach the gospel to every creature, to baptize those who believe and to teach them everything that Christ taught. Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus was the One Who would build His church, but the expectation is that the fulfillment of the Great Commission will result in the birthing of churches. Evangelize and churches will be the natural result of genuine conversions. Though we don’t know for certain that Epaphras started the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis, I have no doubt that he was evangelizing there and therefore we see the natural, the logical, and especially the divine result of churches being established. Paul stated in no uncertain terms that Epaphras had the same zeal in ministry and prayer for those two churches as he did for the church in Colossae and so we know his labors were there – he wasn’t restricted to just Colossae (I’m challenged by the energy and the reach of Epaphras even as I write about it).
Conclusion: I wrote this article because I find great encouragement in learning from the example of normal Christians. I know that we are exhorted to follow the example of Paul and the other apostles in the pursuit of Christ. But I’ll never heal the sick, raise the dead, receive special revelation, or even be bitten – without harm – by a poisonous snake. However, Epaphras was no different than me; I have the same indwelling Holy Spirit, the same humanity, the same limitations, the same grace – and I even have the completed Word of God! To missionaries, to evangelists, to church-planters, to pastors and teachers, study Epaphras – his life and ministry is exemplary and encouraging!