The Limits of Leadership: Challenges to Apostolic Homeostasis in Luke-Acts

Article excerpt

The Twelve are not the only numbered group of Christian workers or leaders in Luke-Acts. There are two others, the Seventy and the Seven. These outsiders have often been overlooked, and their work is usually portrayed simply as extending that of the apostles. On a careful systemic reading, however, the relevant passages in Luke and Acts are open to a different understanding of leadership in the early church, which at the same time raises questions that bear on tensions in the authority and leadership of the church today.

As in the other gospels, the Twelve play a prominent role in Luke-Acts. They are chosen by Jesus and demarcated from the unnumbered disciples who followed him, a point made explicit in the third gospel (Luke 6:13; see also Mark 3:14-16).1 The Twelve, also known as "apostles" (apostoloi, a term found most often in Acts; see, for example, 1:2, 2:37, 4:33, and 5:18),2 are the chosen few who remain by Jesus' side during the early days of his Galilean ministry (Luke 8:1; see also Mark 4:10) and who are commissioned by him to emulate that ministry (Luke 9:1; see also Mark 6:7; Matt. 10:1-2, 11:1).3 Indeed, as with the other evangelists, when Luke mentions Judas Iscariot, he is designated simply as "one of the Twelve" (Luke 22:3, 47; see also Mark 14:10, 43; Matt. 26:14, 47; John 6:70-71).

Unlike the other gospel writers, however, Luke also makes specific mention of at least two other "numbered" groups, the Seventy in Luke 10 and the Seven in Acts 6.4 This raises a key question: Why does the evangelist mention these two additional sets of disciples, especially since their time on the Lukan stage is fairly brief? If the initial choice of the Twelve from among the masses is, for Luke, a "conscious and calculated" one,5 then what purpose do these "others" (Luke 10:1) serve in his "orderly account?" Furthermore, what is their relationship to the Lukan Twelve with regard to leadership in the nascent church?

This article explores the notion that the Seventy and the Seven, far from being peripheral to Luke's narrative, are marked out by the evangelist as persons who fulfill Jesus' commission to preach, heal, and exorcise (Luke 9:1) precisely at those points when the Twelve appear unwilling or unable to do so. A systemic examination of the relational connections between the Twelve and these other numbered sets in Luke-Acts may suggest the necessity for a reconsideration of the roles of all three groups in Luke's account. Following a brief overview of methodological considerations, this article focuses on the events leading to the rise of the Seven in Acts, similarities between passages involving the Seven (Acts 6-8) and the Seventy (Luke 9-10), the role of the Twelve in Luke-Acts as guardians of the community's equilibrium, and the threat posed by the other numbered groups to that equilibrium. Finally, the conclusion explores the possible relevance of a systemic reading of apostolic leadership in Luke-Acts to current struggles involving the Christian community in general and the Episcopal Church in particular.

Methodological Considerations

It is helpful to explore such terminology as "numbered sets," "relational connections," "systemic examination," and "equilibrium." While the dictum "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is an ancient one, in more recent years the connectedness of persons and social groupings has formed the basic focus of study for systems theorists. In brief, systems thinking "deals with data in a new way . . . focusing less on the cause-and-effect connections that link bits of information and more on the principles of organizations that give data meaning."6 Even as systems thinking has developed from the interactions of ideas from several diverse fields,7 it has also given rise in recent years to several specialist approaches, including communications theory, conflict theory, and group process theory. Most of these approaches, however, share the key foundational assumptions that all parts of a system are interconnected, that understanding is only possible by viewing the whole, and that a system and its environment have an effect on one another. …