Paul’s missionary endeavors did not begin in Antioch but well over a decade earlier. The apostle’s mission exploits are commonly divided into three journeys: first (Acts 13-14), second (Acts 15:36-18:22) and third (Acts 18:23-21:16).
Since Paul and Barnabas began the first journey in Antioch, and Acts 13:3 says the church “sent them off”, this assembly is often considered the model mission sending church.
Not only is this assertion be misleading but it could also mask a valuable application for the church. Here are two reasons Antioch is not the model sending church.
Paul arrived in Antioch as a veteran missionary
Most people estimate Paul’s conversion around A.D. 32 and his departure from Antioch around A.D. 45. What was he doing in the thirteen years between his conversion and his “first” missionary journey in Acts 13? Missions! Let’s follow his itinerary.
First, Paul preached the gospel in Damascus “immediately” after his conversion (Ac. 9:20).
Second, Paul then went to Arabia to do the same thing: evangelism. Galatians 1:25-17 does not specifically say why Paul went to Arabia but it’s safe to assume that Paul went there not to prepare (like Moses or Elijah) but to preach. This was his MO since conversion (1Co. 1:17). Furthermore, we know Paul didn’t go to Arabia for some kind of planned sabbatical, for he only left Damascus because of persecution (2Co. 11:32-33).
It was natural then to go east to the next closest place where he could evangelize. Moreover, with the large body of learning in the OT Paul received pre-conversion, it wouldn’t have taken long to reinterpret God’s plans in light of Christ.
Third, “after three years” he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter (Gal. 1:18-19) before the enemies of Christ forced him to leave.
Finally, Paul went north to minister in the regions of Cilicia and Syria, which included his hometown of Tarsus. Meanwhile, some Hellenists from Jerusalem planted the church in Antioch after escaping persecution surrounding Stephen’s murder (Ac. 11:20). The church in Antioch immediately exploded (vv. 21-24). Barnabas then convinced Paul to leave his ministry in Tarsus (probably pre-maturely) in order to team-teach in Antioch (Ac. 11:25-26).
When the dust settles, St. Paul arrives at the church in Antioch as a missionary veteran with twelve years of gospel teaching under his belt.
Antioch was somewhat passive in their “sending” of Paul
In what sense, then, were Paul and Barnabas “sent off” by the church in Antioch (Ac. 13:3)?
First, remember that the “setting apart” of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 was not their foundational missionary call. I have tried to show this above. They aren’t in the same category of Judson first leaving the US for Burma or Paton leaving Glasgow for Vanuatu as a rookie missionary.
Second, as an apostle, Paul sometimes followed different rules than missionaries do today. Having received his commission directly from Christ, he started his missionary service without any concern about what the church at large thought (Gal. 1:16). Sometimes he moved according to previously devised plans (Ac. 16:6) and other times based on what God told him directly (Ac. 16:9-10).
Finally, it is the Holy Spirit who initiates the commission in Acts 13. The church’s action of “sending” (apoluō) most likely means they released them for their new missionary action.
This is not to disparage the importance of the local church. Antioch was intimately involved with their missionaries. Paul and Barnabas certainly consulted with the leaders during their one year there. And the church was active in praying and fasting for them before the next phase of their journey began. The church was above, below, and around everything Paul did.
It is probably over speak, then, to say Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by their local church as missionaries among the unreached places of the world. They were apostles of the early church who had two decades of combined missionary service before ever arriving in Antioch.
Thus, it would be unfair to call Antioch the model sending church. In fact, some respected missiologists have said there is no consistent directives or paradigms for sending out missionaries in Scripture.
If this last sentence is true, then the church and its missionaries have more freedom to use common sense in their decisions. This doesn’t minimize the church but unshackles it. What would this look like practically?
One particular example would be the matter of mission boards. Since there is no explicit command or pattern in how exactly to send out missionaries, churches have the freedom to embrace the most effective, wise means of initiating a mission work. This may mean the local church goes it alone or it may seek help from a mission agency. Historically, the latter option has been quite effective and is in no way “less biblical.”
In sum, since Acts 13 and the rest of Scripture gives no explicit patterns in sending out missionaries, the church is free to use their wisdom in helping their missionaries get to the field.