The way in which the apostles actually proceeded, in the forming and organizing of churches, is a proof that they were guided by a sense of fitness and propriety.—When a number of Christians agreed to walk together in the faith and order of the gospel, they became a Christian church. But at first they had no deacons, and probably no pastors, except the apostles; and if the reason of things had not required it, they might have continued to have none. But in the course of events they found new service rise upon their hands, and therefore must have new servants;* for, said the apostles, “it is not reason that we should leave the word of God to serve tables: wherefore look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business,” Acts 6:2, 3. In this process we see nothing like a punctilious attention to a positive institute, but the conduct of men who were endued with heavenly wisdom. All things are done “decently and in order,” and all “to edifying.” In the course of events, the apostles, who had supplied the place of pastors, would be called to travel into other parts of the world; and then, it is likely, the church at Jerusalem would have a resident pastor or pastors of their own.
And as servants were appointed when actual service demanded, so the number of them would be regulated by the same rule. A large church or congregation, where much service was to be done, required seven deacons; and where they abounded not only in numbers, but also in spiritual gifts, they commonly, if not always, seem to have had a plurality of bishops or elders.—With respect to us, where the reason of the thing exists—that is, where there are churches whose numbers require it, and whose gifts admit of it—it is well to follow this part of their example; but for a small church to have more pastors than one appears to be as unnecessary as to have “seven” deacons. Such a rule would favour idleness, and prevent useful ministers from extending their labours. To appoint two or three to a station which might be filled by one must have a tendency to leave many other places unoccupied, and so contract instead of enlarging the kingdom of Christ.
3. The principles on which the apostles proceeded may appear by tracing the analogy between them and a company of Christian missionaries in the present day.—The term “apostle” signifies one that is sent. If we subtract the ideas of being sent immediately by Christ, of being endowed with extraordinary gifts and authority, suited to the special purposes of primitive times, he will, for aught I see, be merely a Christian missionary. Let us then suppose a church, or society of Christians, to have in contemplation a mission to the heathen. One of the first things demanding their attention would be the selection of a number of suitable missionaries. Next, they would instruct them in the things necessary to their undertaking; and, after this, send them forth to preach the gospel.—Such was precisely the conduct of our Lord towards his disciples. He first selected them; then instructed them, during his personal ministry; and, after his resurrection, gave them their commission and a rich effusion of the Holy Spirit to qualify them for the undertaking.
The missionaries, arriving at the scene of action, would first unite in social prayer and Christian fellowship; and this would constitute the first church. Thus the apostles, and those who adhered to them, first met in an upper room for prayer, preparatory to their attack on the world of the ungodly; and this little band of “one hundred and twenty” formed the first Christian church. And when sinners were converted, and joined them, they are represented as being “added to the church,” Acts 2:41–47.
Again, The first missionaries to a heathen country could not be chosen to the work by those to whom they were sent, but by him or them who sent them; nor would their influence be confined to a single congregation, but extend to all the societies that might be raised by means of their labours. It would be different with succeeding pastors, who might be raised up from among the converts. They would of course be chosen by their brethren, and their authority would be confined to the churches which elected them. Thus the primitive missionaries were not constituted apostles by the churches, but by receiving their appointment immediately from Christ; nor was their authority limited to any particular church, but extended alike to all. In this they differ from ordinary pastors, who are elected by the churches they are intended to serve, and whose authority is confined to that particular department.
Again, The first missionaries to a heathen country would be employed in the planting of churches, wherever proper materials were found for the purpose; and if the work so increased upon their hands as to be too much for them, they would depute others, like-minded with themselves, whom God would qualify with gifts and graces to render them assistance. Some one person at least of this description would be present, in the formation and organization of every church, to see that “all things were done decently and in order.” And if there were any other churches in the neighbourhood of that in which such an organization took place, their elders and messengers would doubtless be present; and, to express their brotherly concurrence, would join in it.
Thus the apostles planted churches; and when elders were to be ordained, the people chose them, and they by the solemn laying on of hands invested them with the office, Acts 6:3; 14:23. And when the work still increased upon their hands, they appointed such men as Timothy and Titus as evangelists to ‘set things in order” in their stead, Tit. 1:5. In these ordinations and arrangements, a Paul or a Titus would preside. The other elders of the church, and probably of the sister churches, would unite in brotherly concurrence, and in imploring a blessing on the parties; and hence there would be the “laying on of the hands of the presbytery,” or elders, 1 Tim. 4:14.
But as the missionaries would die a question would arise: Who should be their successors; or, rather, on whom should the general concerns of the churches devolve?—Strictly speaking, there might be no necessity for any successors. The Christian religion being planted by them might be continued by the native pastors, whom God would successively raise up; and who, if “faithful men,” would not only be concerned to edify and watch over their own respective charges, but would extend the knowledge of the truth, and plant new churches around them. In cases of difficulty, especially those of common concern, they would call in the advice of their brethren, as the first missionaries had done before them (Acts 15); judging in all things not as lords over a heritage, but as men who must finally give an account.
That this would be the case is more probable when it is considered, that though the first missionaries had an authority and an influence which no succeeding pastors would possess, yet it was exercised only in things which it would be lawful for others to do as well as themselves. They had no power but what required to be exercised in subserviency to the will of Christ, and for the edification of the churches; and if this rule be retained, and this end answered, it is of no account whether it be done by them or by the native pastors after their decease. If the former planted churches, set them in order, and presided at the ordination of elders over them, it was not because the same things would not have been valid if done without them, but because they would not have been done at all. Let but churches be planted, set in order, and scripturally organized, and whether it be by the primitive missionaries, or succeeding pastors, all is good, and acceptable to Christ.
Excerpt from: “Thoughts on the Principles on which the Apostles Proceeded in Forming and Organizing Christian Churches, and Regulating Various Religious Duties.”
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 453–455). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.