Leadership that Liberates: The Implications of Acts 8:26-40
“It is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom.”1.
Liberation is a core concept of the Christian gospel. The message of Jesus Christ has the power to set people free from all that enslaves. The gospel is inclusive of all humanity regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. This inclusivity of the gospel has clear implications for Christian leadership. The exercise of leadership should be for the liberation and empowerment of the marginalized. The Spirit inspires leaders to courteous service which liberates people from the violence and pressure of the powers of the world. Ultimately all Spirit-inspired leadership is directed to liberating humankind from its enslaving powers. This liberation is demonstrated in the incorporation of an Ethiopian eunuch into the fellowship of the Spirit-empowered church in Acts 8:26-40.
To the Ends of the Earth: The Reach of the Gospel in Acts 8:26-40
In Acts 8:26-40 we are told of the conversion of a man from Ethiopia. He is described as a eunuch and as a court official in charge of the treasury of the queen of the Ethiopians. He had visited Jerusalem to worship and on his return journey to Ethiopia was reading from the book of Isaiah. C. K. Barrett notes that “He was not a born Jew but an Ethiopian, and therefore had no right based on race to take part in Temple worship, though he could have entered the Court of the Gentiles.”2 As a eunuch he could not have become a proselyte and would be permanently on the fringes of Judaism and excluded from God’s assembly (c.f. Deut. 23:1), although Isaiah 56:3-5 did hold out promise of full participation for eunuchs. Possibly Luke is making the point that in Christ, who is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, nothing need hinder the eunuch from being a full-fledged follower of God even if he could not be a full-fledged Jew.
Philip the evangelist, one of those who were scattered from Jerusalem (c.f. Acts 8:1, 4, 5) and not the apostle of the same name, goes to the road to Gaza at the direction of “an angel of the Lord” and encounters the eunuch. The Spirit tells him to go over and join the eunuch in his chariot. Philip then providentially overhears the eunuch reading from Isaiah a text most suitable as a platform for an explanation of Jesus the messiah (Isaiah 53:7-8). Serendipitously, Philip and the eunuch come upon water just when the eunuch is prepared to be baptized and to become a follower of Jesus. The eunuch then goes on his way rejoicing, and Philip is snatched away to another location by the Spirit of the Lord (v. 39). The actions of Philip in this story indicate that the events are engineered by God. Barrett states that “The conversion of the Ethiopian was planned not by Philip but by God, who used his messenger to bring together the evangelist and the Gentile already interested in the Scriptures.”3 The Holy Spirit is directing the task of evangelism and the steps of Philip the preacher in order to facilitate the events that see the spread of the gospel.
We can observe three distinctive theological themes in Acts 8:26-40: (1) the role of the Holy Spirit in the preaching and evangelism of the early church; (2) the witness of the early Christians to the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and (3) the joy of the Ethiopian as he proceeds home after his conversion.
The Role of the Holy Spirit
The theme of the role of the Holy Spirit in the preaching and evangelism of the early church is evident in verses 26, 29, and 39. In verse 26 Philip goes to the road to Gaza at the direction of “an angel of the Lord”4 rather than the Holy Spirit who directs him to go near the chariot in verse 29. Barrett sees “little or no difference between the two agencies.”5 He does not connect the angel of the Lord to Jesus but rather to the common OT expression that indicates God’s messenger. Alternatively, Witherington suggests that the angel of the Lord is probably not to be identified with the Holy Spirit though they act in concert in this story. He thinks that Luke does characteristically distinguish between the angel of the Lord and the Spirit (cf. Luke 1:26ff.): “In Luke’s theology angels are God’s messengers, but the Spirit is the one who inspires and fills God’s people so that they may say and do what God wants them to say and do.”6 The important point is that Luke portrays Philip as being guided by divine agency in the task of evangelism. As Barrett notes, “the conversion of the Ethiopian was planned not by Philip but by God, who used his messenger to bring together the evangelist and the Gentile already interested in the Scriptures.”7 Luke wishes to stress the divine direction of events that shaped the missionary direction and effectiveness of the church.
The Witness of the Early Christians
The theme of the witness of the early Christians to the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is portrayed in Philip’s explanation of Isa. 53:7-8 as the good news about Jesus (v. 35). Philip claims that Isaiah is referring to Jesus and that the fulfillment of the prophecy in Jesus constitutes good news.8 Barrett points out that on a long slow journey the Ethiopian would be likely to cover more than six lines and therefore that those quoted are a summary of a longer passage. This might indicate that the fourth Servant Song (Isa. 52:13-53:12) was under consideration. Witherington notes that this Servant Song had a considerable influence on early Christian thinking about Jesus.9 The request by the eunuch to be baptized (v. 36) indicates that Philip’s explanation included a statement of the need for repentance and baptism by the new believer.10 The act of Philip in baptizing the eunuch is a clear demonstration that the gospel is for all of humankind, Jew and Gentile, and even those from the ends of the earth. It is reasonable to conclude that Luke is portraying in miniature a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of Jesus’ mandate to the early church (cf. Acts 1:8).
The Joy of the Ethiopian
The story concludes in verse 39 with the Spirit of the Lord suddenly taking Philip away to another location to continue preaching the gospel and the eunuch continuing on his way rejoicing. Williams notes that the Western text has the variant reading of verse 39: “the Spirit fell upon the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord suddenly took Philip away.” While acknowledging that this reading is not well supported, he suggests that “from the fact that the official went on his way rejoicing, we can fairly assume that the Spirit had “fallen upon him” in accordance with the promise of 2:38.”11 Bruce thinks that even with the shorter reading it is reasonable to assume that the eunuch did receive the Spirit and that “it need not be doubted that the joy which filled his heart was that “joy in the Holy Spirit” of which Paul speaks in Rom.14:17.”12 This experience of joy in association with the Holy Spirit and the gospel is a characteristic theme in Luke-Acts.13
As an Ethiopian the man was almost certainly black. Witherington notes that in classical references, “Blackness and the Ethiopian were … in many respects synonymous … The Ethiopians’ blackness became proverbial … Ethiopians were the yardstick by which antiquity measured colored peoples.”14 Ethiopia was also frequently identified with the ends of the earth. The word eunuch normally refers to a man who has been castrated. Witherington notes that “For obvious reasons, it was a common practice in the ancient Near East to castrate those who were in charge of king’s harems or who had duties regularly involving close contact with the queen.”15 He is also described as being an official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. This eunuch had travelled a great distance and he was an important official in a significant kingdom. Although important in his homeland of Ethiopia, the eunuch is marginalized within both Jewish and Roman societies. He does not belong. However, the gospel is inclusive and so too should be its interpretation and application.
Martin uses this passage to call for an "interpretation for liberation" which “effects full humanity, empowerment, and justice in church and society under God.” She thinks that interpreters should seek to identify the “potentially liberatory vision of biblical traditions.”16 This story of the conversion of a eunuch from the ends of the earth demonstrates how the gospel can be an empowering force in all contemporary communities of faith. With his acceptance of the gospel nothing hindered the eunuch from being a full-fledged follower of the one in whom Isaiah’s promises were being fulfilled in the present, even though he could not be a full-fledged Jew.
Leadership that Liberates
Christian leaders should perform their function in accordance with the values of the gospel. Such leadership can be understood as an expression of the Holy Spirit’s working in the world. Overall, the Holy Spirit is working to transform this sin-afflicted world into God’s eschatological new order. Christian leadership should liberate people from the oppressive attitudes, actions, and structures of this present world. Practices that enhance this liberation agenda include the ethical exercise of power, the promotion of an ethical climate, the elimination of gender and ethnicity based discrimination, the fostering of appreciation and tolerance of diversity, and the provision of equally opportunity.
Exercising Power Ethically
Yukl notes that “influence is the essence of leadership and powerful leaders can have a substantial impact on the lives of followers and the fate of an organization.”17 Criteria for the ethical exercise of such influence are necessary. Yukl suggests eight criteria for evaluating ethical leadership:
Leader power and influence are used to serve followers and the organization rather than to satisfy personal needs and career objectives;
The diverse interests of multiple stakeholders are balanced and integrated;
The development of the vision for the organization is based upon the input of followers concerning their needs, values, and ideas;
Leader behavior is consistent with espoused values and is not expedient to attain personal objectives;
The leader is willing to take personal risks and make necessary decisions;
The leader makes a complete and timely disclosure of information to followers and stakeholders about events, problems, and actions;
The leader encourages critical evaluation to find better solutions and discourages the suppression of criticism or dissent;
The leader uses coaching, mentoring, and training to develop the skills and self-confidence of followers.
The application of these criteria will promote an ethical climate which discourages unfair discrimination and which encourages the tolerance of diversity and the provision of equal opportunity.
Promoting an Ethical Climate
Leaders can do many things to promote an ethical climate within an organization. The leader can set a personal example of ethical behavior to be imitated by others. An ethical code of conduct could be established and dialogues initiated on salient ethical issues. Ethical behavior within the organization could be recognized and rewarded. Unethical practices can be actively opposed. This might include refusing to accept assignments involving unethical activities and refusing to share in the benefits provided by unethical activities. It could also incorporate speaking out against injustices and acting to eliminate them.
Eliminating Gender and Ethnicity Based Discrimination
Gender and ethnicity based discrimination are antithetical to the Christian gospel which declares that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). Christian leadership should seek to implement the inclusivity implicit within this statement. Yukl points out that there is no conclusive empirical support for distinguishing between traits and skills on the basis of gender or ethnicity. Ethical leaders will implement and follow non-discriminatory practices.
Fostering Appreciation and Tolerance of Diversity
There are many things that leaders can do to foster appreciation and tolerance of diversity. Apart from the setting of a personal example, leaders can encourage respect for difference and promote understanding of diverse vales, beliefs, and traditions. They can implement policies that promote tolerance of diversity and act to eliminate unfair treatment and discrimination.
Providing Equal Opportunity
Leaders play an essential role in helping to bring about equal opportunity and elimination of unfair discrimination. Equal opportunity can be facilitated through the implementation of non-discriminatory recruitment practices and skills based selection criteria. It can be encouraged using mentorship and management development programs for women and minority groups.
Christian leaders should integrate the insights into leadership that are provided in Scripture with contemporary theories of leadership. One of the most fundamental of these scriptural insights is the inclusivity of the Gospel and of the Holy Spirit. A eunuch from Ethiopia would have encountered discrimination and marginalization outside of his homeland. However, his encounter with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit is an experience of inclusion and acceptance. The logic of the Gospel and the ministry of the Holy Spirit are the driving dynamics of the Christian church. Any authentic Christian leadership will be a product of Gospel message and of the Holy Spirit’s power. Acts 8:26-40 indicates that such leadership will bring transformation and liberation to those it influences.
1. Attributed to Horace Greeley (1811-1872), the American newspaper editor and opponent of slavery.
2. Barrett, C. K. (1994). The acts of the apostles. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 426.
3. Barrett (1994), 422.
4. cf. Acts 5:19; 10:3, 7, 22; 11:13; 12:7-11, 23; 27:23.
5. Barrett (1994), 422.
6. Witherington, B. (1998). The acts of the apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 294.
7. Barrett (1994), 422.
8. The text in Acts is a direct quotation from the LXX of Isa. 53:7-8 with only small emendations.
9. cf. John 12:38; Rom. 10:16; 1 Peter 2:21-25.
10. cf. Acts 2:38; 22:14-15.
11. Williams, D. J. (1990). Acts. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 163.
12. Bruce, F. F. (1988). The book of acts (Rev. ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 178.
13. cf. Luke 1:44; 2:10; 15:4-7; 19:6, 37; 24:41; Acts 2:47; 8:8; 11:18; 16:34.
14. Witherington (1998), 23.
15. Witherington (1998), 296.
16. Martin, C. J. (1989). A chamberlain’s journey and the challenge of interpretation for liberation. Semia, 47, 125.
17. Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.
Barrett, C. K. (1994). The acts of the apostles. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The book of acts (Rev. ed.).Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Martin, C. J. (1989). A Chamberlain's journey and the challenge of interpretation for liberation. Semeia, 47, 105-135.
Williams, D. J. (1990). Acts. Peabody: MA: Hendrickson.
Witherington, B. (1998). The acts of the apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.