17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:17-21 (ESV)
Paul stops at Miletus and calls the Ephesian elders. Later in this narration they will be called bishops, or overseers as it is translated. You see the same interplay of words here as you to in Paul’s letter to Titus. Elders in the New Testament were what we would call pastors today. What we call pastors would have been called deacons at that time. He can call these men to Miletus and not be delayed in his travels because they don’t have the wherewithal to host him there. Instead you have something of a pastoral retreat happening in which Paul is encouraging his brothers and giving them direction.
A large part of his direction is autobiographical. He holds up his own life as a model for these pastors. They should do what he has done. This includes teaching in public and from house to house.
When it comes to pastoral work both are needed. But things can be addressed in a person’s home that perhaps shouldn’t be addressed in public, this is true even of “public” sins in many cases. Sometimes the most public of sins is the sin of addressing a sin done in public publicly. But it isn’t just a matter of addressing a sin. The home setting often provides an intimate atmosphere for instruction that allows the instruction to take in a manner it wouldn’t in the context of a public sermon.
Though even here I wonder what is meant by public and house to house. Paul would lecture in public halls, salons of learning, and so on. He would lecture in the market place if possible. This allowed other people to join in on the lectures, to overhear, to listen from the sidelines and perhaps be drawn in. This was the model of evangelism. The worship service with communion was for those who had been brought into the faith. This was often done in the homes as one sees them breaking bread in the homes in the second chapter of Acts. Worship wasn’t a means of evangelism, primarily because worship without faith is not worship. One has to believe in order to worship. So one had to be baptized in order to participate properly in the worship service.
We live in a different age today. Today we invite friends to church regardless of faith or background, and this is a good thing. They can hear the word there, be introduced to the pastor, and they can in fact learn a lot, especially from the first half of the service, the service of the word. Though the second half, the service of the sacrament is perhaps not as helpful until such time as they can partake of the sacrament. It is perhaps even torturous to them. And I think we as a church in the LCMS need to come to grips with the fact that it even serves to send mixed signals when we pronounce forgiveness to them in the service of the word in confession and absolution, and even the sermon and then deny them this forgiveness in the Sacrament of the Altar. One sees why visitors and catechumens were sent out before the offering in the early church. In the early church the offering was a privilege of the believer, again, worthless without faith in Christ who has atoned also for your “good works.” The offering is in response to the salvation given in Christ, never an attempt to buy salvation as in a pagan context offerings, sacrifices, were given in an attempt to purchase favor. So this was done in homes, a more semi-private setting.
But it is vexing today. Where is the public square? Where does one go to lecture in public? The opportunities are scarcer today. Sure there is the internet. It is great for what it is and should be taken advantage of. And yet, you find yourself being heard in Timbuktu, and no one in your own community where you are called to be a servant of the word, hears a thing you have to say. It is problematic. We don’t have a culture even that attends public lectures. Our society is so closed you can live next door to a person for over a year and not know who they are. I know this because as outgoing as I am, I know people three and four houses down from me, even across town, and yet have hardly had opportunity to say hi to those living in the domicile next to mine.