September 19, 2014

Should we strive to be like the church in Acts?

by Lyndon Unger

Do you attend the perfect church?

No?

Well, me neither.

It’s definitely not news that Christians generally think their church isn’t exactly the model of the perfect church.  Everyone recognizes that there are a plethora of problems with their church, and for each problem there is a biblical solution that is both difficult and time consuming to implement, since churches are filled with people and every denomination has a joke about how many of their ilk it takes to “change a light bulb”.

light_bulb

But, there’s one generic answer that always comes up and always sounds super spiritual:

We need to be like the church in Acts!

It seems like “getting back to Acts” is the standard generic answer for every question about church problems, church growth, church polity, etc.  It’s the answer that is always right…right?  It’s the answer that almost everyone has for getting the church to look the way it’s supposed to be.

So, I was thinking and I came up with 3 questions in response to the generic answer.

1.  WHY?

Now, I’m not being a smart alec.  I’m serious.

Why do we want to be like the church in Acts?

What I mean is that the church in the book of Acts, on the whole, was immature.

PS_1099_IMMATURE

The church was struggling with things that any mature church shouldn’t struggle with.  Nobody would suggest that any mature church should have any confusion about what to do with a member who is bragging about sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1-2).  Nobody would suggest that any mature church should have any confusion about entertaining a false gospel (Gal. 1:6-7).  Nobody would suggest that any mature church should have any confusion about entertaining a pseudo-Pauline letter claiming that the second coming has already occurred (2 Thess. 2:1-3).  It seems to me that these sorts of things are somewhat obvious, but the problem is that is how the church in Acts was.  They were immature.  They didn’t have it all their ducks lined up, not even in the slightest.  The whole fact that we have the Pauline corpus shows that the early church had a whole lot of confusion on many different issues…but we have the completed scripture and 2,000 years of church history to learn from.  So, why should we want to copy the early, immature church?  And even if, for some reason, we should copy the church in Acts…

2.  HOW?

What is it about the church in Acts that we’re supposed to copy, and how do we copy it?

What I mean is that usually, when I hear people talk about the church in Acts, they quote Acts 2:42-47 and they’re using “the church in Acts” as a synonym for “embracing the social gospel”, or they’re talking about 1 Corinthians 12-14 and using a surface reading of those chapters as an impetus to “go back to the way it was” and embrace charismatic theology.  Also, in missional circles, I hear a lot of talk about sharing, caring for the needy, being generous or “creating community”, but those are things that we don’t need the book of Acts to learn; most of that is explicitly spelled out explicitly in the scriptures (or doesn’t appear in the scriptures at all…).

Why is it that I never hear someone suggest that we should copy the church in Acts in learning what they learned?

Classroom

I mean, the 1st century apostolic church was struggling with theological issues, like we do, but they got instruction from the apostles, learned what they needed to learn, and grew in their biblical/theological understanding (and as a result, their unity).

After 1 & 2 Thessalonians, did the church in Thessaloniki have confusion about the future nature of the second coming?  I sure hope not.

After 1 Corinthians, did the Church in Corinth still have the same confusion about the nature of tongues and prophecy?  I sure hope not.

I know of churches that have been around for a hundred years or more that are still confused about those issues when the churches in Acts were settled on those issues when they had been around for only a few decades.  I wonder if the apostles would have been pleased at the hermeneutical humility of their church plants in Rome or Thessaloniki if they came back in the second century and saw them taking a “let’s just focus on Jesus since godly men disagree” position on the questions that they had clearly addressed in their epistles to them?

3.  WHICH CHURCH?

This might seem stupid, but there was no single and uniform “church in Acts”; the book of Acts has a plurality of churches in it.  One could possibly use the phrase “church in Acts” as referring to the “church universal”, but that makes the whole “copying” idea nonsense since there’s a myriad of examples.

What I’m getting at is that I never hear anyone talking about copying a specific church in Acts, but rather simply referring to this ambiguous “church” that is really a conglomeration of all the features, stolen from various churches in Acts, that they personally think should be in a church.  It’s usually a “choose your own adventure” church with little consistency.

Choose

I’m fine with copying everything about the churches in the book of Acts (making careful prescription vs. description discernment, of course), but I never hear someone suggesting that.  It’s always some form of assembling a selective assortment of ideas into a model:

– Taking the Holy Spirit and sharing possessions from Jerusalem in Acts 2…

– Adding a little more sharing possessions and caring for the needy from Acts 4…

– Adding a whole lot of “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” from Acts 5…

– Adding a little bit of “getting baptized outside” in Acts 8…

– …And we have a perfect replica of the New Testament church, the way God intended it to be!

I rarely hear people saying, “hey, let’s not forget that in Acts 14:1, Paul and Barnabas spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.  Let’s make sure our pastors are trained in expository preaching!”

I rarely hear “hey guys, we need to get back to proclaiming an exclusive gospel like Peter did in Jerusalem in Acts 4:12!”

I never hear “You know, Acts 17:11 teaches us that the church in Berea checked everything by the standard of the scriptures; we need to really cultivate a systematic theological and biblical training program in our church to better equip us to do that!”

I find that highly suspicious that I can think of several things that every New Testament church did that precious few churches try to copy, which suggests the whole cherry-picking-nature of the entire idea of copying the “church in Acts”.

cherrypicking

So, those are a few of my thoughts.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him somewhere...you didn’t.
  • 4Commencefiring4

    The “church in Acts” didn’t have AC or pastries and coffee, so I’m betting most of us would say, “Umm, on second thought, never mind.”

    • Jeff Schlottmann

      I drove to California once while doing long haul. I saw a billboard for a church. I believe it just had the church name and location. The rest was filled with coffee beans spilled all over. To this day i can’t remember the name. the only thing I know about that church is that they had coffee.

  • Good points. Except I find it sad that “[You] never hear “You know, Acts 17:11 teaches us that the church in Berea checked everything by the standard of the scriptures; we need to really cultivate a systematic theological and biblical training program in our church to better equip us to do that!” — because that is actually how my church was named and we consistently refer back to that as something we need to do.

    I’ll consent though, that my church is not perfect. I checked the roster and my name is still on it.

    Blessing, Lyndon. Good questions to ask.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Count your blessings. Your church is a lot more rare than you probably realize.

  • Also notable is there is no chapter 29 of Acts.

  • Brad

    I look at Acts as a great book to study and learn from when on mission because it shows a lot of churches being planted and the gospel going forth in power. It also gives a very realistic picture of what life on mission is like. A lot of ups and downs, confrontation, and immaturity. I think this is true because some crazy things happen when the gospel is preached in very dark places and unbelievers become believers. Overall, I think it is helpful to study Acts and simply let the Spirit apply the truths to your heart, ministry, and church, knowing that we aren’t the church(es) in Acts but we can learn from the book and those churches as the Spirit reveals how He is working in our context!

  • Jeff Weaver

    Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit purges the church of hypocrisy and deception like He did with Ananias and Sapphira….

    • Lyndon Unger

      Well, I agree with the thrust of the sentiment but would hope for conviction and repentance, not death. *awkward smile*

  • Johnny

    I visited a church once that, trying to be more like the book of Acts, had a “sharing table” with used clothing. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking the church of Acts, in sharing with one another, was more of a financial nature, not used t-shirts…

  • Heather

    Great article…it really got me thinking this morning. I am one of those people who say we’d be better off if we just follow the patterns in the New Testament for the church! 🙂 Although, I’ve never specifically said the “church in Acts.” However, since you’re talking about Acts, the first thing that came to my mind was Acts 2:42, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” If we are going to try to copy something from the church in Acts, why not copy that? Yeah, they seemed to have lived communally, but I’ve always thought that was because of their Jewish culture, so for us today, since we don’t live communally, we typically gather as a church only once a week, so why not follow the pattern in Acts 2:42 for that gathering? We obviously don’t have the Apostles now, but we have gifted preachers, so teaching from them, fellowship with one another, remembering the Lord’s death by breaking bread or having communion, and praying together. To me, sounds like a simple thing to copy. Thoughts?

  • tovlogos

    Hi Lyndon — Greetings brother.

    Point well taken.
    “The church was struggling with things that any mature church shouldn’t struggle with.”

    Of course, it would be illogical to thing the modern world would be any better; when the modern world would be under the same curse, with and additional several billion people.
    Our Lord’s metaphor in Luke 23:31 seems to make the point of “for behold the days are coming,” (verse 29) — when He warns: “For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry;” as He was about to be crucified.
    As expected, we are a bloody mess; notwithstanding, it wouldn’t make sense if it were any other way. So, our challenges within the church, I see as basically the same. We can routinely discern Paul’s stress, as we can see in ministers today.

  • Craig Giddens

    I’m not sure the book of Acts was ever meant to be a standard or pattern for how to do church. Its a transitional book. Acts 1-7 pertains to a Jewish church that is calling the nation of Israel to repent of rejecting their Messiah. When the religious leaders have Stephen put to death God then sets the nation of Israel aside and starts moving to the Gentiles. He raises up a new leader in the Apostle Paul.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    What would Acts 2:42, rewritten for the 21st century church, read like?

    “And they were continually devoting themselves to projects, eating, wondering who came up with THAT song, eating, making sure they were home in time for kickoff, and buttonholing the pastor after each service to upbraid him about some minor point in the sermon. And eating.”

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  • Brad Kennedy

    Lyndon,
    Thank you for writing this. Pray for me and my home church. Our pastors are launching a ‘Vision 2020’ and have been preaching from Acts 2:42-47 over the last two LORD’s days to introduce us into the direction our leadership wants to steer Christ’s beloved church. I believe my pastor’s love the LORD and His word, but they are also young, educated, zealous men, and like many of us, captivated by ‘networking’-which can be good if used as an instrument from pure motives.
    Is this movement localized to the southern Baptist denomination or is this something that may be influencing a broader spectrum of the evangelical church? As I read the comments thread, I noticed one commenter reminding us that there is no Acts 29 in Scripture (a reference to the electronic media para church led by men described in 1 Timothy 3:6). Was it spawned at T4G (the only refreshing I got from streaming the 2014 conference was Pastor MacArthur’s warning that the LORD has called him to warn)? I need some insight. This ‘flood gate’ only opened up about four weeks ago when our church invited one of Brook Hills staff (Platt’s former congregation). I will be having lunch with one of our pastors next LORD’s day. Is this ‘phenomenon’ something I need to be more concerned about? Anyone that can give me some insight, please send to mbkennedy62@yahoo.com.
    Lyndon, you are continually in my prayers for your health and the spiritual prosperity that you and your family are gaining through this time. May the LORD bless you my friend for His glory and the edification of His people.

  • Ken Miller

    When people start saying we should be like the early church it seems like they’re usually referencing the Jerusalem church, so I tend to just make that assumption.
    We see many positive examples of godliness and care for the brethren in the early days of the Jerusalem church, so I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to say that we should be more like them.
    If people tell us to be more like the Jerusalem church and then follow-up with a careless approach to Biblical exposition and if they fail to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive passages, then we should definitely respond with a careful and well-reasoned expositional response.
    However, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say that the church in America should follow the example of the early church in many ways, provided that we don’t gloss over their corporate sins and turn them into saints.

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