Do you attend the perfect church?
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”.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.
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”.
So, those are a few of my thoughts.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!