Well, I’m still working on my exegetical project that has caught a bunch of my time and as always, things are going slower than I thought they would.
Working through the whole New Testament and mapping out a concept takes time, but it’s the only way to be thorough. Good thing I’m working night shifts where I basically have 4+ hours to study scripture.
Anyway, as I was preparing supper I was thinking about something that I’ve recently encountered repeatedly. Now 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 it seems like everyone has the same generic answer:
We need to be like the church in Acts!
It seems like “getting back to Acts” is the 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 the MB church has for making church the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the answer that Mars Hill Church has for making church the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the answer that the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Conference for making church the way it’s supposed to be. 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.
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. I know that’s a gimme. Nobody would suggest that any healthy church should be bragging about a guy who is sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Nobody would suggest that any healthy church should have members leaving Christianity for false religion (Gal. 1:6-7). 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 worked out”. 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? Does the New Testament ever tell us to, and if so…
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. We can learn all of that from the Old Testament (or attending a secular kindergarten).
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 things that we don’t struggle with and we should. I mean, many churches plead hermeneutical humility (i.e. we don’t really know/Jesus saved our souls but Derrida ‘renewed’ our minds…) when it comes to eschatology, or understanding suffering in the life of Christians, or spiritual gifts, or whether or not women can be teaching/preaching elders, or whether or not the church is the spiritual replacement/fulfillment of Israel, or the sovereignty of God in salvation, or numerous other issues. Many churches have left those questions behind as either irrelevant or shrouded in impenetrable mystery/outright relativism (i.e. “There’s good men on both sides of the debate…” or “scholars are divided on the issue…”).
After 1 & 2 Thessalonians, did the church in Thessaloniki have confusion about the future nature of the second coming? I think not.
After 1 Corinthians, did the Church in Corinth still have the same confusion about the nature of tongues and prophecy? I think 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 decade or two. 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 and not worry about all this theology” 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 church in Acts; the book of Acts had a plurality of churches in it and there was no single “Acts” church…unless one is referring to the “church universal”, which makes the whole “copying” idea nonsense (how do you copy an abstract idea?).
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 church 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 an 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 (baptismals are so uncool), etc.
I rarely hear people saying, “hey, let’s not forget that in Acts 14, 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 exclusivist gospel like Peter did in Jerusalem in Acts 4:12!” I never hear “You know, 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.
So, should we be like the church in Acts?
I welcome all thoughts and rebuttals!
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “The Armchair Mennoknight Theologian” Unger