Let’s try the same thing with Acts. After all, Luke wrote Acts as something of a sequel to his Gospel. Let’s again purge from our minds the notion that Acts is all about baptism. It’s not. Let’s try to take a fresh look.
What’s in Acts?
* We can’t help but notice that the outline of Acts follows the command given the apostles at the beginning — go first to the Jews, and then Samaria, and then the Gentiles.
* The work of the Holy Spirit is unmistakeably prominent. Peter presents the coming of the Spirit as in fulfillment of prophecy regarding the Messianic age. And we see the Spirit pushing the Kingdom farther and farther out into the world. In fact, whether it’s an angel, the Spirit, or even God himself, all the big steps in Acts are initiated from heaven.
* The Kingdom is now called the “Way” and the preaching is centered on Jesus.
* The spread of the Way is met with constant opposition and persecution, but God works mightily to assure the continued spread of the Way.
* Many reject the preaching of the Way empowered by the Spirit, but converts are made and churches are planted.
* In Acts 2 the church gives generously to those in need. In Acts 6 men (surely the first deacons) are appointed to oversee the care for needy widows. The church is marked by its generosity to the poor — following a key teaching of Jesus.
* When churches are planted, they assemble for prayer and meet wherever they can — the temple courts, synagogues, or homes.
* We see that the churches in Jerusalem and Ephesus have elders, appointed by apostles. “Elder” is term taken from Jewish synagogue practice, so we also read in Acts about elders among the Jews.
What’s not in Acts?
* While we have mention of elders and deacons, we see nothing defining the “church” as bodies with elders and deacons. In fact, deacons don’t even show up except as a practical solution whereby the apostles can delegate benevolence as the church outgrew the apostles’ ability to administer on their own. And we also see one church evidently overseen by prophets and teachers (Antioch. Acts 13:1-2). The Jerusalem church is overseen by apostles and elders, and they make a ruling intended to binding on the church in Antioch, many miles away (Acts 15). While it’s easy to see how the apostles might have oversight over both churches, it’s surprising that the elders in Jerusalem so violated congregational autonomy.
In short, Acts evidences a variable form of church organization, not a uniform, immutable pattern.
* There’s no mention of an order of worship. However, we are told regarding the Jerusalem church —
(Acts 2:42-47) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This passage is surely meant to convey a sense of what the early church was like. That is, I think Luke gives this as exemplary of all churches. But the point is more that the church is truly the Kingdom of prophecy, as described by Jesus, than to give a checklist on how to do church.
“Breaking bread” in First Century culture was a sign of acceptance and hospitality. The idea is that the church truly lived “love thy neighbor.” And no Jewish reader would believe the Kingdom to have come if the poor were not being cared for — because this was how the prophets described the Messianic age. Luke is filled with stories of Jesus eating with others, and it’s Luke that quotes Jesus —
(Luke 14:23) “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.'”
There is more that could said, but the point is that Acts isn’t law; it’s a description given in light of the prophets and what Luke had earlier written about Jesus. It’s a wiki-story, showing that what the prophets and Jesus had spoken of was really happening.
Does that mean we shouldn’t emulate this? No, we should, but not as law. Rather, we emulate this the same way the Jewish church did — because they so loved God and each other and those in need that they did what loving people do: prayed to God, studied God’s word, ate together, visited in each other’s homes, and took care of those in need. Do that to obey a law and you destroy the whole point, which is to love God and one another. You see, if a command is required, it’s not really love. (If you told your wife that you love her because God will send you to hell if you don’t, how loved would she feel?)
If the leaders of the church have to command you to eat together on threat of damnation, well, you’re not there. If your leaders couldn’t keep you from eating together, from seeking out opportunities to study and pray together, from caring for those in need — then you’d be an Acts 2 church.
There is nothing contradictory to an Acts 2 church in being organized and structured — so long as the structure only helps us love better rather than interfering with the love we are to have. Hence, when we farm our benevolence or evangelism out to others, we’ve lost something critically important. When we create elaborate rules about what can be done in the building or who can be in charge of the committee, the rules just get in the way of love.
Acts is about the formation of communities of believers, called the “Way,” a new relationship with God through the Spirit, continuous, spontaneous outreach to the lost, and uniting the nations — the Gentiles — with the Jewish foundations of the Kingdom — all as guided by the hand of God.
Somehow Luke believes he can tell the story of the early church without laying out a complex ecclessiology. It’s not a handbook on how to do church. It is the story of how to be church.