WHAT IF CHURCH LOOKED LIKE THE BOOK OF ACTS?
So the other day I (at last) finished a Bible study I have been doing of the Book of Acts.
Now, see what you think of this: I’ve become convinced that the material in Acts (like that of the other books in the New Testament) isn’t just “legendary”, “made up”, “mythical” or even “for that particular time alone” but can serve as a model and a blueprint for the church today, in the present, for various reasons such as:
(a) I don’t see why the documents that lie at the foundation of the Christian faith shouldn’t be taken at face value as being exemplary once I have been convinced of their trustworthiness, and they contain statements such as “Anyone who has faith in me will do the same things that I have been doing.” (-Jesus, John 14:12) that support this idea.
(b) I’ve come across some people and some churches that actually look something like this blueprint, for examples of which see various other posts on this blog, and have experienced something of it in a small measure for myself.
(c) When I read this material, I feel excited and compelled to at least try to reduplicate it in the present day, it stirs up imaginative possibilities in my mind which demand actualisation, even imperfectly.
As such, as part of this study, I was asking myself two questions in particular as I read through its chapters:
- In Acts, what does the church look like? and
- In Acts, how do people become Christians?
Acts is the 1st century history of what the Christian church can look like even without the incarnate Jesus Christ, but closest in time to the temporary departure of the incarnate Christ, therefore Acts is a uniquely potent blueprint for what the Christian church can look like at its best, I believe. As such, here are the results of my Bible study, the answers I discovered to the above two questions, for the interest, provocation and I hope perhaps upbuilding of whoever might come across them. I’ve also offered a few suggestions about what the part of the church I am most familiar with, the Western church, looks like when held up against this biblical standard.
N.B. I’ve tried to organise the suggested answers to the questions in descending order of the frequency of the material, in other words strongest answer first.
N.B. N.B. These, emphatically, are one person’s results. They come from my own reading, they are my own take. There are other ways of organising them, and different people would probably get slightly different results. If you disagree with them, please feel free to go away and do your own study of Acts –that’s just as good a result of this article as if you agreed with me, from my point of view.
So, without further waffle:
- IN ACTS, WHAT DOES THE ‘THE CHURCH’ LOOK LIKE?
-The church preaches the good news about Christ. The people of the church, commanded to be “witnesses” in the power of the Holy Spirit to ends of the earth (1:8), do this by preaching to people about the resurrection of Jesus, along with a message of repentance, often drawing on Old Testament prophecy (1:15-16; 2:14; 3:12; 4:2; 5:20-21; 26:20-23). This is led by the Holy Spirit and sometimes spontaneous (16:6-10; 4:20; 16:13-15). As a result of this, many people are saved by God, sometimes daily, and the church grows (2:48; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 8:26-27; 11:21, 24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). The church also sends people out on missions to do this, which invariably involve preaching about Jesus (12:25; 13:5,15f; 14:1,6,21, 25; 20:21; 22:22f; Chs 23, 24, 25) and there are sometimes debrief reports from these (14:26-27; 21:19). Another good preaching method involves someone telling their testimony/story in order to present the good news (Chs 23-26). In doing all of this, the church displays cultural sensitivity, but without watering down its message (15:24-29, 19-21; 16:3; 21:20-26). The church also engages in reasoning with non-believers (18:4, 19, 28; 19:8-9) since “faith is true and reasonable” (26:25). The number one job of the church in Acts is to tell people the good news about Christ. All the other things it does are important, but this is its primary outward mission and goal, given by Jesus: witness. Another take home point: Christians “reason” with non-believers! Christianity is “reasonable”! But don’t be mistaken, this always goes on in the context of PREACHING THE GOSPEL, and also of SIGNS AND WONDERS for which see below. You can’t JUST have reason!
-The church experiences extreme persecution (4:17; 6:9-14; 8:1-3; 9:1-2; 9:23-25, 29; 12:1-5; 13:50; 14:2-19; 17:5-9,13-15; 18:6, 12-13; 19:23-41) including imprisonment (4:3; 5:18; 8:3; 9:2; 16:33, 21:33 Chs 21-28), being put on trial before authorities (6:12; 16:19-21; 27:27; Chs 23-26), beatings (5:40-41; 14:19; 16:22), and martyrdoms (7:54f; 12:2). In Acts, when the good news of Jesus is preached to people, the church is also persecuted. Not everyone accepts the message and indeed some violently oppose it. Just as Jesus said, “blessed are the persecuted” and if people hated him they will hate his followers too. If Acts is the blueprint for what the church can look like at its best, then the church should expect to be persecuted. Proclaiming the truth in the way we have been commanded to do in a world in which the battle between the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness still rages is going to cause trouble and problems. There’s glory, but there’s also difficulty, pain, suffering, death and tears in the meantime before Christ returns. Obviously we shouldn’t invite for or look for persecution, but if the church isn’t being persecuted to some degree then it is doing something wrong. Conversely, persecution by non-believers is not something to be afraid of and is a sign that the church is probably doing something right!
-The church experiences many signs, wonders and miracles including healings (2:43; 3:7; 4:16,33; 5:1-12, 16 [this verse talks about all being healed!]; 6:5; 8:6-7, 39; 13:11; 14:3; 9:32-34, 36f; 14:8-10, 20; 15:12; 16:18; 19:11-12; 28:7-9), accurate prophecy (11:28; 13:1; 20:23; 21:9; 21:10-11; 15:23; 19:6; 20:7-12), miraculous freeing from prison (5:19; 12:5-11), angelic visitations (5:19; 8:26; 12:7), visions (18:9; 23:11; 27:23-24), the gift of speaking in other tongues (15:23) and being bitten by a poisonous snake without being hurt (28:1-6). In Acts, when the gospel is preached, it is followed by signs and wonders. These Holy-Spirit-empowered miracles are worked by regular Christians, not just a super-special elite: Stephen is a table-waiting disciple who does miraculous-wondrous signs, not an apostle (6:2-8). Note that more miracles occur outside of church buildings than inside them, perhaps largely because church buildings don’t yet exist, but even so more miracles still occur outside of church meetings than in them. If Acts is the blueprint of what the church can look like, regular church life looks like not only preaching the good news to all people and persecution but also the experience of signs, wonders and miracles. These are abnormal due to the very definition of a miracle, but they are also normal for the church.
-The church has leaders who watch over it. First there are the apostles (missionaries), an apostate among whom is replaced, a decision made by praying for guidance, democratic process, and casting lots (1:21-26). A selection of Spirit-filled wise leaders is also made in the Jerusalem church to look after practical matters so that the apostles can focus on prayer and the Word (6:3-4). Further to this, whenever a new church group is born in an area elders are appointed in it, always with prayer and sometimes with fasting (10:17; 14:23), and hands are placed on them for commissioning (6:6; 13:3). These elders are charged with watching over the church and “shepherding the sheep” (20:28). The apostles and elders meet to discuss difficult matters and decide on them (15:6; 16:4). Meanwhile, the apostles visit different churches (8:25) for their discipleship, encouragement and strengthening (14:22; 16:40; 18:23; 20:2; 15:41, 30-33). Discipleship is also undertaken by persons who aren’t necessarily called apostles, such as a married couple (18:26). There are also teachers and prophets. (13:1) In other words, in Acts the church has leadership structures, it is not a ‘flat’ model. But note that these leaders do not do everything –they are facilitators and releasers. It is everyone’s, every disciple’s, job to spread the good news.
–The church looks after its own, and takes care of the poor. Everything is shared in common (2:44) and things are sold when people are in need (2:45; 4:34-5). Widows are given a daily distribution of food (6:1), there is intra-church help and gifts (11:29-30) and offerings to the poor are made (10:2). The church demands justice (16:37). In Acts, the church is modelled as concerned with meeting the material needs within it and of the poor and marginalised in and around it.
-The church is filled with the Holy Spirit, (2:4; 4:31; 8:14-17) who encourages (9:31), gives direction (12:2; 16:6-10), is for all (10:45), and brings joy (13:52). The church can do nothing without God the Holy Spirit and seeks to be filled with and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit ministers God’s presence.
–The church is devoted to prayer. (1:14; 2:42; 4:2; 10:2, 9) including earnest prayer for those in need (12:5). Prayer is important. The church prays constantly, about all sorts of things, and in all sorts of ways. She prays to give thanks for things, ask God for things, and praise God.
–The church has teaching within it. The church is devoted to the apostles’ teaching (2:42), and teaching and preaching is done by many (13:1; 15:35; 28:31). Teaching is important, particularly the teaching of the first original missionaries who were sent by Jesus to start the church.
-The church is devoted to fellowship (community). (2:42, 5:12) Sometimes it meets together every day in temple, and people break bread together in homes (2:46). There is great love within the church (20:36-38). Community is important.
-The church is familiar with and rooted in the Old Testament, standing in continuity with it (1:20; Ch 7; 13:32f; 15:15-18). The church knows her Old Testament, where she has come from, and still learns from it and references it.
Those are what I found to be the main things. Here are some others:
-The church baptises new believers. (8:12, 37-38; 10:47-8) Baptism has been going on since the birth of the church and is a very important and powerful custom.
–The church is inclusive of all, including women. (1:14; 10:34, 35) I’m not going to argue about women leaders here, though I do acknowledge that women can be church leaders.
–The church has the fear of God. (5:11; 9:31) This doesn’t disappear with the New Testament, just as the Old Testament doesn’t disappear. God still does fearful and terrifying things.
–The church is courageous and prays for boldness and miracles. (4:13; 4:29-30) Here’s one we need to pay attention to. We need more courage, boldness and miracles in the Western church.
–The church praises and worships God, sometimes with fasting. (2:47; 13:2) This is mentioned, but I find it interesting that it’s not mentioned as much as prayer, teaching and fellowship.
–The church has such a miraculous reputation that sometimes no-one dares go near it. (5:13-14) Wow! How cool would it be if this happened again?
–Apostles (missionaries) in the church work as tentmakers. (18:3; 20:34-35) If you’re a missionary, sometimes you’ve still got to make money.
–The church is anti-religious legalism, but gets in a muddle sometimes over what laws to obey. (15:1-35) It’s very easy to get side-tracked by ‘religion’ sometimes –but it’s still not good.
–The church call themselves Christians. (11:26) Hey, maybe just ‘Christian’ isn’t such a bad name for the faith after all. It does have the name ‘Christ’ in it… [It’s also frequently called ‘The Way’, though I forgot to note all the instances of this. Why don’t we bring that name back?]
–It is not possible to buy God’s gifts with money. (8:20) Well, duh. Televangelists pay heed.
–In church, sometimes sermons are long and boring to the point of death. (20:9) We’ve definitely got this one right. No further comment needed.
–In the church sometimes there are disagreements and disputes, sometimes including people parting ways. (15:1-35, 36f) This should never be used to justify conflict, but we’re still all human and sometimes things go a bit pear-shaped.
–Sometimes there are false teachers in the church. (20:29-31) Watch out! Just because someone is in church and teaching, doesn’t mean what they are saying is true! Test the spirits, weigh things against the Bible, and stay in community!
–Sometimes people in the church take haircut vows. (18:18). We need to see some more of these. For real.
SO, WHAT DOES THE WESTERN CHURCH LOOK LIKE IN COMPARISON WITH THIS?
To me, the early church in Acts seems to have had much less of an emphasis on a sub-culture of celebrity leaders and musicians putting on a show inside expensive buildings, rather the emphasis seems to have been on group prayer (and praise), teaching and authentic community, facilitated by servant leaders, which spilled over into a super-culture of evangelism and justice: ‘regular’ people shared their faith and preached the gospel way more along with the leaders and as result way more people came to faith, there were way more miracles and there was way more persecution. In other words, through participation there was way more boldness, courage and obedience in the church.
WHAT IF CHURCH LOOKED LIKE THIS?
It would not be boring! It would be awesome! It would be an adventure and life would be much more fulfilling! And parts of the Western church do look like this, in a measure. Let’s make it look more like this!
- IN ACTS, HOW DO NON-BELIEVERS BECOME CHRISTIANS?
–People become Christians through community, by God’s power. (all of the below) This is a bit of a cheeky headline, but all of the instances listed below are enabled by the power of God, but they all also happen through people –God co-working with people. Both of those are important.
–People become Christians through hearing preaching… (2:41; 3:12; 8:12; 10:34-43; 13:13f; 14:1, 21; 16:25-31; 17:22-23; 18:7-8; 19:9-11; 28:23-24)
…that appeals to: Old Testament prophecy… (2:16; 3:21-26; 8:26f; 4:11; 9:22; 10:43; 28:23)
…testimony about Jesus and his resurrection… (1:3; 2:22-24, 32; 3:11-16; 4:10; 5:30-31; 8:5, 12; 9:20; 10:29-41; 17:6f esp34, 28:23)
…experience of the Holy Spirit… (2:33; 5:32; 9:1-18)
…and miracles, signs and wonders… (2:22, 33; 3:9-10, 12; 4:10; 8:6-7, 13; 9:1-18, 32-34, 39f; 13:12; 14:3; 16:25-31)
…and that has a message of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and receiving of the Holy Spirit. (2:38; 3:19; 10:43).
–People become Christians through experiencing miracles. (8:7, 9:1-18; 19:11-20 [this one is by negative example!])
–People become Christians through reasoning from the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. (8:26f; 17:1-4, 10-12)
Those are the main things I found. Here are some others:
–People become Christians, by implication, through reading the gospels. (1:1 [Note the genre of the book!])
–People become Christians through noticing the courage of the unschooled. (4:13)
–People become Christians through encountering Jesus in a vision. (9:1-18)
–People become Christians through being in the family of someone who is saved. (16:15, 33)
–People become Christians through amazement at the teaching of the LORD. (13:12)
–People become Christians through conversation. (16:13-14)
HOW CAN WE EMULATE THIS?
The number one way people come to faith in Acts is by hearing preaching: people standing up and talking about Jesus. Most of this preaching takes place outside of ‘church meetings’. It refers to the Old Testament, Jesus’ resurrection, contemporaneous miracles and repentance into forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. To copy this, we need to stand up in public places and talk about Jesus, do miracles and reason with people about Christ.
I’m not very good at any of these things, but sometimes with God’s help my wife and I try to do them, along with some friends. If you are interested in practicing and trying out preaching about Christ in public, praying for people for miracles and/or talking to people about Christ in the street, and want to come and try it out with us too, even just to watch and observe at first, then please send me an email or a facebook message. Thanks for reading.