It might seem strange to even ask of the book of Acts ought to “apply” to the modern form of the Church. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The real question is whether the Church in the book of Acts is a model for the modern church to follow. Is the book of Acts normative for Christian practice today? To draw an application from the narrative of Acts is no different than applying a story from the David. But few Christians would advocate David’s experience as the way we ought to do church today (presumably only harps for music in the church, and a strict no-giant rule). Acts is different because it does present the origins of many church practices still used today.
Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice. For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3. Someone like Shane Claibourne would want to apply Jesus’ life of voluntary poverty followed by the earliest forms of Christianity. Often this is narrowed to just Acts 2:42 as a model for the ideal church (teaching, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread).
On the other hand, most Christians dispense with Acts as a guide for how to “do church” today. This may take the form of a liberal Christianity which ignores Acts as authoritative for the church, but more often how we do church has little to do with Acts and we make no apology for this. The “Acts 2” community did not have elders and deacons, they did not have church buildings and they certainly did not baptize or take communion in ways even similar to modern practice. There are no youth groups, choirs, praise bands, hymnals or Sunday School. They did not even take an offering before the sermon! In fact, if you think about the things modern churches spend most of their time doing, the earliest forms of the church did none of them.
It is almost impossible to know exactly how the earliest church services were designed, how they worshiped, when they took communion (or how they took communion), etc. In most denominations, how we practice these things are based on developing traditions since the reformation or even later! Few people make the effort to say “this is how they did it in Ephesus, and that is all we ought to do today.”
This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book. Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ). We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history! But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.
My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book. There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission, and that shift will result in some difficult times for the early church.
Is there any way to decide what practices we read about in Acts ought to be “normative” and practiced in the church, other than “that is the way I was taught in my church”? Why do we cling to some practices (teaching and fellowship) but reject others (voluntary poverty)?