The Book of Acts and Modern Church Life

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.

242Some 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)?

16 thoughts on “The Book of Acts and Modern Church Life

  1. Upon reading this, I immediately think of the church in which I attend and how it is so very structured and has various elements each week such as offering, announcements, Sunday school, the Sermon and worship time. The church in Acts was very different from the structure there now is in place (as stated by Dr. Long we do not know what elements were directly involved in their meeting). Church was a simple thing where people would come to be taught, worship and give. Acts 2:44-47 speaks of the believers coming together with everything in common looking to help those who were in need by selling their own personal possessions and meeting together in the temple courts and in their own homes. I think that churches are amazing but that they also have fallen so much on tradition and structure that we forget that we like the early believers in Acts we should focus more on coming together, giving whatever we can of ourselves to those who are in need and so filled with desire to learn.
    The aspect of selling our own possessions to give to others is a very hard thing for us today to be able to put into action. Christians many times have such a hard time sacrificing our things for others. The church should take the example seen in so many chapters of Acts where the believers are giving of their own land, possessions to help those in need. Finally, one last thing I would like to highlight is how important it is to see how God guides and protects the church so that it will continue growing. Everything that is happening in Acts is being led by God no matter who opposes it. “God’s sovereign plan for the church cannot be stopped…” (Jipp, 19) I enjoyed and was encouraged reading how constantly more and more people came to believe in Acts. This is still true for us today. God has a plan for each church and they will continue to grow.

    • Hi Elenrae, Good job on your post, however I agree with the majority of what you said, I have to ask. Do you think that every Christian in the church should go and sell all their possessions and land in order to help those in need? What would your suggestion be for the church in which a balance is kept between knowledge, relationship as well as displaying the church in Acts where prophecy, healing, tongues… etc. is kept? While I believe that there are some called to sell everything and go somewhere, this specific lifestyle is not meant for everybody. I think that God is active everywhere, not just in Acts, but also doing the same things today as he did in the Bible times. Though they may not be as obvious today and we should be careful because “God and his purposes are frequently misunderstood; human ignorance of God and his purposes” (Jipp, 23). I agree that many churches have fallen to structure and tradition and many times forget the simple things God is doing.

  2. When talking about modern churches today I review my home church, Rush Creek Bible Church and the practices we follow. We do not have a harp or an organ (except for the electronic piano feature), we have drums and electric guitars. We do sing some hymns, but a lot of contemporary songs. We have 2nd hour, kids programs, youth groups, and lots of other ministries. I think part of this is the growing of the church in new places and cultures, we see this as God had intentions of growing the church, he gives specific missions to people like Paul and Barnabus (Jipp, 22). When reading in Acts 2: 45-46, it shows us just how simple their way of the church was, giving to those in need, attending the temple, breaking bread, praising God, and having favor with people. I think about the changes from this time, although we still have cookies, which could be considered like a bread. Overall, these things are important. We still do these practices, but it looks a lot different, it is more complicated, and tends to be more about ourselves. These practices continue on in different forms because it is the foundation for serving God and growth in our relationship with him. We need a form of these practices in our life, worshipping God connects us to him, even though my church may do it with drums and another an organ. It is the fundamental of worship that is important. We cling to some practices like teaching and fellowship because it has proven to be beneficial in the lives of believers, it grows them in understanding. We reject some because its honestly just not convenient. If you walked into any church today and said, let’s go sell all of our possessions, you might have one that stands up and says yes. Believers today want to have two lives, the I love God and want to serve him whole-heartedly, but at the same time, do not give their whole life to him to control. I cannot say I am any better, I give God parts of my life and hold back others. Being a college student I do not have much, but I would have a very hard time selling everything if Jesus himself told me too. The point is the church has changed the way of practices a lot over time and most of the time we do not consider why we are doing the practices we are. We should though, we need to keep the church in check, not to get away from the true and simple point of loving God and worshipping him.

    • “Being a college student I do not have much” – I understand this (and lived that life when I was in college), but remember that Americans on average have huge wealth compared to the majority of the world.

  3. The debate we are looking into is whether or not Acts should be used in solitary as the foundation of an example of how we do “church” today. In order to figure out if this is just, we need to be asking the simple questions of “What is the point of Church?” and “How can we effectively accomplish this today?”. Removing Acts from the picture, we need to find the foundation of the church. Church is not a building, it’s not a person, and it’s not the way you live. Church is the body of Christ. For example, Matthew 18:20 says “when two or three come together in my name” that is Church.

    However, there are other factors that are necessary in the church today. If you want to reach more people, your need for communication and fellowship will need to increase. As a church, we should be reaching out to those in need and helping provide in any ways that we can. One way that we can do so is by tithing in order to give monetary donations where it is needed in church and the community. We see the significance of tithing in Malachi 3:8-10. There are many various factors we can pull from the Bible in order to shape how we can run a church today. We cannot just use one book or use a church that Paul wrote as our only example. Our society as a whole is always changing. As christians, we need to know that culture is always changing, and something that worked over 2000 years ago might not be effective today.

  4. There are many modern churches today that do not resemble, the earliest form of churches that evolves in the 1st and 2nd century. Although there were many differences in terms of the service style, I do think we still share the same common ground, purpose, and vision as a church. Things have to changes due to culture shift and many places in the Bible we see God intervening in cultures after cultures, and work within the contexts of culture in order to shape His people. God can work through historically and cultutrally, but its culture shift does not change his purpose for humanity and covenant, it remains the same. As for me, it does not have to be completely identical as the earliest churches do, but our main purpose and its root should be identical, such as prayer, fellowship, song, worship, and serving Jesus as our Lord and savior. If our foundation is rooted in the teaching of the Bible and in Christ, then we are a part of the body of Christ.

  5. The idea and principles behind house church has always interested me. I have always gone to what would be called a traditional American church. The Sunday morning worship band, Sunday school classes early in the morning, and cookies and coffee after the sermon, and AWANA clubs on Wednesday nights make up the majority of my church experience. I had never really considered house church or a non-traditional congregational method until high school when I met a woman volunteering who was very passionate about home churches and small groups. She and her husband ran one with a few other families in the area, and was a part of a ministry that helped spread and plant these house churches. When I asked more in-depth questions she immediately pointed to the early church and the book of Acts as her example, claiming it was the only biblical way to practice church. Acts 2:42-47 does give a great biblical example of what a congregation of believers can look like, and an aspect of that is meeting in homes.
    Over time the church has progressed, just as the culture has. Traditions have been gained and lost over time, some of which do have little biblical examples but often still bring value to the modern-day believer. Just as it is important to look at the cultural context in a passage of scripture, it may be beneficial to look at the evaluation of the church in light of cultural changes as well. There are some factors, such a fellowship, teaching, learning, and sharing communion together that both the early church and the modern church have in common. There are some aspects that the early church did much better with, such as selling all possessions and giving the funds to the poor, although I do know many churches who give a very large percent of their funds to help provide resources to those who are struggling. Are the house churches in the book of Acts the only biblical way? I really don’t think so. Should modern churches use the Acts church as an example to follow? I do think that there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It is just important to note how culture has changed and what effective ministry looks like in the modern age.

  6. The contradicting views of how we should “do” church is something that breaks unity within the body of Christ. Believers can easily get entangled with their own beliefs and theology that they choose their opinions over unity. I agree when Long says that an application from one book of the Bible is not different than applying another book of the Bible. One of the differences to be seen is the cultural settings.
    What if we recognized the heart of Acts 2:42-47, instead of the exact model? It says believers of the early church truly filled one another’s needs, praised God together, and broke bread together. It also says that they saw signs and wonders, and they saw salvations daily. Instead of perfectly imitating the model the early church had to make sure we have the same results, maybe we should check the motivation of our hearts first.
    The early church had unity in mind when they went after fellowship. If believers only think their way of church is the right way, unity will never be reached. Their heart was to glorify and praise God in everything. Their heart was to have compassion on one another, just as Jesus did on earth. Their heart was to see the lost saved and see God’s glory poured out.
    We cling to some practices and not others because of comfort. We do not want to change our traditions or mindsets towards what we have always known. That is too uncomfortable. But as seen in Acts 2, the believers saw the fruit right away. They saw God’s wonders, and they saw salvations daily! If believers today are pursuing what God wants modern-day church to look like, shouldn’t we be seeing the similar fruit?

  7. Those that look to Acts for instruction on how the modern church seem to be making the mistake of confusing mentioning for prescribing. If this logic were applied to other areas of life that can be found in scripture our way of living would be very archaic. For example, in Ruth 3 Naomi mentions to Ruth that barley will be winnowed on a threshing floor. If we took this mentioning as prescriptive, we would still processing our grain by beating it, stone milling it, and stomping on it rather than using the sophisticated machinery that we have today. The ESV study Bible on pages 2076, and 2077 mentions how the author of Acts prepared this book to provide an “orderly account”. In other words, he is describing to the best of his ability the events and conversations that have happened, and while the Bible does provide lessons in its history, not all history is necessarily recorded to teach a deeper lesson other than an account of what happened. As such, I don’t think the descriptions of what the early church looked like in Acts 2 is meant to be a mandate of what the church is meant to look like now, but rather is instead simply meant to tell us what was. In this way I believe the function of Acts is to provide a continued history of what was given in the gospels. To provide an origin story for the church, much how part of Genesis and Exodus provided an origin story for Israel.

  8. Where does the basis for how a Church should look come from? Well, our beliefs, traditions, and practices should be rooted in the Bible which is the inspired word of God. So we should look at what the Bible says about the Church and look in other chapters besides just in Acts. Matthew 18:20 simply states that a Church is wherever two or more people have gathered in Jesus’ name. 1 Corinthians 11 talks about taking communion to celebrate the Lord’s supper together. I Titus 1 Paul tells us the church is to be led by qualified elders (this is also mentioned in Acts). As a Church, we should worship together in song (Ephesians 5:18-21). The whole Bible is filled with how the Lord instructs us to run the church but one last example is in 1 Corinthians 14 which says, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up”, meaning the Church should be a place Christians can use their spiritual gifts to bless and pour into one another. Acts along with other books in the Bible give the basis of how the church should run and our church now has adopted those principles and molded them to fit our needs of today. Church back in Bible days used to be much simpler and now we have complicated them with many requirements. Even though our intentions are pure sometimes we put too much pressure on having the perfection worship put together, or having the most kids in our kid’s ministry or collecting more donations than anyone else in the area. Even though these things have good intentions sometimes we lose track of the simple and important parts of the church, which is if two or more people are gathered the Lord is there. The Church does not require fancy lights, fog machines, yummy communion bread, exotic child care rooms, or a congregation dressed in the finest clothes. We cling to what we have been taught but sometimes we need to step back and reflect on the real roots and importance of the church.

  9. During reading I found myself pondering the modern church’s traditions and modern approaches to setting up a church. I immediately thought of modern church worship and all it entails. As a whole, the church tends to put a big emphasis on the presentation of worship. In America churches commonly use big stages, fancy lights, big projectors with admirable slides and large sound systems. All of this is nice but extremely different from the church in Acts. In Acts 2 we see a beautiful representation of believers coming together and praising the Lord. They did not have the technology we have today to express their praises to God. Although they experienced true Joy in the Lord. Acts 2:47a describes their praising spirit. It reads, “praising God and having favor with all people”. The people in the book of acts worshiped God with simple but pure praise. Looking into the lives of the people in Acts I wonder if we as a church are possibly getting lost in presenting our praises to God.
    Next looking into the simplistic lifestyle of the people in Acts I am naturally drawn to how they sold and gave away their possessions. I personally grew up in a church that took care of each other in this manner. Although I am not confident this is a common practice in the church of today. There is giving within the church but it seems that we commonly lack the act of caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ. More than not people just give offerings and call it good. I just wonder what would happen to the body of Christ if we gave and took care of each other in this way. Comparing the Acts church to today’s church I find myself wondering what the church should truly look like.

  10. What ought to be “normative” and practiced in the church? The answer to this question seems to be evolving over time due to changes occurring within our culture and the church. In order to answer this, the church should rely on the Bible, which is breathed out by God, to guide us in our practices in the church. Acts 2:45-47 tells us that people in the church sold their possessions and distributed proceeds to help others, they attended the temple together and broke bread in their homes, and they praised God and had favor with all people. I believe that this can be a model for modern church life because we should be in fellowship together and praising God for all that He has done for us. In Acts 2, it represents what the church is intended to be, simply praising God and being in fellowship, and it did not involve a huge presentation of worship as is done in many modern churches. God takes us as we are and simply wants us to praise Him and be in fellowship with other believers. It is interesting to think about the changes that have occurred over time within the church, and how modern churches have services such as youth groups, Sunday school, and worship bands, whereas earlier forms of the church did not have these services. I believe that these services are beneficial to the church today because it provides an opportunity for greater involvement and community within the church. While these services and big presentations of worship are more modern and bring more people into the church, it is important to take a step back and remember the original intentions for the church as mentioned in the Bible, such as being in fellowship and praising God for who He is and all that He has done for us.

  11. I think we need to find a foundation and a REAL reason for church and what it purpose is for! I believe a lot of people think that the Church is just a building that people go to and praise God for two hours and go right back to normal life or doing what they were doing before they got to church which is very false. You still have to keep God work going on even when you leave the church. A scripture comes to my mind when talking about this passage and I look it up and it is Matthew 18:20. Church can be used as a positive light for people to network and to come together to talk about God and not just by yourself but with others as well. Some people come to church for a fresh start, some people get “saved” in the church by being baptized and being blessed and covered by the blood of Jesus. I believe that God house (the church) can be used in a very positive light instead of being looked at as a “Church”

  12. I appreciate everything you said and agree with it. I find that today’s Church is about programs and making sure that the youth and kids are being taught the WORD in a way that is entertaining—Heaven forbid that they would have just to read or sing without all the bells and whistles. I have seen videos of children in third world countries praising the LORD with tears in their eyes and praying for one another while standing on dirt floors. As far as the adults, it is so discouraging that the extent of fellowship is based on roughly a one of Bible study once a week and a short greeting after Sunday service. I am alone after a 20-year marriage and I feel like I am invisible to my brothers and sisters in CHRIST. It is not a problem getting someone to pray for/with me, but as far as being GOD’S hands and feet to me, that is non-existent. Church members gravitate towards their families, friends and if you are neither, it is hard to fit in. I go into the service feeling alone, and leave the same way. I volunteer and always try to be helpful and have even asked my Christian Counselor if there was something wrong with me because it’s the same scenario Sunday after Sunday. I ask JESUS where is my Christian family and I pray to find a Church home where I am accepted and feel that I matter and that I’m part of the Church body. I live in Utah and the Church here is by no means unified. I was reading Acts 4 today and feel that today’s Church is so far off course. What if JESUS wants us to give more to help others. Christians who are well to do that maybe can put a single mother through school so that she can care for her children and then some day do the same for someone else. If we all do our part, I believe we can make a huge difference—instead of relying on the government to do what JESUS called all of us to do. It is so easy to say, “I’ll pray for you,” because it doesn’t cost us anything. I think, me included, we are too comfortable in our own cocoons that we are not willing, or too afraid to live with less for the sake of others. I am not saying that we have to take an oath of poverty, but that we need to be willing to count it all as lost when called upon for the sake of being the Church and doing what JESUS told Peter —if you love ME, take care of my sheep. Thank you for letting me vent.

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