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)?

5 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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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    • “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.

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  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.

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