Many of the differences in the various evangelical denominations and flavors of Christianity in the world exist because of conflicting views of the early church in the Book of Acts. Pentecostals and Charismatics understand the gifts of tongues, healing, and miracles found in Acts to be normative for all times, while others see them as only temporary. Some understand the “Jerusalem Council” to be normative for church government, establishing an episcopalian form of hierarchy, while others see the incident as confirming apostolic authority in tandem with congregational rule. Still others read Acts as a collection of stories from the “Golden Age” of Christianity for which we are to pine away in sentimental reminiscence.
The underlying problem in many faulty readings of Acts stems from conceptions of the book that find no actual support in Scripture. As a corrective, Richard Gaffin reminds us how not to read Luke and Acts.
If, as is too often the case, Acts is read primarily as more or less random samplings of earliest Christian piety and practice, as a compilation of illustrations taken from the early history and experience of the church—a more or less loose collection of edifying and inspiring episodes, usually with the nuance that they are from the “good old days, when Christians were really Christians”—then we will tend to become preoccupied with the experience of particular individuals and groups recorded there, to idealize that experience, and to try to recapture it for ourselves.
But if, as ought to be the case, Acts is read with an eye for its careful overall composition and what we will presently see is one of Luke’s central purposes in writing, then these passages and the experiences they record come into proper focus.
Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (P&R, 1973), 23.
Gaffin proceeds to clarify that Acts 1:8 is the program specifically given to the apostles, and therefore we cannot indiscriminately take Acts to be the proper pattern for everything in the church today. It’s not that Acts is completely unrelated to the church’s mission today, but rather that Acts 1:8 and the whole book is only derivatively applicable to us today. The reason, says Gaffin, is that the apostles actually completed the mission given to them in 1:8, as confirmed by Colossians 1:6, 23.
This is an an important insight that has at least two implications. First, it corrects many of the erroneous notions that have arisen from reading Acts as examples of piety and practice to be emulated with no input from the later New Testament. And second, it frees us from a concept of the church that was never intended to serve as the sole ideal. The later New Testament demonstrates what became the settled norm for the church.
The church in Acts, therefore, serves as a testament to the signs and wonders God performed to confirm his founding of a new entity, the church. At the same time, it points toward the rest of the New Testament for what we should consider normative today.