Is the Book of Acts Intended to Be a Model for the Church Today?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Is the Book of Acts Intended to Be a Model for the Church Today?

  1. I totally agree. It is also interesting to note that there are next to no commands in Acts as to how to do things absolutely. It seems to just record for us what they did.

  2. Mark,
    There are a couple of things that strike me immediately: first, it’s Luke-Acts and not just the Book of Acts; second, it is written that “all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof and correction, for training in righteousness.” What does “indiscriminately take” mean? The contextualization implicit in the proposed approach concerns me–does “derivatively related” correlate with “indiscriminately take”? What the apostles completed does not nullify our commission to evangelize anymore than it establishes a terminus for Matthew 28:20 “even to the end of the age.” I believe that these commissions harmonize in spite of realized eschatology, or historical completions. I also sense that Jerusalem is desperately in need of evangelization as we write. But I have always taken that passage to mean, start in your Jerusalem (wherever that is) and work outwards until the whole earth is reached . . . multiple times, apparently.
    I am not sure what you mean by the later New Testament–late dates seem to have been abandoned. Luke appears to have written pretty mid-stream as dates go. Luke was Paul’s contemporary, may have even carried some of his epistles!
    “A concept of the church” never meant to be emulated? Really? Despite Paul’s repeated exhortations to be like me, imitate me? Of course the church in Jerusalem hoped to be emulated–replicated in many places then, and since. “The pattern of the faith,” “the tradition you have received,” support that contention.
    The reply above falls prey to the same modernizing tendencies: no absolute(read authoritative) guidance on anything? The Holy Spirit was given to call to mind the commandments Christ had already given. It seems lame, or redundant to require all those instructions over again. There is much to be gleaned from the gospels as to the true nature of the church. Were they doing their own thing? Or were they being obedient to Christ? The Acts church is uniquely positioned to demonstrate faith walked out. It’s a wonderful example, with emulative intent, I think.
    I feel as if I may be steeping into a stream of discussion–so I apologize if I don’t have the right nuance.

    1. Sam,
      You raise some excellent points. To answer them in order, I agree that Luke and Acts must be read together, but the focus of this short essay is on Pentecost and what followed it. Second, what I mean by “indiscriminately take” is that some use unique occurrences in Acts to justify theological positions and Christian practices which appear in Acts, but are clearly transitional events, and out of synch with the epistles. Some example would be angels speaking in dreams to guide believers (8:26; 10:3), speaking in tongues (10:45-46), and a separate reception of the Holy Spirit after salvation (19:1-10). The inspiration of Scripture guarantees the truth of everything that Scripture affirms, not the continuing practice of everything it reports.

      Third, what I mean by “derivatively related” is that in context, the commission was given to the apostles specifically, just as were the commands to go “two by two” in the gospels. We repeat the pattern of evangelism to our own area and then move outward to the whole world, but we don’t have to start in Jerusalem today every time we launch an evangelistic initiative. I think we agree on its principial application.

      By later NT, I merely mean the epistles that followed many of the events in Acts. I reject the later dating of NT books, so that’s not what I mean. i was referring to people who take events from Acts as authoritative, even though they conflict with instruction in the epistles concerning ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, etc.

      My concluding statements simply reiterate the point that we don’t take Acts in isolation from the Gospels or the Epistles. When Paul said “imitate me” he was referring to his life and character of one following Christ. He did not say, “Do everything recorded in Acts.” And that is simply my point.

      Thanks for the interaction!

  3. Richards is right. Acts must be read in conjunction with Luke–the only Gospel that records the events of the ascension. You shall be “witnesses”–key word. the last command before the Lord ascended and the word written all over Acts. But it is the book of the Holy Spirit’s direction; hence the church propsered when it followed the leading of the Spirit. The transition from Jerusalem (and all it represented) to Antioch (and what it represented) is crucial. The believers were first called Christians in Antioch–why not in Jerusalem? Seems the apostles were getting too tradition-driven instead of Spirit led. Jerusalem and the disciples seemed to see themselves as some sort of “aloof hierarchy” So the Holy Spirit sovereignly uses Stephen, Philip, Paul and there is scant notice of the others—even Peter had to learn some lessons. His “traditional” leanings had to be rebuked by Paul. Even so Barnabas was led away by the hyprocrisy. Power-proclamation-persecution-praise–that’s the sequence throughout Acts. There are few prescriptions for practice in Acts–but many examples of the Spirit’s leading and the proclamation of a Resurrected Christ.

    1. ELK,

      Thanks for your response. While Acts certainly is a book of the Spirit’s direction, it is erroneous to compare Acts with the epistles and say that the Spirit was followed in Acts, but not in the epistles, hence the problems (it seems that this is the assertion you are making). While Luke and Acts are one book, they are clearly different types of literature. Luke is Gospel and Acts is history. Therefore, the way Acts is written will paint a different picture of the church than the epistles, because they are different genres. The epistles are not story like Acts, so the comparison is flawed.

      Also, within Acts itself there is hardly a continuous, uninterrupted blessing of the Spirit. There are persecutions, conflicts, schisms. These are hardly the stuff of an ecclesiastical utopia, and that is my point. I believe the church followed the leading of the Spirit all through Acts (albeit imperfectly), and blessing is not to be equated with numerical growth only. We need to avoid a mechanistic view of blessing, as if blessing always means numerical growth, freedom from persecution, or freedom from problems.

      The idea that “tradition” was the problem with the apostles and Jerusalem is a very modern and secular reading of the text, and misses the theological implications of Judaism v. Christ. The rest of your comment finds little support in the text, and seems more like speculation. I don’t think you can simplify the flow of Acts into a four step sequence. That sounds quite artificial, and more like a sermon outline (and not a very good one) than a careful analysis of the book.

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