Getting Back to the Book of Acts

By Dave Sable


After an Assembly worship meeting in 1978, I chatted with a brother who was encouraging me about the greatness of what we were involved in. He shared a verse with me and then made an arching motion towards the room full of energetic young people like myself.

"You see?" he said, "It’s just like the book of Acts."

I don’t remember what the verse was or even what was pointed out, but the connection was made. We were just like the early church and in the context of the 1970’s that was a good thing.

The time was the tail end of the Jesus Movement in California. Our mindset was one of getting saved, loving Jesus, and expecting the rapture real soon. The prospect of simply being like the book of Acts was attractive. Though I was not a hippy, the anti-establishment attitude of the day rubbed off on all of us young people. Who needs denominations anyway? Christ wants reality, not some sort of man-made religion, right?

The Assembly was only one of many groups that sought to get back to the book of Acts. The Local Church of Witness Lee, for instance, pointed out to those moving into their brother’s house that the early church "had all things common" as they pooled together their paychecks. Calvary Chapel was, at that time, a counter-culture church where young folks wanted to recapture the simplicity the early disciples seemed to have.

According to Gordon Fee in his book, How To read the Bible For All Its Worth:

By and large, most sectors of evangelical Protestantism have a "restoration movement" mentality. We regularly look back to the church and Christian experience in the first century either as a norm to be restored or the ideal to be approximated. Thus we often say things like "Acts plainly teaches us that . . ." However, it seems obvious that not all of the "plain teaching" is equally plain to all.

What does getting back to the book of Acts mean? Before we get into that, we need to establish some groundwork.

The Bible, though breathed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used people as its instrument. The authors who wrote the books of the Bible had a specific audience in view and a purpose for writing each book. When we ask the question, "What does a passage mean?" we are really asking, "What did the original author intend his target audience to understand his words to mean?" There may be some variance from this principle in prophetic or apocalyptic (Revelation, for example) writings as the writers (or speakers) themselves felt like outside observers to their own words. But it is definitely true in letters (epistles) and historical writings where the author was very clearly in control of his thoughts on the matter and knew what he wanted his readers to come away with.

Further, historical narrative (such as Old Testament stories and the book of Acts) is different than epistles. Though they often have some teaching, they are generally more interested in telling the reader what happened. Often things happened in these books that are not necessarily right or wrong. For example, I heard one preacher argue how selecting an Apostle to replace Judas was part of God’s divine plan, to ensure that there was one apostle to stand as witness for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, while another preacher postulated that these disciples were acting out of carnal incompetence and should never have tried to replace an Apostle.

The truth is, there is no evidence that Luke’s intention of this passage was to give us a lesson on faithfulness or stupidity. It was simply to tell us historically that this is what happened – an incidental occurrence that supports Luke’s larger purpose of writing the book.

When groups strive to get back to the book of Acts they are making two assumptions. First, they believe that since the Apostles were closer to Jesus than we were, they probably had a better idea on how to run the church and thus we should pay special heed to their actions. Second, the hope is that if all churches would follow the pattern of Acts, disunities among Christians will be eliminated, as everyone will be brought into sync under the same standard.

The problem with the first assumption goes back to the interpretive principle mentioned above: what was Luke’s purpose in writing this book? Did he think of himself as writing a church "how-to" manual or a "policies and procedure" guideline on how the church should conduct itself through all the ages?

No. Again, Fee writes:

Closely related to this discussion is the concept of intentionality. It is common among us to say, "Scripture teaches us that . . ." Ordinarily people mean by that to say that something is "taught" by explicit statements. Problems with this arise when people move to the area of biblical history. Is something taught simply because it is recorded – even if it is recorded in what appears to be a favorable way?

And summarizing Luke’s overall purpose in writing:

[Luke] was trying to show how the church emerged as a chiefly Gentile, worldwide phenomenon from its origins as a Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented sect of Jewish believers, and how the Holy Spirit was directly responsible for this phenomenon of universal salvation based on grace alone. The recurring motif that nothing can hinder this forward movement of the church empowered by the Holy Spirit makes us think that Luke also intended his readers to see this as a model for their existence. And the fact that Acts is in the canon further makes us think that surely this is the way the church was always intended to be – evangelistic, joyful, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But what of the specific details in those narratives, which only were taken altogether help us to see Luke’s larger intent? Do these details have the same teaching value? Do they also serve as normative models? We think not, basically because most such details are incidental to the main point of the narrative and because of the ambiguity of details from narrative to narrative.

In other words, Luke’s overall purpose is to describe how Christianity got from here to there. In a world where Christianity was thought of primarily as an aberrant Jewish sect, Luke’s response is the story of how God sovereignly thrust the gospel forth in ever widening concentric circles to reach the uttermost parts of the world. The various incidents (whether Gamaliel’s speech or the choosing of Stephen to serve tables) tell us the specifics of how this overall story happened. But to look at the particular incidents as "normative" would be like concluding that healings always had to take place through handkerchiefs or that we should begin new outreaches by holding a prayer meeting by a river.

Fee also points out the ambiguity of the incidents. What he means is the fact that the events seem to happen in conflicting and contradictory ways. It is this ambiguity that invalidates the second assumption noted above that presumes that getting back to the book of Acts will bring unity. Ironically, it is precisely this assumption that highlights the items that most disunifies the church.

In fact it is our lack of hermeneutical precision as to what Acts is trying to teach that has led to a lot of the division one finds in the church. Such diverse practices as the baptism of infants or of believers only, congregational and Episcopalian church polity, the necessity of taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, the choice of deacons by congregational vote, the selling of possessions and having all things in common, and even ritual snake handling (!) have been supported in whole or in part on the basis of Acts.

When you look at a practices in the Book of Acts, you have to ask yourself, "Which ones are normative and binding"? For instance, our Local Church friends were fond of the "they had all things common" passage. But other places in the book of Acts show very clearly that some early believers owned property.

How and when should we expect to receive the Holy Spirit? Some like the way the Jews received it by having a second experience some time after their conversion. Others prefer the Samaritan’s method that received it by the laying on of hands. Still others like the Gentile’s method who received the Holy Spirit the moment they believed. Like the old accountant joke, "What would you like the number to be?" we have a clear ability to support several doctrines of choice.

How do we send out missionaries? On the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1), God initiated the endeavor. The apostles were praying and fasting before the Lord and the Spirit told them to "set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them". You may think you know how the Spirit told them this, but you probably don’t since the Bible doesn’t say. Did the Holy Spirit put a deep impression on all their hearts? Did they hear an audible voice? Did a prominent apostle with gray, curly hair stand up and make a glorious announcement? Did the Spirit call an angel to deliver a telegram?

The second missionary journey (Acts 15:36) began much differently. Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." They got into an argument over John Mark and parted ways. Without getting sidetracked about who was right or wrong in the argument (I have heard it argued both ways), we must note that Paul, not God, initiated the second missionary journey. Paul came up with the idea and started planning his itinerary.

So how do we send out missionaries? Do we wait for God to tell us (remember, we are still not clear on how that happens) or do we use our heads and initiate the missionary endeavors ourselves?

The answer is neither or both. Why? Because the author of the book of Acts never intended his writing to be a guidebook on how to send out missionaries and fulfill Jesus’ command of the Great Commission. He simply told us, as part of his overall story, how it happened in that first century church.

This historical precedence idea is very key as to why the Assembly observes the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning. They base this teaching on Acts 20:7 where Luke notes that after they arrived in the city of Troas, they gathered to break bread on the first day of the week that followed. I often wondered why Plymouth Brethren churches in general and the Assembly specifically put so much emphasis on a side-comment in a travel log. Nevertheless, this comment became an instrumental pillar in their perception of why the Lord’s Supper must be faithfully maintained every Sunday morning. Tie into this line of thinking the presumption that faithfully keeping this "pattern" invokes God’s favor and presence in a unique and special way and you will further sow attitudes of disunity and exclusiveness.

If this assumption of a binding historical precedence of the Lord’s Supper is true, one would have to stretch to justify why Jesus and the disciples celebrated it on Thursday night (implied from the fact that he was crucified on Friday).

And what do you make of the fact that the term "breaking of bread" varies in meaning? One might argue that it is used to signify a ceremony involving bread and wine. On the other hand, the term "breaking of bread" is used throughout the book of Acts as a euphemism for a common meal. When Paul broke bread in Acts 27:35, he was attempting to feed hungry prisoners. He wasn’t calling for the doorkeepers to pass out Dixie cups (an Assembly practice to prevent the spread of disease in serving communion).

Because of this problem of ambiguity of practice in the book of Acts, it is no wonder that, though many churches sought to "get back", they reached vastly different conclusions about what this means and what this practically looks like.

On the other hand, does this mean that the book of Acts has no value at all? Of course not. One should revel in the overall story of what happened in the early church. Does it not give us great hope that the same God who did these dramatic acts in the early church is still in charge of His church today? Does it not encourage us that people, no matter how powerful, will not prevail against the workings of God? Doesn’t the fact that the proclamation of Christ has survived all odds and oppositions imply that His work is going to continue through all the ages?

However, we may feel frustrated when we realize that we cannot use historical narrative as propositional dogma. Again, Fee writes:

The problem with all of this, of course, is that it tends to leave us with little that is normative for those broad areas of concern – Christian experience and Christian practice. There is no express teaching as to the mode of baptism, the age of those who are to be baptized, any specific charismatic phenomena that are to be in evidence when one receives the Spirit, or the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, to cite but a few examples. Yet these are precisely the areas where there is so much division among Christians. Invariably, in such cases, people argue that this is what they (the early Church) did, whether they derive such practices from the narratives of Acts or by implication from what is said in the Epistles.

What this practically means is that many areas of church function – methods of worship, use of instruments, format and frequency of Lord’s Supper, missionary policy, order of service, selection of church government, etc. – may not be as clear-cut as we once assumed. One may not have to abandon current methods. However, we may have to hold our presuppositions with a looser grip having empathy and understanding for churches that do things differently.

In the church I attend, we believe in believer baptism by emersion. At least some of the disciples were probably thinking emersion seeing as there are examples of seeking out a body of water to do the baptizing. However, there is no definitive teaching in the Bible that says this was always and forever always has to be the case. Would the early church require someone from the church in Samaria (a city with no known body of water large enough to do immersion) to be dunked in order to set things straight?

If someone comes to our church that had been baptized differently (such as sprinkling – generally a Reformed tradition), we acknowledge the baptism providing they can articulate to us the theological view as to why they were baptized in that manner. We do not require them to undergo a second baptism.

As you rethink church issues of policy and methods – questions that have been struggled with for hundreds of years – understanding the role of historical narrative and the book of Acts specifically is essential. It may surprise you that many of the things that you thought were unalterable (and genuinely wondered why other churches defiantly disobeyed the clear revelation of Scripture) are not so clearly taught in Scripture after all.

We do not get back to the book of Acts. The book of Acts was a transition from one place to another. It was a one-way train trip. The right perspective is to revel in the God that made such an amazing ride possible. The wrong perspective is to go back and attempt to recreate the train.


Afterword

One day years ago after I left a seminar meeting, still spiritually hungry and muddled in thought, I wandered into a Christian bookstore. I came across this book, How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. (ISBN 0-310-38491-5)

Two scholars who love the Lord and wanted to acquaint believers with basic ground rules for interpreting Scripture wrote it. I believe it should be required reading for all believers and especially those in leadership who have teaching responsibilities.

Perhaps the book can provide a basis for a series of weekend seminars where the teachings of this book can be discussed and there can be genuine interaction in the prayer and meditation groups that follow.

I heartily recommend that you read and study this book. If you cannot afford it, send me a note and I will buy one for you.

Dave Sable


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