Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Myth of the Acts 2 Church - Part III

In our first two posts, we saw how first-century Jews lived, and what the Acts 2 church was truly like. Now let us see how we can apply this to modern Christianity.

What Acts 2 says—and what it doesn’t

As we saw last week, Acts 2 does not show us a 3,000 megachurch where people immediately abandoned Mosaic and Sabbath laws and started weekly life group meetings and held worship services. Nor does it (as the Catholics would say) show a church hierarchy with apostolic succession and infallibility and other similar doctrines. No modern church was birthed from the Pentecost event fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ head: the early church was one which evolved out of its Jewish roots, and not nearly so quickly as we tend to think.

The Acts 2 church had a decidedly Jewish feel, so much so that a modern Jew would probably feel more comfortable there than we would. Most of the church members almost certainly continued to attend their own synagogue, and continued their daily Jewish devotionals at home and at Temple (e.g., Acts 3:1). There was as yet no confessional Christianity and no New Testament to study: they spent their time together discussing the Old Testament Messianic prophesies and telling stories about Jesus. They broke bread together and began celebrating Communion in commemoration of His sacrifice. They took personal responsibility for the poor instead of trusting the current political and religious welfare programs, selling their personal belongings when needed to feed and clothe those in their local communities.

The church was thoroughly Jewish, and worshipped in Jewish ways...but now with a belief in Jesus as Messiah. They studied the teachings of the apostles as they existed at that time, much of which is probably similar to what we see in the four New Testament Gospels today.

It is possible to make two grievous errors when considering Acts 2: first, to apply our modern knowledge and worship preferences to them and thus wholly distort the Scripture; or second, to assume that since this was the earliest model it must necessarily be somehow "more correct" than any later model.

Christianity has always been purposefully vague on the organization, structure, and method of organizing church worship. Archaeology and the writings of early church fathers indicates that in Greek regions Christianity followed Greek customs; in Roman regions, Roman customs; in Jewish regions, it felt just like synagogue on Sabbath. The New Testament does not lay out church bylaws precisely because we are not under the law, but under grace: we are given freedom to fit the church to the forms needed to meet our cultural context.

So be very wary not to fall into either of these errors, but rather to view this as it was: the first apostolic church, nothing more and nothing less.

How the Acts 2 church would change in the coming decades

One of the reasons that people make these mistakes is that they lose the sense of timing in the book of Acts. They read Acts as though it all took place over a few days, rather than covering a period of some three decades. Thus they connect later passages in Acts (some of which are thirty years and a continent removed from Acts 2) and assume that what is said in those passages also applied to the church of Acts 2. They do the same when reading the epistles of the New Testament, assuming that what Paul taught Timothy in 65 AD about running the church in Ephesus was necessarily the same thing taught by Peter about running the church in Jerusalem a mere two months after Jesus was crucified.

Due to our state of looking back in history, we tend to project all we know will happen in the future of the Christian church onto the early church of Acts and assume an ecclesiastical homogeneity that did not, and could not, yet exist. In reality, Acts shows us an evolution of Christian church life as the realities of Jesus’ death and resurrection began to sink in. The apostles had to study the Old Testament and pray and spend decades together in debate and leadership under the Holy Spirit in order to understand the radical change Jesus brought – for example, it would be two decades before Paul's preaching forced the church leaders to address whether grace allowed Gentiles freedom from Mosaic Law, which seems to us such a basic concept!

To help get a sense of the timing, have a look at the timeline below. Think back to where you were seven years ago...a lot has changed for you, most likely: personally, financially, spiritually, theologically. The same is true of the seven-year gap between the day of Pentecost and the stoning of Stephen the deacon. It took years before the Pentecost movement began to result in a preaching that the Jews found offensive enough to attack.

At the Acts 2 time, in fact, they did not even call themselves "Christians"--they called themselves Jews. They were called Nazarenes (see Acts 24 and Tertullian's Against Marcion) or Notzrim (in the Babylonian Talmud, a version of "Nazarene", which Jews still call us today), and were seen as just another sect of Judaism: just like the Pharisees or Zealots or Sadduccees, you now had the Nazarenes. It would be nearly 15 years until they were first called "Christians" at Antioch (Acts 11); by this time the Christians saw themselves as not merely Messianic Jews but as a wholly new religion, and adopted the name wholeheartedly.

As we leave the Pentecost preaching of Acts 2 and enter Acts 3-4, we see Peter and John are continuing to live by their Jewish traditions, going up to the Temple for their 3 pm prayer time (Acts 3:1). When they preach about Jesus being Messiah, they are brought before the Council because the Council still saw the apostles as under their authority as observant Jews. In these early months of the new church, the Christians continued their incredible generosity, with some wealthy even selling their lands and homes and allowing the apostles to distribute the proceeds as they saw fit (Acts 4:32-37). One couple did not feel the same generosity, but chose to lie about it and attempt to gain the honor of those who gave everything without actually giving up their gifts; as a result they were struck dead (Acts 5:1-10). This apostolic church continued for some time—-we don’t know exactly how long—-where people continued in their normal synagogues and Jewish worship styles, while taking care of the poor as well; meanwhile the apostles were preaching Jesus as Messiah daily.

By the time we reach Acts 6 we seem to have something much more like the first proper "Christian" synagogue/church. I think we can learn quite a bit from this section. An argument arose saying that the poor were not being evenly provided for by the various Christian synagogues: thus we know that either our "loose interpretation" from the last post was correct, or that the "strict interpretation" was correct originally and has now evolved into something like the loose interpretation. So at this time we have some number of synagogues formed throughout Jerusalem by Christians, worshipping in Jewish styles but teaching in their sermons that Jesus was Messiah.

Peter and the apostles, who were spending their time doing the evangelism of the early church and teaching others, did not have time to oversee such activities. So they “summoned the full number of the disciples” together (Acts 6:2). Note that this act of having to summon the disciples together clearly reinforces the concept of many separate synagogues, for the mere fact that they needed to be assembled implies that they did not normally meet collectively.

Also note that at this time the apostles established seven men whom we now call deacons, but who at the time were clearly described in a way that filled the role of the servant of the synagogue (hypestes). Recall that only in rare circumstances did more than one servant get assigned at a synagogue; thus I think it is a safe assumption (though unproved) that there were operating by this time seven synagogues in Jerusalem which were predominantly Christian in nature. Since synagogues were generally 50-100 people, we can assume that there were something like 350-700 Christians living in Jerusalem at this time (the majority of the Pentecost day converts having returned home). Thus the Christians in Jerusalem were almost certainly no more than 1% of the population, and probably close to a tenth of that number: a significant minority, no larger than the number of observant Buddhists in the United States today.

Each of these Christian synagogues then were given their own servant who would take alms and distribute to their communities in the same way that the synagogues of the Jews had servants. By Acts 8, these early synagogues would be scattered by persecution, spreading throughout the countryside and forming new synagogues of Christianity, thus spreading the faith throughout the Empire.

So we see that when people talk of the Acts 2 church, this is misleading: there was no real church organization in Acts 2, but rather a bunch of newly-converted Jews who went back to living a Jewish life with a new conviction and belief in Jesus. Over the coming years it evolved into an Acts 6 church, where some number of “Christian” synagogues have been formed. These would continue to evolve over time, but the Jewish Christian churches would feel like synagogues for decades. Indeed, Paul's preaching to the Gentiles in 50 AD--breaking the standard Jewish/Mosaic models of living--was so radical that he was yanked back into Jerusalem after only a few months, so that the Council of Jerusalem could be held to decide whether Paul's teaching was in line with Jesus'.

Acts 2 neither speaks to a Roman Catholic organization nor an evangelical Protestant megachurch. It was a massive act of conversion of observant Jews into believing in a newfound Messiah and receiving the Holy Spirit into their souls.

What a modern Christian church based on an Acts 2 model might look like

So what if you really did want to build an “Acts 2” model church? What might that look like today? Of course we are not bound to follow every part of the Acts 2 model, for many of these were cultural considerations. But what would it look like if we did more or less follow the Acts 2 model in designing a church?

First of all, it would be a community-centric church. No more than perhaps 125 people, living within a mile or two from the church service, would be your target group. My neighborhood is very standard for a suburb, with homes on quarter-acre lots arranged in concentric rings, so that 116 homes fit in an area of about half a mile in length—-just about the perfect size for a Sabbath day's walk.

So if we wanted to start an Acts 2 church, I would start hosting a synagogue for my neighborhood along with 10 or more other men from the neighborhood. We would meet at someone’s house or in their yard, or maybe in an abandoned house. We would occasionally take up alms to take care of each other, and we would work hard to make sure that no one in our neighborhood, or whom we came across as we went about our days, was lacking. We would visit and take care of the sick within our church, sell possessions to help the hungry among us, etc.

Using collective money, we would all pitch in to hire someone full time to serve as our deacon. He would be responsible for teaching our children every day (no more public school for us, but a neighborhood private school), collecting offerings and distributing it to the widows and retired who had no more income, and preparing the building for the worship each week. We would also provide a neighboorhood cemetary nearby for any of our dead (something which was hard to come by in ancient cities and thus a major role of the synagogue or early church; indeed, some early Gentile churches officially designated themselves as "burial clubs" to the government).

A council of wise elders within our neighborhood would lead the church. One would be appointed pastor of the church and be responsible for organizing duties needed to prepare for worship each week. Each week we would get together for worship. The council of elders would sit together at the front of the synagogue while the rest sat with families or divided men and women.

This “neighborhood church” would open with a prayer or perhaps the singing of a psalm. Then the congregation would chant a profession of faith – perhaps something like the Apostle’s Creed (see my Essentials page). Then we would read from the Bible, perhaps one Old Testament and one New Testament passage. A member of the neighborhood would then deliver the sermon; depending upon the neighborhood's gifts, it might be just one person teaching every week, or a group of males on a rotation. After this, we would spend several more minutes reciting public prayers before breaking bread together in celebration of Communion. After a closing benediction we would leave and return to our homes. As we passed out of the home/church building, we would drop any offerings in a box dedicated to the purpose of caring for those within our area of influence and paying the salary of the one deacon; no one else would be getting paid, for the other church members would be tithing their time and talent to taking care of the church's needs.

Whenever someone was visiting one of us on a weekend, we would bring them to church with us, and they might well take the faith back to them; in addition, we would sometimes send out letters to other nearby churches or even missionaries to spread and establish churches nearby. If we were being visited by a dignitary of the faith, we would invite them to speak during sermon time, either just to talk or to give a sermon on the passage being read.

This is just one example of what it might look like if we truly followed an “Acts 2” model.

Separating culture versus commands

So, is this what we should rush out and do?

It is completely fine if you choose to go and start a neighborhood church using this model, but it is not necessary that our churches look like this, not at all. One of the reasons that there are really no specific church organization rules given in the New Testament is so that each church may meet the culture in which it sits. First century Judaism had strict Sabbath laws which inherently resulted in the synagogues being very local, what we might call a neighborhood or area of a suburb. With automobiles and being Gentiles freed from Sabbath laws explicitly in the New Testament, we are under no such restriction.

In a hundred other ways, our culture is different. Paul strictly forbid women to teach at Timothy’s church (1 Tim 2:12) because, as a Jewish synagogue and in their culture, this would have been extremely shameful to the men and caused division. This does not by necessity mean, though, that the same command need be true of all modern churches for our women are no longer uneducated and incapable of teaching--indeed, even in some ancient churches we have evidence of women serving as missionaries (Rom 16:7) and deacons (Rom 16:1), in cities like Rome where women were more capable of such things. We are not explicitly commanded in either way, thus allowing us the grace and freedom to choose wisely based upon the needs and abilities of our congregation. Ancient churches used real wine for their services; but today, given the proliferation of recovering alcoholics, if a church chooses to use grape juice instead he violates no Biblical command.

The church, you see, has the flexibility to change and meet the requirements of the culture: the question is not, "Are megachurches Biblical" or "Are life groups Biblical" or "Are contemprorary Christian services Biblical". The question is whether these things are wise and effective at achieving our results.

The Acts 2 church were a culture where everyone knew everyone else and grew up together; yet we today are so closed-off that we seem to need specially-appointed “life groups” or “community groups” just to meet our neighbors. They lived in a culture of local community where families lived near each other for generations; we live in a consumer culture where church members come and go from our lives with regularity.

Thus it is important that we do not take cultural specifics about the ancient churches and set them up as absolutes; and yet on the other hand we must beware that we do not ignore entirely what the apostles set up.

This is what is so frustrating to me when I read the "About Us" website of many modern churches. Megachurches and the like tend to focus on a set of values like having exciting worship bands, or being "cool" enough to attract people who usually couldn't care less about religion, or teaching a Christianity that is "practical" (by which they usually seem to mean, self-helpish), or tracking key metrics like church attendance to gage their effectiveness. You see, modern churches like this call themselves "Acts 2 Churches", but in reality even their own websites admit that they define themselves by the "what they do" rather than by "who they are" as a church.

The way to separate culture versus commands is to make sure that your church's core values are the same as the church in Acts 2. So I recommend a sort of "Acts 2 Checklist", which defines WHO YOU ARE as a church:

1. The church is responsible for the poor and needy in its community; this should be its primary mission (before a dime is spent on international or regional or statewide or citywide missions, community missions must come first).

2. The church’s primary responsibility is not evangelism but religious education and worship—-the teaching of Scripture and participation in prayer with fellow believers.

3. Evangelism is done outside of church by both professional missionaries and regular church members, with the goal of teaching Jesus as Messiah—-not the goal of increasing church attendance rolls or bringing in more tithers.

4. Church staff should be no more than is absolutely necessary to support the above, even if this means that church members must take turns teaching. Giving is to be used for ministering to the needy, not to starting new programs. Virtually all money should be leaving the church to do ministry outside of the walls, not inside the walls.

5. Scripture and prayer and Communion (the Lord's Supper) are the dominant focus of worship. The style of worship (whether it is liturgy or a capella singing or praise and worship bands) exist to compliment the service, not dominate it.

6. If a church has reached its capacity, consider starting a new church rather than starting a building project or second service. Remember, the focus is to engage the local community, not to have a football crowd.

7. Virtually everything else is negotiable and grows out of your particular community.

This is what it means to be an "Acts 2" church: to be a church which is explicitly and actively community-focused, where virtually all giving of money goes to the needy or to mission work, where very little staff is needed at all because every church member is tithing of their talent, and where Scripture and prayer are the focus of the church rather than a particular style of worship.


As I have said, there is no particular style of church service which is necessarily "right" in Christianity. The Scripture never gives a specific ecclesiological playbook, and for good reason: Christianity is a religion which breaks through and destroys cultural barriers, uniting together equally as brothers the liturgical midwesterner and the Chinese underground church member and the dancing African villager and the very much not dancing Tennessee fundamentalist. Christianity is the religion which sets neither a minimum nor maximum limit on people, but rather focuses on making a difference in its immediate local community. It is not focused on improving the size of its bank accounts, but the lives of its neighbors.

Core to any successful church, however, is a proper understanding of the divine word revealed to us in Scripture. And generally, I find that those who claim to be an "Acts 2 Church" are the furthest from the checklist above. Ripping a few verses out of context, they try to make Acts 2 (and specifically verses 41-42) justify their entirely American business-model drive view of church; yet ironically the very act of doing so reveals that they are not an Acts 2 church, which was so intently focused on extreme teaching of Scripture, doctrine, and proper exegesis of the word of God.

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