CENI: A Better Way — The Acts of the Apostles

man-behind-the-curtainLet’s try the same thing with Acts. After all, Luke wrote Acts as something of a sequel to his Gospel. Let’s again purge from our minds the notion that Acts is all about baptism. It’s not. Let’s try to take a fresh look.

What’s in Acts?

* We can’t help but notice that the outline of Acts follows the command given the apostles at the beginning — go first to the Jews, and then Samaria, and then the Gentiles.

* The work of the Holy Spirit is unmistakeably prominent. Peter presents the coming of the Spirit as in fulfillment of prophecy regarding the Messianic age. And we see the Spirit pushing the Kingdom farther and farther out into the world. In fact, whether it’s an angel, the Spirit, or even God himself, all the big steps in Acts are initiated from heaven.

* The Kingdom is now called the “Way” and the preaching is centered on Jesus.

* The spread of the Way is met with constant opposition and persecution, but God works mightily to assure the continued spread of the Way.

* Many reject the preaching of the Way empowered by the Spirit, but converts are made and churches are planted.

* In Acts 2 the church gives generously to those in need. In Acts 6 men (surely the first deacons) are appointed to oversee the care for needy widows. The church is marked by its generosity to the poor — following a key teaching of Jesus.

* When churches are planted, they assemble for prayer and meet wherever they can —  the temple courts, synagogues, or homes.

* We see that the churches in Jerusalem and Ephesus have elders, appointed by apostles. “Elder” is term taken from Jewish synagogue practice, so we also read in Acts about elders among the Jews.

What’s not in Acts?

* While we have mention of elders and deacons, we see nothing defining the “church” as bodies with elders and deacons. In fact, deacons don’t even show up except as a practical solution whereby the apostles can delegate benevolence as the church outgrew the apostles’ ability to administer on their own. And we also see one church evidently overseen by prophets and teachers (Antioch. Acts 13:1-2). The Jerusalem church is overseen by apostles and elders, and they make a ruling intended to binding on the church in Antioch, many miles away (Acts 15). While it’s easy to see how the apostles might have oversight over both churches, it’s surprising that the elders in Jerusalem so violated congregational autonomy.

In short, Acts evidences a variable form of church organization, not a uniform, immutable pattern.

* There’s no mention of an order of worship. However, we are told regarding the Jerusalem church —

(Acts 2:42-47)  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This passage is surely meant to convey a sense of what the early church was like. That is, I think Luke gives this as exemplary of all churches. But the point is more that the church is truly the Kingdom of prophecy, as described by Jesus, than to give a checklist on how to do church.

“Breaking bread” in First Century culture was a sign of acceptance and hospitality. The idea is that the church truly lived “love thy neighbor.” And no Jewish reader would believe the Kingdom to have come if the poor were not being cared for — because this was how the prophets described the Messianic age. Luke is filled with stories of Jesus eating with others, and it’s Luke that quotes Jesus —

(Luke 14:23)  “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.'”

There is more that could said, but the point is that Acts isn’t law; it’s a description given in light of the prophets and what Luke had earlier written about Jesus. It’s a wiki-story, showing that what the prophets and Jesus had spoken of was really happening.

Does that mean we shouldn’t emulate this? No, we should, but not as law. Rather, we emulate this the same way the Jewish church did — because they so loved God and each other and those in need that they did what loving people do: prayed to God, studied God’s word, ate together, visited in each other’s homes, and took care of those in need. Do that to obey a law and you destroy the whole point, which is to love God and one another. You see, if a command is required, it’s not really love. (If you told your wife that you love her because God will send you to hell if you don’t, how loved would she feel?)

If the leaders of the church have to command you to eat together on threat of damnation, well, you’re not there. If your leaders couldn’t keep you from eating together, from seeking out opportunities to study and pray together, from caring for those in need — then you’d be an Acts 2 church.

There is nothing contradictory to an Acts 2 church in being organized and structured — so long as the structure only helps us love better rather than interfering with the love we are to have. Hence, when we farm our benevolence or evangelism out to others, we’ve lost something critically important. When we create elaborate rules about what can be done in the building or who can be in charge of the committee, the rules just get in the way of love.

Acts is about the formation of communities of believers, called the “Way,” a new relationship with God through the Spirit, continuous, spontaneous outreach to the lost, and uniting the nations — the Gentiles — with the Jewish foundations of the Kingdom — all as guided by the hand of God.

Somehow Luke believes he can tell the story of the early church without laying out a complex ecclessiology. It’s not a handbook on how to do church. It is the story of how to be church.


12 Responses

  1. For a long time, I thought only Acts 2:42 directly referred to worship. Then I came to understand that Luke is saying, “This wasn’t a one day a week crowd; they met together every day, even sharing in the Lord’s Supper daily.” They lived their faith daily, not just on Sunday.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Another great posting Jay.

    We, in the Church of Christ taugrht more about the historical aspect of Acts. Acts is in reality the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”. He moved the Apostles and Paul as he wanted them to go. Why did Saul spend three years in the wilderness?. So he could put his knowledge of the old testament in his mind, guided by the
    Spirit to think like the fishermen he had taught and lived with for three years. Paul had to be reprogramed not to think like a Pharasee but as a humble man from Galilee.
    What is amazing is that the rough cut Apostles from Galilee and Bethsaidea, a poor fishing region, went to the Greek region that had all the amenities of the Greek and Roman culture to tell them we have a great message that you need to hear.

    The book of Acts is all about the Gospel planting, watering and the resulting transformation by looking through the lens of Jesus.

    I only discovered that in the last few years.

    Because of a cross

  3. I totally agree that the genre of Acts (and whole New Testament for that matter) is not law like Deut. I am also very glad God chose a different genre having personally halted reading through the Bible too many times in those monotonous OT book.

    I have noticed that people who post here seem to hate the term law as associated with the NT. They seem to think that people only follow laws out of fear or consequences.

    Perhaps it’s just a post-modern aversion to the term. I have been chastised when I say “I have to go to church” or “I have to go on a mission trip.” Those who say such just don’t understand me. I have voluntarily chosen to follow Christ. I want to do every thing in my power to please him as a thank you. I use the phrase “I have to..” to signify my devotion. It is not a matter of fear.

    Please don’t put down people who use a different vocabulary. They may have good motives.

    Alexander Campbell wasn’t afraid of using law to describe the NT. The below quote comes from “The Gospel Advocate Creed, Part One”

    Faith in Jesus as the true Messiah, and obedience to him as our Lawgiver and King, the ONLY TEST of Christian character, and the ONLY BOND of Christian union, communion, and co-operation, irrespective of all creeds, opinions, commandments, and traditions of men.[1]

  4. However what are the new methodologies that we need in order to find the right interpretations? Case in point, “elders and deacons are not discussed by Jesus” can we then assume both lack evidence and archaic primitive structure of the NT church would have us not needing such church organization. Even more why study the scriptures beyond the Gospels unless we adapt to heavy spiritualization. For the idea of why the other books exist is simply for instruction and proof of a church in the past. But lets say it possible to diminish our propensity towards CENI could we then stop worry about the context of passage and start thinking of personal application and freedom in subjectivity?

  5. Whether you’re conservative or progressive, you teach and claim to practice some elemental principles of hermeneutics. One of them is to read scripture in light of the genre in which it is written. Both sides teach this, but the Churches of Christ routinely fail to practice what we preach.

    Is Jesus a lawgiver as Campbell wrote? Well, yes. He is part of the Godhead and has been given all authority. Are his words in the Gospels part of the law genre? No. Does this mean that he never announces a law? Of course not. But it does mean we can’t begin with the assumption that what he says is spoken as law — as a genre. His words are true for sure. They’re inspired. They’re authoritative. But Jesus’ words are not to be construed as legislation. That hardly means we don’t obey.

    When we interpret the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly intends that his teaching be obeyed. But it’s a mistake to read it as though it were statutory law. Such a reading misunderstands the commands that are actually being given. Yes, we must obey — but we can’t obey what we don’t understand. And understanding requires that we not read our preconceptions into God’s word. Rather, true respect for the word includes respect for the form in which God chooses to present his word.

    Hence, if we read Jesus’ teaching about divorce as legislation (as is traditional in the Churches of Christ) we miss the point he is making. He is interpreting what Moses said on the subject. If we miss the historical and literary context by reading him as announcing fresh, new laws rather than interpreting Moses, we misunderstand him and then we wind up obeying commands he never issued.

    The point is to correctly understand him so we can obey him.

  6. One point of a proper hermeneutic is to teach with the same emphasis as the scriptures give. If the scriptures emphasize teachings other than worship and church organization, we should do the same. And if our emphasis radically differs from the Bible’s, we are surely omitting some very important teachings.

  7. One concern I always had with the gospels is the knowing of private conversations Jesus had with people. especially 35 years after the fact. “Teach with the same emphasis” is often clouded by conflicting spirits. Is this the author’s idea or is it God transcending through ancient words.

  8. Got to go with the “God transcending through ancient words” approach. There are several reasons, not least of which is belief in inspiration.

    But it’s also true that, in those days, the disciples of a rabbi were taught to memorize the rabbi’s words. As a result, thousands of pages of Jewish regulation and law were not even written down until long after the destruction of Jerusalem. It sounds impossibly hard to us, but it happened. Even today, rabbis in conservative Judaism urge their disciples to memorize the Torah in Hebrew. Some rabbis memorize the entire Tanakh (Old Testament).

  9. Once again, I’m struck by going to Acts to find some better hermeneutic than using commands, examples and necessary inferences as authorization for us to act.

    Acts 15 is a pretty solid showing. The early Christians had no problem with someone questioning whether an action was authorized. The Pharisees who had become Christians believed it wasn’t authorized to baptize a Gentile. Gentiles had to become Jews. Only Jews could be Christians.

    The disciples did not say the discussion of authority was unneeded. They actually set out to demonstrate authorization. How did they do it?

    In Acts 15:15-18, James found a direct statement from the Spirit’s revelation about the church. The direct statement was Gentiles could seek the Lord and call on the name of the Lord. They didn’t have to become Jews to call on the name of the Lord.

    In Acts 15:12, Paul and Barnabas provided numerous approved examples of Gentiles who had become Christians through baptism. The examples were approved by the Holy Spirit working through the new believers.

    In Acts 15:7-11, Peter drew a necessary inference, if the Holy Spirit could baptize a Gentile, then he could also baptize a Gentile in water for the remission of sins.

    I completely agree that we need to take into account the genre of the writings. At the same time, we need to recognize that even with that, using direct statements, approved examples, and necessary inference to determine the action that is authorized for us is exactly what we see happening in Acts.

  10. We hit an interpretive snag here. I think we need to keep the genre and what is happening in the text in mind. However, what if I disagree that Jesus is not simply giving his interpretation of Moses’ law? I don’t believe the Sermon on the Mount is an explanation of how to follow Moses’ law. Rather, it is Jesus presenting what kingdom citizenship looks like.

    One of the aspects of kingdom citizenship is to quit trying to get out of marriage. If you do, you’re not acting like a kingdom citizen. If you marry again, you’re committing adultery.

    By the way, that is not what Moses’ law taught on divorce and remarriage at all.

  11. In Acts 15:7-11, Peter drew a necessary inference, if the Holy Spirit could baptize a Gentile, then he could also baptize a Gentile in water for the remission of sins.

    Edwin, Acts 15:7-11 Peter didn’t say anything about the Gentiles being baptized for remission of sins, Peter didn’t say anything at all about the Gentiles being baptized. And the Gentiles were not baptized for remission of sins – Acts 10:48, after the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit Peter baptized them in the name of the Lord. Acts 15:7-11 is Peter telling them how God accepted the Gentiles when He gave them the Holy Spirit, and Peter was telling them that is through that same grace all of them whether Jew or Gentile are saved.

  12. AMEN! This book SHOULD be entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit”

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