I am currently taking a course on the role of the book of Acts in informing the church. As a part of that I am to write a series of essays, and see no reason why I cannot publish them here for your amusement. The ask for this particular essay was “Write a one-to-two page argument on how you think today’s Church should use the principles and patterns in Acts.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a biblical church must be in want of an apostolic tradition. To this end, church planters, theologians, and students turn to the Acts of the Apostles in search of principles, patterns, and precedent. Yet despite studying the same scripture with the same goal, we arrive at a multitude of diverse and sometimes contradictory practices. It begs the question- how should we use the principles and patterns in Acts? I will argue that we should use them to appreciate God’s work and sovereignty in a way which informs how we live- not as a source of church practice.
We must not read meanings into a text which the author did not intend to convey. This is called eisegesis and1 when applied to the Bible means we are not only putting foreign words into Luke’s mouth, but into the Holy Spirit’s. Whether we are looking for patterns of church behavior to identify normality in the church or underlying principles to which our own modern behavior must submit, we must ensure that we only take from Acts what God intended us to.
Did Luke intend to embed patterns and principles into Acts? We can answer this question only by a reading of Acts. First, let us examine Luke’s explicit intentions- the ones he states directly:
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. ~ Luke 1:1-4, HCSB
I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up, after He had given orders through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen. After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. ~ Acts 1:1-3, HCSB
According to Luke, the reason he is writing is to provide his reader with an orderly account of what occured. A history and explanation of Church history up until then. There is no indication that Theophilus lacks knowledge of Church practice or doctrine or that Luke promises to elaborate on either.
However, it would be reasonable to ask whether Luke might have other points he wishes to make through his choice of what he includes in this history vs. what he leaves out. Again, the answer to this lies in a careful reading of Acts, and upon doing so the following themes begin to emerge:
- An orderly account of what occurred2- in some cases setting the record straight3 as to what really happened.
- The origins of famous or controversial figures such as Simon the Sorcerer4, and Apollos5 and Paul6 were related to the Church- maybe even dispelling rumors7
- An explanation of the Church’s complicated relationship with Judaism and how God is bringing the Gentiles into His People.8
- An acknowledgement of Jesus’ sovereignty in conveying His gospel to the ends of the earth.9
So far nothing that would indicate that Luke is concerned with proper church practice. Unlike the epistles he does not include any commands or principles for his readers to apply. We should also consider the fact that Luke does have opportunities to speak to Church practices, he chooses not to.10
- We should not read meaning into a text that the author did not intend to convey.
- Luke did not intend to instruct church practice or doctrine when he wrote Acts.
- He has clear explicit and implicit points that he is trying to convey.
- He has opportunities to dictate church practice or patterns, but chooses not to.
- Therefore, we should not try to use Acts to determine church patterns or principles
All of this being said, it may still be tempting to use the text in Acts as precedent for our own practices- to justify them as things that, while not commanded, are at least permitted. There are Biblical grounds for considering precedence in this way,11 so I will not condemn it, but I will caution its use by non-Apostles as our application from Acts is founded upon two shaky assumptions:
First, it assumes that the accounts recorded in Acts are positive ones. This is not always the case. In the story of Paul and Barnabas disputing over John Mark and going their separate ways12 Luke does not say which of them were right (if either). He simply records this event (likely because it called John Mark’s character into question- something Paul had to rectify in Col 4:10). Precedent only works if it’s a good thing.13
Second, it assumes that we need precedence for forms of Church practice. While one must never add to God’s commandments, one must never add to His commandments. While God commanded a very strict form of worship in the Old Testament, no such set of commands have been delivered to us in the New Testament. We can use positive examples of Church practice to justify what we do, but we cannot use silence to negate other practices.
In conclusion, Luke’s focus in Acts appears to be on the work of the Holy Spirit and the rule of Jesus within the Church- not normative church practice or doctrine. In this way it is closer to the books of Ruth or Genesis than the epistles or Prophets. Therefore, the Church should seek to apply the principles Luke intended- primarily the sovereignty of Christ.
- “Acts- The Problem of Historical Precedent,” Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
- “A Look Through Three Lenses,” Gene Getz
- “Acts of the Apostles,” Luke
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisegesis for a concise but accurate definition. [↩]
- Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-3 [↩]
- Acts 21:26-29, 24:26 [↩]
- Acts 8:9-23 [↩]
- Acts 18:24-28, 19:1 [↩]
- Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-31 [↩]
- Acts 1:15-26, 2:5-21, 28:1-6 [↩]
- Acts 10:1-11:26, 13:45-49, 15:1-29, 17:1-15, Acts 19:8-10, 28:23-28 [↩]
- Acts 1:8, 8:3-8, 23:11, 27:23-25, 28:31 [↩]
- See “Acts- The Problem of Historical Precedent,” Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart; p92 [↩]
- 1 Cor 11:16 [↩]
- Acts 12:25-13:5, 13:13, 15:36-39 [↩]
- Consider looking for church principles in the book of Judges- where you could argue that the examples are predominantly negative. [↩]