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.

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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

  1. Mark, have you or any other profs there thought through Frank Viola’s books (“Pagan Christianity,” Re-imagining the Church,” etc)? I realize that there is plenty to critique in his writings, but there also seem to be some foundational issues that aren’t so easy to dismiss, e.g. preaching roots from Greek rhetoric; “church” gatherings from Constantine’s practices; and fostering a passive congregation by putting so much teaching and leading focus on one person each week. I thought the movement was called House Churches, but now I’ve heard “Family Integrated Churches” from a friend in New England. I’m still sorting through it, and have only partly read the first book mentioned. I do have to say that I am perhaps more open to re-examining current “church” after having personally dealt with bull-headedness (“dictator complex?”) in many american fundamentalist pastors that makes me give more credence to the idea that ONE human leader per church just may not be best. Hmm.

    • Mark Farnham says:

      Jonathan,

      I haven’t read Viola’s book (Al Huss and Doug Finkbeiner could probably answer that question), but I think historical awareness of our practices is very important. Some forms in the church today may, in fact, be adopted from Greek culture or American culture. That in itself is not necessarily a problem. The principles of Greek rhetoric simply reflect sound principles of human communication, discernible by believer and unbeliever alike because of common grace. It is impossible to avoid culture, since it is the air we breathe, having been made in the image of God. The distinguishing mark of biblical faith, however, is that we are not bound by culture, but transcend it through the uniqueness of Christ.

      I agree with you that many of our church practices and structures today have been adopted uncritically and don’t reflect careful exegesis, especially in the area of polity. When graduates candidate at churches, many of them encounter leadership structures that are bizarre to say the least. And many churches I visit function in ways very removed from the biblical mandate.

      On the positive side, more good books are being written on ecclesiology than ever before, so we have great opportunity to return to a truly biblical model of the church. We should all be willing and open to reexamine our practices to make sure they are truly biblical.

  2. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    Gaffin critiques the use of Acts to support certain charismatic and Pentecostal practices, but I believe he would support the organization and practices of the church described in Acts. Acts 2: 42 tells us that the believers gathered to listen to the Apostle’s teaching, for fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread. Churches of a variety of persuasions usually consider this passage to be foundational for worship and fellowship. Paul ordained elders with the charge to care for the flock of God given to them. Acts and the rest of the NT do not know of churches without elders charged to teach believers. Pastors and elders are the leaders of the church. The things Paul writes to the Corinthians about gifts does not undermine the leadership of pastors and elders.

    • Mark Farnham says:

      Richard,

      I agree wholeheartedly. I believe the greatest need in fundamental and evangelical churches today is to reclaim a biblical understanding of church leadership, especially the role of pastor/elders and deacons.

  3. Dave Griffith says:

    I used to hold to the cessationist view of miraculous gifts, but now I view the supernatural works of Jesus and the church, not merely as confirming the new testament apostolic revelation (although that is certainly a valid idea), but as works that demonstrate the inbreaking of the powers of the age to come into this present age. They operate according to the now/not yet dynamic of inaugurated eschatology (expounded well by George Ladd in his NT Theology and in other works). As Jesus said, If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God is in your midst.

    I realize that the inaugurated kingdom view is incompatible with classic dispensationalism, though it is central to progressive dispensationalism. Healing is not something that is foundationally “in the atonement” as classic Pentecostalism maintains, rather it, and gifts of the spirit bestowed after Pentecost, are kingdom works. I find it a bit paradoxical that most Pentecostal are classic dispensationalists.

    Is Acts normative? I leave that to others smarter than me to decide. That said, I do believe supernatural gifts continue because the kingdom continues to break into this age through the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom and will do so until the end: Good News! Jesus has come to restore the kingdom rule of God on earth, now and ultimately at the end of the age. Supernatural works are no substitute for preaching the gospel, but like in Acts, they serve as powerful demonstrations of God’s inbreaking rule (you gotta admit, casting out demons and deaf people hearing all of a sudden gets people’s attention!). And Gifts are not automatic, just like not all people are saved when they hear the gospel. Sometimes people get healed, many times they do not.

    I realize my views are a departure from some of the things I learned at CBTS, but you guys gave me some pretty good exegetical tools and I’ve not stopped using them since. I’m not writing this to be contentious, simply responding with my honest thoughts to the topic presented.

    We can all agree, Lord, let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is is heaven.

    • Mark Farnham says:

      Dave,

      Thanks for the interaction. I enjoy the sharpening of ideas and beliefs!

      Two responses come to mind. First, whereas in the history of redemption, the sign gifts were clearly and directly connected to prophetic and apostolic authority, we have no such clarity today. As a result, we have no definitive way to determine whether a miraculous sign is of God or Satan (Mk. 13:22; 2 Thess. 2:9). So while I leave open the possibility that God will do things such as heal, grant unusual linguistic ability, and perform supernatural works, I can never rely on those to be definitive displays of his power (see for example the current phenomenon of the little boy who went to heaven an came back “documented” in the book “Heaven is for Real”). God may do these things, but these gifts do not reside in people, as they resided in Paul (Acts 19:11-12).

      The second point follows on the first, and you said it yourself. It is the gospel that is breaking into this world, so if there is any sense of the kingdom here now, it is the breaking in of the good news (Luke 4:43; Acts 8:12), not the display of miraculous gifts. The incarnation of Christ (including his death and resurrection) began an invasion into the kingdom of Satan (John 12:31) that will be fully realized when Satan is bound and Christ reigns on earth for 1,000 years. So the gospel is the good news of the kingdom that was accompanied by signs while apostolic authority was present to interpret them. With the apostles gone, and their authoritative interpretation with them, we rely on the Word, by which all people will be judged.

      There’s my two cents.

      Mark

  4. Dave Griffith says:

    After reading Mark’s conclusions again (final paragraph) about the “rest of the NT as being normative for today” (that is, the NT minus the gospels and Acts) I’m a little disappointed to discover that he concludes that 530 of 913 pages in my Greek NT are not normative (58%). And when you factor in Revelation which is future you subtract another 7% now leaving us only 35% of the NT as normative for today.

    It feels very Jeffersonian to me…

    If on the other hand we remove the preconceptions of cessationism, we find that the supernatural ministry of Jesus is indeed normative (in fact, a critical component of discipleship and minustry) and that the early church in Acts understood it to be so and that’s why they did what they did.

    Surprisingly, when one abandons the cessationistic imposition (and I strongly contend it is not the product of any reasonable exegesis, rather the byproduct of peer pressure, tradition and reaction to some kooky charismatic beliefs and practices), one begin to see evidence of the supernatural in “the rest of the NT”‘as well as the gospels and Acts (1 Cor 12-14; Gal. 3:5; 1 Thes 5:22, etc.).

    One doesn’t have to abandon a commitment to sound exegesis to embrace a supernatural church. Just because there are folks who elevate experience to the level of Scripture is no reason we should elevate a lack of experience to the same.

    I encourage any reader of this blog to re-read 1 Cor 13:8-12. If you genuinely believe through sound exegesis this refers to gifts going away with the canonization of the NT, then you have your text to support cessationism. We will simply agree to disagree. But if you conclude that it refers to end time consummation, then you have exegetical support to reject cessationism and permission to start reading the whole NT again through a different paradigm. But I challenge you to give the text a reading that doesn’t begin with an end belief in view before one starts.

    Again, its not my desire to be contentious, but the more that statement sat in my craw, I couldn’t let it go unchallenged!

    Be blessed guys…

  5. Mark Farnham says:

    Dave,

    I hope this comment is tongue-in-cheek as the post is fairly clear (I think) that I am saying that we do not take practices from Acts as models for today IN ISOLATION FROM THE REST OF THE NT. Of course I don’t believe we ought to eliminate the Gospels and Acts, but neither do we read the Gospels in Acts in isolation. A doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy and a canonical principle of interpretation requires us to do exegesis in a way that conclusions are consistent across the canon.

    Mark

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