The Book of Acts vs. the Status Quo

The Book of Acts, written through divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the physician Luke, serves as a Part II to his gospel account of our Lord’s earthly ministry. We read of this connection in the opening verse
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Acts 1:1-2

In some respects, Acts is simply a continuation of events, as the early verses (Acts 1:10-11) rewind to highlight the ascension of our Lord to the right hand of the Father, while in other respects it inaugurates the changes from Old Covenant to New Covenant that were laid down by our Lord, specifically through His reign as King Priest.  One of these changes revolves around the growth and formulation of the New Covenant people of God, their “calling out” from the world and into a gathering community of believers. In surveying Acts, we’ll attempt to answer the questions set forth in the last post.  If you haven’t read that, please take a minute to go back and catch up. 
In that post we asked three basic questions concerning recent attempts to maintain the status quo in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic:
  • Is the building necessary for a church worship service?
  • Does the pastor/minister need to be present in order for a worship service to be “official”?
  • Are there set liturgies or practice that needs to be observed in worship services?
Before diving into the answers, we need to address a basic assumption with respect to how Acts should be interpreted. Acts provides for us a historical account (narrative) of the first century people of God through evangelistic preaching under the direction of the Apostles.  One approach to Acts, as it relates to the church, is to assign a category of prescription or description according to what’s being read. By doing this, some attempt to distinguish what is being described specifically of the first century church and what God has prescribed for all churches for all time. However, to boil the book down into prescriptive/descriptive components opens one up to speculation and subjectivity as well as the danger of missing the point of the book. 

Examples of prescription/description difficulties in the book of Acts abound, but several immediate cases serve to point out the potential for derailing: Acts 6 – which is normalized for the institution of deacons and the distinction with the apostolic (read: pastoral) preaching ministry; Acts 15 – which is normalized to support Presbyterian government; and Acts 20 – which is normalized for Sunday worship and participating in communion. Meanwhile, what of Acts 1:23-26, 2:42-47, or Acts 4:32-37? It is far to easy to apply the prescription/description principle in a subjective manner. How then should we interpret the narrative of Acts in order to apply it to today rather than read it as a mere history book? The short answer is with wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit. The next short answer is that it is the Word of God and as such it is detailing the ministry of Christ from heaven on earth through the Holy Spirit, in the lives of His people. As such, the Book of Acts describes life! It details what happens when God’s people come alive! After recognizing that, we want to look for developments, details, and patterns/repetitions. In our case, additionally we want to look for underlying assumptions for how the people gathered. Are there obvious patterns or situations being described, what about prescribed? As long as we are not pitting those against each other or using them in isolation, they can remain helpful guides. For example, I can say “Make this box” and leave you with directions (prescription) or a pattern (description), or even a combination of both. When God instructed Moses to build the tabernacle we read of the extensive description given to him. But we also we of God commanding, “And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.” Exodus 25:40  Prescription and description aren’t opponents, they are friends, complementary ones at that.
In a sense, the whole of Luke-Acts presents for us an account of our Lord’s life at the end of the Old Covenant economy and an account of our risen Lord’s life at the beginning of the New Covenant economy.  While the epistles are certainly instructive, many of them are spokes from the wheel of Acts – meaning that the occasions for the letters come from the context of Acts (Note: Acts 17 – Paul in Thessalonica; Acts 18 – Paul in Corinth; Acts 19 – Paul in Ephesus). It is helpful to refer to the individual epistle when reading the particular narrative in Acts and vice versa.  The two therefore complement one another.  With that said, below are a list of instructive passages, which we will use to answer our primary three questions, along with a brief commentary on their context. Obviously, it would be irresponsible to leave ourselves isolated to the Book of Acts alone, so when necessary we will use supporting passages.
  • Acts 1:6-14 – Introduced by the significant phrase come together (synerchomai: 16x in Acts); this passage finishes up with a prayer meeting
  • Acts 2:1-4 – Pentecost (Saturday night – Sunday), altogether in one place
  • Acts 2:42-47 – One of the classic summary statements in Acts; is it therefore significant of their practices?
  • Acts 4:23-31 – Another appearance of gathered together (this time synago: 11x in Acts)
  • Acts 6:5 – This verse is a summary statement of a familiar passage and is another instance of gathering (here plethos: 15x in Acts)
  • Acts 11:25-26 – This passage is a summary statement, applicable to Antioch, describing Paul and Barnabas’ time there.
  • Acts 12:12-16 – Our fourth ESV translation of gathered (here a rare word – synathroizo: 2x in Acts); another gathering of prayer
  • Acts 13:1-3 – Four important words in this passage: church, worshiping and fasting, then fasting and prayer
  • Acts 14:24-28 – Two terms joined in a phrase: gathered the church together; apparently for the purpose of giving a testimony
  • Acts 15:1-21 – The infamous passage on the council at Jerusalem
  • Acts 15:30-35 – Reading the decision letter in Antioch; gathered the congregation together
  • Acts 16:13-15 – In this brief but significant passage, women come together at the place of prayer – by the river
  • Acts 19:1-7 – Paul “finds” some disciples, then lays hands on them.
  • Acts 20:7-12 – An oft-repeated passage to prove 1: Gathering on Sunday 2. Breaking bread = Lord’s Supper
  • Acts 20:17-38 – Paul meeting with the Ephesians elders
  • Acts 21:1-6 Beach gathering to sending off missionaries
  • Acts 21:17-26 Testimony of Paul to James and the elders at Jerusalem
This list is not all-inclusive, rather it is a reasonable sampling of occasions when believers were intentionally gathered together. All we simply want to do with these passage is to make observations. We cannot possibly resolve all controversies that have historically arisen with the prescriptive/descriptive model. Nor, do we presume that we can fully reconstruct the first century ‘church’ in present day. But we can learn and perhaps we can find some principles that are relevant for today, and examine our modern practices in the light of Scripture, particularly in the midst of our present crisis.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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