A few years back I was in the office of a respected denominational pastor here in Ecuador. As I was seeking his advise on a number of church-related matters, he looked me in the eye and said,
"Guido, do you know what your problem is?"
I know I have a lot of faults, but was completely blind-sided by what he said next...
"Your problem is you believe the Book of Acts is still relevant for today. You are trying to make 1st-Century practices the norm. You don't seem to understand that Acts is a historical account of what happened in the early church. But little of what is recorded there applies to us today."
I tried to respond, but he plowed on...
"Acts tells us about the birth of the church, but we have grown far beyond the infancy stage described in its pages. I for one, am not going to lead anyone to go backwards; I want to lead my church forward building upon all that been learned through 2000 years of church history. Why go back to diapers?"
I was left speechless.
Is Acts solely a historical description and non-binding on us today? Or is the record meant as a prescription--a kind of road map Jesus meant we are to follow?
Many take a middle-of-the-road approach. The parts we like we tend to classify as "prescriptive." For example, we like Acts 1:8 where we Gentiles are included in Jesus' Great Commission. As Evangelicals we believe we have the responsibility for taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The parts we don't experience or practice today, we tend to label as historically non-binding narrative. After all, where in Acts are we commanded to sell our house and lands and lay the proceeds at the Apostles feet? That is something they chose to do, but we don't have to follow their example. Instructive for us? Yes. Obliged to obey? No.
To me, that is the problem of the middle-of-the-road Acts position. We tend to pick and choose which parts we like and will try to put into practice. Those practices that aren't part of our tradition we classify as descriptive narrative--the same way we do with large portions of the Old Testament.
So where do I stand?
I tend to lean towards understanding Acts as standard for us today, in the same way it was for the believers back in the 1st Century. To me the question isn't so much whether Acts is descriptive or prescriptive; rather, why am I not seeking to live up to its higher standards?
So, if I lean towards Acts being prescriptive, why haven't I sold my house and lands and laid them at the apostles feet? Well, for starters, we have no house of our own to sell, nor lands, nor even the car that we drive. So what about other possessions like our furniture, stove, bank accounts or even the floor fan blowing on me as I type this post on my laptop?
This is where we many of us (including myself) come face-to-face with the true god of this age--materialism. I struggle with Shelby Smith Jr.'s thought-provoking quote, "We are always willing to sacrifice that which is not our treasure to hold on to that which is our treasure." What is it in my heart I hold on to? What am I NOT willing to lay at the Jesus feet (or as Acts describes, at the apostles feet?) Whatever THAT is, this is what we tend to categorize as descriptive/narrative portions of Scripture.
Do we really believe like the above pastor that Acts is the Church in diapers? Has today's Church really progressed beyond what we find in the pages of Acts and the Epistles? I will admit that in practice we believe like this pastor. At least he was being honest! But I cannot personally get away from the conviction that Acts and apostolic teaching was given to us not only as historical record, but as a prescription for healthy church expansion and life. To ignore, discredit, or seek to improve upon what we find in Acts/Epistles seems to me to be dangerous ground.
Paul gives strong indication that there were definite standards about the way things were to be done in the churches he had planted. Variations of his words, "...and so I direct in all the churches..." can be found many times in Paul's writings (eg. I Cor.7:17; 11:16; 14:33; 16:1, 2 Thes.2:15.)
If there was, and is, a standard of church practice, wouldn't it make sense that what we find in Acts and the instructions given in Paul's letters are standards intended for the church down through the ages? What right do we have to think we have progressed beyond Paul and the Apostles "diaper" instructions for the young churches? Seems to me we would do well to go back to relearn the lessons that apparently have been forgotten by today's advanced, modern church practices!
What are your thoughts? Is Acts and the Epistles to the churches intended as mere descriptions, or prescriptions for the Church of Jesus Christ thoughout the ages?
For more on this subject, check out Steve Atkerson's Apostolic Traditions: Who Cares?