Sunday, March 13

Acts--description or prescription?

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?

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For more on this subject, check out Steve Atkerson's Apostolic Traditions: Who Cares?

52 comments:

Arthur Sido said...

I think the principles are the same. We don't wear togas or meet at the temple but the principles of community, of self-denial, of loving others more than ourselves all apply as much today as they did two thousand years ago. I think the arguments against applying Acts to the church today have more to do with pragmatism and putting the Scriptures on equal footing with our culture.

Russell Herrington said...

Guy, your blog today is very interesting. Paul in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 & 14, and Ephesians 4 talks about spiritual gifts and their ministry within the Body of Christ. My own opinion is that although Luke never mentions the term "spiritual gifts" in Acts, what we see is the church using their spiritual gifts in serving one another and reaching out to the world. Therefore, Acts is a laboratory of spiritual gifts in action.

GuyMuse said...

Arthur,

I think you are right when you say the arguments against applying Acts to churches today is more along the lines of convenience. Culture, traditions and common practices have more sway on us today than Acts. If what we find in Acts is something we are actually doing, then fine. If it isn't, we relegate it to non-binding narrative.

GuyMuse said...

Russell,

Interesting observation about Acts being a laboratory for spiritual gifts in action. I believe we have so "tamed" these areas of our Christian life, that now anyone exercising gifts as we see them exercised in Acts, is viewed as "out of touch" with the proper way of doing things in church. One of the points we stress here is that one of the NT church characteristics is that all believers were encouraged to operate and use their spiritual gifts--not just the professional clergy like we have today.

Jeremy Myers said...

I'm one of the "descriptive" crowd. I believe that there are principles in the entire Bible that followers of Jesus are to exemplify, and Acts shows how some early Jewish and Gentile believers lived out these principles in first century Greco-Roman culture.

Each subsequent culture must determine through prayer, Bible study, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit, what it will look like in their culture to follow these same principles.

Interestingly, in our postmodern culture, it appears that the best approach is quite similar to that of the early believers in Acts.

Eric said...

Guy,

I've read your blog for a while but this is my first comment.

My belief is that the book of Acts is prescriptive for church life of all time. My reason for believing this is that the disciples were present at that time. They either gave approval to church practices or told the people to change what they were doing. They also wrote directly to churches.

If we follow the apostolic approved practices of church life, then we can know with certainty that how we are functioning is acceptable to God.

If we depart from the church model we see in Acts, then we have no certainty that what we are doing is God-honoring. If we leave Acts behind, we wander into the danger of postmodernistic, "almost anything-goes" territory.

If we follow what we read in Acts, church life becomes much simpler. Also, instead of spending money on buildings, programs, and pastoral salaries, we can give it to both the poor and needy and international missions work.

GuyMuse said...

Jeremy,

Thanks for the repost on your "Till He Comes" blog.

Yes, each culture needs to determine how the Acts/Epistle traditions and teachings play out in their culture. But does that give the right to any culture to say we will not follow that Acts principle because it is not part of our tradition or the way we practice church?

For example...

Few Latin American churches practice the Acts tradition--which I believe is prescriptive--of baptizing upon repentance, usually the same day! What is practiced by churches is waiting for the new convert to 1) pass a 13 week study course, 2) give up their sinful lifestyle, 3) prove first they are worthy to be baptized by proper Christian accepted behavior, 4) after a church vote, determine a baptism date, 5) be baptized by the pastor.

We can end up doing all kinds of extra-biblical things when we start viewing Acts as simply a narrative description of what happened back in the 1st Century.

If the best approach is similar to what was done in the Book of Acts, why not embrace that tradition and practice as the norm?

GuyMuse said...

Eric,

Thanks for commenting. Hope it won't be the first and only time! I think you make some excellent observations. I especially like your last paragraph where you point out that if we follow what we read in Acts, church life becomes much simpler. It certainly does. Maybe that is why we should use Acts as our model for church, rather than the latest Mega-Hot church as our example.

Jeremy Myers said...

Guy,
It will probably not surprise you, but I have some different views on baptism too...ha ha! Largely due, I must confess, to my descriptive reading of Acts (and the Gospels).

And yes, I completely agree with you that my approach will lead to some extra-biblical practices. But I don't see this as bad. Discipleship will take different forms at different times with different people in different cultures.

My primary concern with the prescriptive way of reading Acts is that it tends to condemn other forms of doing church as unbiblical.

Mlabus said...

In truth, there are both prescriptions and descriptions within the pages of Acts. Like any text, determining which are which should be determined by the context and good biblical interpretive practices. To apply an overarching hermeneutic to the entire text, to force a decision between the two creates a dichotomy where, most likely, none exist.

reformedlostboy said...

Guy,

your blog has been a hot topic in my reader lately. I like your topics and thoughts, consider yourself in my feed.

I always thought of Acts and the glimses of church gatherings in the epistles to be descriptive pointing only to principles. Yet, recently I have been thinking and discovering that those principles are best lived out if we stick to what is modeled for us in scripture. If we fully understand their reasons for gathering the way they did, why would we think that we could improve upon that? The difficulty comes in when we realize that our culture is very different from that of the fiorst century. So then the question becomes: if the church in Acts is prescriptive, how do we get from here to there?

Stan said...

It is descriptive of what was prescribed. The cultures at that time are different from the ones today, so a direct copy of everything is not possible. However, when one looks at the church in the entire NT there is only one model and no hints that other models would be forth-coming. A previous post stated, "My primary concern with the prescriptive way of reading Acts is that it tends to condemn other forms of doing church as unbiblical." Well, they are unbiblical in the sense that these other forms cannot be found in Scripture.

The idea that it is fully descriptive or mostly descriptive allows us to pretty much dismiss it at will and do what is right in our own eyes. Of course, we keep the key words and define them as we please so people think we are today doing what they did in the NT. Self-deception is not always difficult to achieve.

Martin Fischer said...

I think, it's descriptive AND prescriptive. The early apostles learned from Jesus how to do it when they were underway with him for 3 years. If he had tought them so, they would have soon started to build churchbuildings, hireing pastors and having a big parking lot for horses and buggies.
Only Constantine changed the church into what we have traditionally today for mere power and influence. He even changed heathen feasts into christian holidays, just to please everyone.
In human history often there has been "progress", but actually something good has been spoiled.
I know, that I'm not living all the way how it it described in Acts or the epistles, but we are working on it...

GuyMuse said...

Jeremy,

I would be interested in hearing your views on baptism sometime. I think Stan who comments below you expresses what I would respond as well. What do you think about his comment "It is descriptive of what was prescribed?"

GuyMuse said...

Miguel,

I think you bring up a valid point by saying To apply an overarching hermeneutic to the entire text, to force a decision between the two creates a dichotomy where, most likely, none exist... We do have to distinguish between what is clearly narrative, and what is described, as Stan says, as to what was intended to be prescribed as the standard being set down for us to imitate.

Are there any particular passages you see that might be conflictive when taking a "prescriptive" point of view?

GuyMuse said...

Stan,

I think your comment summarizes so well what I am trying to share with this blog post. I love the way you word it, It is descriptive of what was prescribed. The cultures at that time are different from the ones today, so a direct copy of everything is not possible. However, when one looks at the church in the entire NT there is only one model and no hints that other models would be forth-coming.

There are of course many models today, and nobody is saying they are bad. What I am saying is that they fall short of the Acts/Epistle standards which was THE model left to us by Jesus and the apostles. How can we ever hope to top that?

GuyMuse said...

reformedlostboy,

Thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comment. You ask, "how do we get from here to there?" Good question. I believe it is a process where slowly you begin making needed changes one at a time over a period of time. To try and change everything overnight only leads to chaos and upsetting people. But do I think we need to be headed in the direction of making Acts/Epistles our standard and guideline? Yes.

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

There have been some really good comments on this post. This is an important discussion, because you're asking a question that is typically overlooked.

The answer to what is prescriptive and what is (merely) descriptive is usually answered by a person's theological tradition or background instead of some hermeneutical or interpretive strategy. Thus, we accept certain things as prescriptive (normative) because we are more reformed, or less reformed, or more baptistic, or less baptistic, or more liturgical or less liturgical.

All of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation) contains a mixture of genres. One of the most difficult genres to interpret is narrative - which we find primarily in the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament (although there are aspects of narrative in the Epistles and Revelations as well).

For me, John 13:1-15 is helpful for understanding how to interpretive narrative. I don't think Jesus' remarks in John 13:14-15 apply only to foot washing, and I don't think they apply only to this particular passage.

Are the narrative passages of Scripture prescriptive (normative) for followers of Christ today? It depends on what you mean by prescriptive. Should we do exactly what those early believers (or Jesus) did? Probably not. Should we learn from their example and live accordingly (you could call this by priciple, if you choose)? Yes, I think so.

-Alan

Frank Doiron said...

So much of traditional Christianity is basically a holy meeting, on a holy day, in a holy building, at a holy hour, with holy people dressed in holy clothes listening to a holy priest/pastor giving a holy sermon.” (Wolfgang Simson)

Church, as it is described as a building and an ordered church service, feels very much like a longing for an Old Testament (religious) way of coming or relating to God. Complete with a command to tithe, to enter the ``sanctuary`` to ordination, to holy days and seasons and so on (and there are many so ons), the fragrance of the church does not look and feel like a group of people totally devoted to one another, going to the cross for one another, looking upon one another’s interest as more important than our own and together spreading the gospel of Jesus to the nations.
Neil Cole asks the question, why is the Sunday morning so important? I’ll take a stab at trying to answer that in my way. Francis Chan’s church was on it’s way to building a 60 million dollar structure. Why would any church do that????? In part it is because entrenched in the way of “doing church” is the required Sabbath practice of coming to the temple once a week. Attendance at this once a week event is seen as God’s highest requirement, while loving one another, spreading the gospel and helping the poor are sub programs to the main event called the church service. It is so engrained in us that getting people to attend that church service is viewed as its greatest mission. The central core (centerpiece) of church is attending a church service and anything else is optional.
The lesson of Acts is a call to radical way of coming to Jesus. The church meeting in homes is a radical call to community…a community that will take care of one another, look upon one another’s interest, and serve one another. It will be a church that has a passion to take the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

In the book of Acts, the church, that first alien community, wasn’t a building to go to once a week. It was a living breathing community that was “breaking bread from house to house,” sharing life, sharing resources, all centered in the presence of the living God (Tom Sine)

By the way Francis Chan left that model of church last spring....
It would be helpful to go to Youtube and call up "Francis Chan Is this really church" and start that video at the 27:30 mark

Anonymous said...

Guido,
Café clarito o caldo de gallina con mucha agua es simplemente aguado y no café ni sopa. Lo narrativo no es lo más difícil de interpretar. La narración de Doctor Lucas se habla por sí misma. Todo intento de evitar las enseñanzas de Jesús en San Lucas y los hechos del Espíritu Santo en el libro Hechos es un intento simple de añadir el agua al café o caldo. Menospreciar lo narrativo es un error grave.
Esteban

Stan said...

Guy,

I hope you don't mind me chiming in on this question.

"So then the question becomes: if the church in Acts is prescriptive, how do we get from here to there?"

Slowly. For some reason God has placed me in close relationship with a small traditional church for the past year and a half. When I arrived in this city my intention was to work directly with the lost and disciple them solely from Scripture without placing them in any building other than their own homes. God had other plans and I believe a part of that was for me to learn more about building based Christianity and how to work with people who only know that form or model.

One thing I learned, or reaffirmed, is that folks in the building don't have trust level friendships with very many lost people. So, how can they make disciples of people who don't know them well enough to trust them?

Another thing I learned is that, in Brazil, many people are interested in God and even the Bible, but they are not willing to go into a building full of people they don't know to learn more. However, many are willing to invite someone into their home to study the Bible.

A third thing is that many of the people in the building cannot reproduce the methods by which they are taught (e.g., sermon crafting) and therefore do not feel that they are capable of discipling others. However, many of those who have been in the building for a while do have a strong knowledge base that they can teach using other methods.

A year and a half ago I began teaching them the book of Acts. Within the past 2-3 months several of them have started simple Bible studies in homes with the belief that that can be church. It is a much simpler form than they have been used to, but they are beginning to see that the NT church was not what their church is.

It is a slow process and not all will accept the simpler form. However, we've now got three couples and two singles who are living their faith and teaching from house to house.

I hope this contributes a little to the question of how do we get back from where we currently are.

Alan said...

If a Martian township contacted us and asked for a Bible so that they could find salvation and plant a church, having no 'background' history, Bible Colleges, traditions, and we were to visit 5 years later....the church they would have would be nothing like the church we have in the West today. It owuld be similar to the church portrayed in scripture. If you desire NT blessing you must follow NT procedure.....simple!

Stuart said...

Mostly descriptive. Prescriptive in an overarching sense, but not in its details. It prescribes an obedience to the Great Commission that trusts God's sovereignty, focuses it's message on Jesus, measures success by obedience, leaves the results to God, and so forth. It doesn't prescribe choosing leaders by casting lots, having seven and only seven deacons, preaching in synagogues, and so forth.

Missiorganic said...

Guy, thanks for raising this issue in a deeply personal manner. You have inspired me to tackle this:

http://missiorganic.blogspot.com/2011/03/of-models-modes-and-modifications.html

I would appreciate a comment or two and I will be monitoring your blog as well.

GuyMuse said...

Alan Knox,

I agree with you about all the good observations and comments shared on this important subject.

Your John 13 example is a good one. On the one hand, we can totally dismiss the entire passage as narrative, or we can see in Jesus example that He was clearly setting the standard for those disciples who would be following in his steps.

One of the issues we run into with trying to make narrative passages the norm, is when we read into the narrative our own cultural biases and customs. One example I encounter frequently is the Acts 2 passage where my fellow brothers state emphatically that it says, Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house clearly shows that the early believers continued to meet in the temple. It is a difficult thing to try and convince people that the Jerusalem temple was something quite different from the temples that are scattered all around Guayaquil. Yet to even raise the question causes people to roll their eyes and point again to the written Word asserting, IT SAYS...they were of ONE MIND, DAY BY DAY, CONTINUALLY IN THE TEMPLE! The houses are where they ate together, but it was the temple where they worshiped and listened to the apostles preaching.

I guess all of us do a bit of this reading into Scripture according to our biases and upbringing, but it sure complicates things when we are trying to understand what it is our Lord is trying to say!

GuyMuse said...

Esteban,

Strong words there brother when you say, todo intento de evitar las enseñanzas de Jesús en San Lucas y los hechos del Espíritu Santo en el libro Hechos es un intento simple de añadir el agua al café o caldo. Menospreciar lo narrativo es un error grave... As you say, when we try to avoid the narrative implications of Jesus teaching in Luke and the Holy Spirit's acts in Acts we are doing great harm to the cause of Christ.

A nadie le gusta café o caldo aguado! Ni Dios, ni nosotros! Buena la observación!

GuyMuse said...

Stuart,

I can see your point in saying "prescriptive" in an overarching sense, but not in the details. The examples you share are good ones to support your point.

My question, though, what is it about the examples you point out that makes them so clearly non-prescriptive? I don't think many of us would hold to the Acts 1 way of choosing successors, or holding to "7" being the perfect number of deacons in a church.

But it gets a little grayer when we encounter other passages such as Acts 10:48, And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ... If we hold to Acts as being prescriptive then we would all start baptizing only in the name of Jesus!

GuyMuse said...

Alan,

Your Martian illustration reminds me of another blog post I did here making the same point on the issue of whether or not women can/should baptize. If we only had the Bible, and no church traditions to fall back upon, or seminary classes, books, sermons, etc. what would we come up with in regards to solely what the Bible has to say? Good point!

GuyMuse said...

Missiorganic,

Thanks for tackling not only the issue, but for sharing some excellent questions to help us all!

Over the years we have run into these descriptive vs prescriptive issues in Acts/Epistles many times. What is clear to us is that what we do today has little in common with what we see in Acts/Epistles.

Our own solution is much simpler:

1) the didactic portions always carry more weight than descriptive narratives

2) descriptive narrative should not be followed if it contradicts what is didactically being taught

A good example of this is the Acts 10:48 teaching ...he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ... We would not teach someone to baptize only in the name of Jesus because this narrative contradicts a direct teaching of Christ who commanded, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit... Jesus command trumps what Peter told his disciples to do in Acts 10.

GuyMuse said...

Frank Doiron,

Something happened to your comment. For some reason it went straight to my email address, but does not appear here. Please retry commenting again. Thanks!

GuyMuse said...

Martin,

I think many of us are on the same journey along with you. For me it is a process of taking off my glasses and rereading afresh the NT through a different set of lenses. One of the things that bothers me is how far we have drifted from NT standards, and yet we are able to justify nearly everything we do in church and back it up with Scripture. We use Scripture for our own purposes making it say just about anything we want it to say.

Missiorganic said...

Guy, I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with "carrying more weight." It seems a bit subjective. But, I enjoy the thoughts that this discussion is bringing to the surface.

Pa Ott said...

I wonder if the Pharisees of Jesus' day would have said that their form of temple worship had matured from that which Moses birthed and put the first diaper on ;) .

GuyMuse said...

Missiorganic,

What I mean is that when placed side by side, didactic imperative teaching carries more weight than a portion of Scripture that is merely describing something that happened. I am not saying there is no point to descriptive passages--that is the point of the post!--but that those passages that clearly teach we are to do something like "make disciples..." have more authority/claim over us than the narrative where Jesus casts the demons into a herd of pigs. Making disciples is more important than spending time casting demons and sending them to herds to pigs.

GuyMuse said...

Pa,

Good point. One of my favorite Reggie McNeal quotes, "The church in North America is not like the Pharisees--we are the Pharisees, and Jesus does not like Pharisees."

Anonymous said...

Guy,
One of the most fascinating and riveting dialogues in a long time. One of the first books that I downloaded on my kindle for PC program was a very popular book on being radical. Encouraged by the read I decided to listen to a sermon or two on line. Said speaker connects and communicates well. His desire to make disciples in his church and among the peoples of the world is very admirable. However, I was completely blown out of the water when he began his sermon series on the book of Acts by saying that Acts was the most difficult book in the Scriptures to understand because his mentor told him so. And there was some initial attempt (even by the author on the book about being radical) to water down some things. God is sovereign and His Spirit comes and goes like the wind. I wonder (especially after examining my own life) if “we” have not quenched His spirit and made Holy Spirit terribly sad. Our tendency is to completely ignore the third person of the trinity or treat Him as many UPGs do as some good spirit but never recognizing Him as God. We have capitalistic formulas on one side of the spectrum and animistic magic on the other side of the spectrum. And worse yet is what we see frequently in South America, some weird mixture of both. Perhaps our spiritual impotence and ignorance is related to a total misunderstanding of who God’s spirit is. Esteban

GuyMuse said...

Esteban,

Very well said. I think you are on to something when you bring up the point that possibly we have side-lined or do not understand the Holy Spirit, or his work in the world today. Whenever his Spirit is quenched, there is a drought. We then resort to doing things as we deem best, and find the needed Scriptures to back up our propositions.

While I too was greatly impacted by the book you make reference to, one of the problems with big churches and ministries is that it is very easy for them to take a missions approach of, 1) seeing what needs to be done, 2) praying about it a little, 3) doing it. Again, Acts/Epistles is very much a daily walking in the Spirit approach to ministry, rather than a ministry-by-objectives approach. I am currently working on a blog post where I extensively quote someone who is saying this very thing. Stay tuned!

Chesed1 said...

I'm in the process of writing a book on "Community Life." I call it the missing theology, since not a single textbook on ecclesiology talks about it. So where are the congregational opportunities to "confess your sins one to another?" Does that happen in Mr Megachurch service with 10,000 people, and most of the folks there are hiding in the crowd from truly being submissive to one another? If the present church structure is Biblical, then why does George Barna's studies show us over and over that we are no different than the surround culture? No, Acts, in the context of the whole Bible, and especially when read with the rest of the NT, is description of the Biblical lifestyle that works. Reading the NT without an eye on Jewish history and culture, and without the context of community life as it can only be lived in the house churches, is doomed to failure.

GuyMuse said...

Chesed1,

I'd be interested in reading your upcoming book "Community Life." While many of us glamorize the lifestyle and way of life of those in the NT, the reality is that is was a pretty brutal time--just ask Paul and Silas when they were in Phillipi. While I agree that the description found in Acts 2 sounds wonderful, I wonder how many of us would readily give up our current lifestyle, sell our houses and lands and lay it all at the apostles feet? These are things that are easier written about than lived out in my own life. Again, I would be interested in reading what you have to say about all these matters. Keep us posted!

solstallings said...

I am kind of on the fence... kind of.

Take the church building as an example. Is meeting in houses prescriptive because that is what they did? Or is it descriptive only. I kind of think descriptive, but not only.

When we take the church meeting out of the house, many times feeling like we have the liberty, we end up going against a different principle of scripture. You may have the liberty to have a building to meet in, but do you have the liberty to spend a ton of money on that building. I believe that would go against another biblical principle.

No description is in a vacuum. Even meeting in a certain house could go against some biblical principle. What if you picked the house of a member who lives furthest from an old lady who has to walk to the meeting.

So I guess I believe a lot of Acts is descriptive, but that it is actually describing the way in which you are probably safest from going against some other biblical principle you may be missing, which may end up being the perfect prescription for being in line with God.

GuyMuse said...

solstallings,

Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. For me, I think Stan above answers you best when he states,

It is descriptive of what was prescribed. The cultures at that time are different from the ones today, so a direct copy of everything is not possible. However, when one looks at the church in the entire NT there is only one model and no hints that other models would be forth-coming. A previous post stated, "My primary concern with the prescriptive way of reading Acts is that it tends to condemn other forms of doing church as unbiblical." Well, they are unbiblical in the sense that these other forms cannot be found in Scripture.

The idea that it is fully descriptive or mostly descriptive allows us to pretty much dismiss it at will and do what is right in our own eyes. Of course, we keep the key words and define them as we please so people think we are today doing what they did in the NT. Self-deception is not always difficult to achieve.


Sure we can go to extremes, but if left to our own definitions and add to that the way we use Scripture to back up our preconceived notions, I personally think Acts needs to be looked at more from the prescriptive side than merely narrative description. Just my 2-cents!

Jeremy Myers said...

Guy and Stan,

My concern is exemplified with Stan's comment. He says this:

"The cultures at that time are different from the ones today, so a direct copy of everything is not possible."

But then he goes on to say that other forms of church "are unbiblical in the sense that these other forms cannot be found in Scripture."

Logically then, any form of church not found in Scripture is unbiblical. Therefore, since by Stan's own admission that some adjustments have to be made, there is no such thing as a biblical church. As soon as any adjustments are made whatsoever, you leave the biblical pattern.

If you say, "Oh no! The adjustments we have made are necessary for our different time and culture," then my response is "Who gets to decide which adjustments are allowable and which ones are not?"

Stan says that my view allows me to "dismiss [Acts] at will and do what is right in our own eyes." But are you not doing the same thing? Any adjustment that is not found in the book of Acts is an unbiblical adjustment. Therefore, if you make an adjustment to fit our time and culture, you also are doing what is right in your own eyes.

But if you argue, "No, we follow what we see the Spirit doing in the book of Acts, as He led the believers to love, serve, and honor each other and people in the world," then I say, "Congratulations, you are now arguing for my position."

GuyMuse said...

Jeremy,

Thanks for your thoughtful follow-up response. I'll let Stan speak for himself if he should stop by again and read this.

Allow me to try to respond to you in the same way we deal with this in our local church planting training...

For those starting new churches with new disciples, Acts is much closer the model we would want to see developing, rather than the model of the traditional/legacy churches of North America and the Western World.

By default and upbringing what is seen in legacy churches is what gets imitated, copied, and modeled after. This is very hard to reproduce and multiply. What we see in Acts is much simpler and reproducible.

What I am suggesting is, ACTS is closer to the model needed for us today than the complex and extra-biblical models of most churches today.

Hopefully this helps rather than further muddling the waters.

Jeremy Myers said...

Guy,

That is an EXCELLENT answer, and I 100% agree with you on it, with two thumbs up, a hearty pat on the back, and a full-body hug.

...Well, maybe not that last part.

Sorry for stirring the waters a bit here. I love all your posts, and have learned so much from you over the years.

Stan said...

Jeremy,

The written format is not the easiest to communicate in. Also, a response to a blog post is necessarily brief and I lack the gift of brevity in communication. So, please understand that extensive examples were not possible, nor are they still possible.

I wrote, "The cultures at that time are different from the ones today, so a direct copy of everything is not possible." And I wrote, “Well, they are unbiblical in the sense that these other forms cannot be found in Scripture.”

Perhaps the better word here would have been “models” of church.

What we find in the NT is that the followers of Jesus met in their homes and also in larger groups from time to time. Outside Jerusalem in Acts 2 we are not ever given the frequency with which the followers of Jesus met in larger groups, but there seems to an indication that they were together weekly in their homes. As Chesed1 Points out, life together was a crucial aspect of NT Christianity. When I came to Brazil I was very open to the idea that a group could meet at McDonalds and “be church”. What I’ve come to realize is that you might rejoice in one anothers’ rejoicings at McDonalds, but you’re not likely to sorrow in one anothers’ sorrows at McDonalds. The level of relationship that we find among NT followers of Christ only develops in the home. It does not develop in any other venue. I’ve been working with a group of about 35 believers who meet in a building. They a cordial in the building, but few are friends and few have interaction on a personal level during the week. That has been my experience with pretty much every building based church on four continents.

So, returning to the Biblical form/pattern/model (yes, we’ve used all three terms interchangeably already, which complicates matters). We meet from house to house and from time to time in larger groups to celebrate together. Both were aspects of NT church. One key is that the groups in the homes are almost always formed through the circles of friendship of the homeowners so they already have an established trust based relationship and most live close together allowing them ready interaction during the week. They do share life together. They do rejoice in their rejoicing and sorrow in their sorrows.

We do not insist that people dress according to the Greek culture, nor build their homes in the Greek style, nor eat only the foods that were available in the NT era. We do not eat the Lord’s Supper laying on pillows with our heads near the table and feet going away from it.

Several people have commented on the selling of property and laying it at the apostles’ feet. If we pay attention to the text we find this is only recording as having occurred in Jerusalem. In other parts of the NT we do see sacrificial giving, but never do we see a description of selling property. So, we balance the two examples that we find. Many will, like a church supporting Paul, give sacrificially from their own poverty. Others will, like the church in Jerusalem sell their possessions to meet the needs of others. We see both in the NT and we should see both today.

I hope this has clarified what I attempted to convey in brief in my first post. To express fully my thinking would require far more words than a blog format allows.

GuyMuse said...

Frank Doiron,

Sorry for the delay in your post appearing. Blogger had arbitrarily sent it to the SPAM file and I just got around to taking care of this.

I think you are right on with, The lesson of Acts is a call to radical way of coming to Jesus. The church meeting in homes is a radical call to community…a community that will take care of one another, look upon one another’s interest, and serve one another. It will be a church that has a passion to take the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
In the book of Acts, the church, that first alien community, wasn’t a building to go to once a week. It was a living breathing community that was “breaking bread from house to house,” sharing life, sharing resources, all centered in the presence of the living God (Tom Sine)


What we see in the pages of Acts is what Jesus and the apostles intended church life to be. To say this was only cultural, or a thing of the past, is to miss what being the church is all about!

I haven't had time to watch the Francis Chan video, but hope to in the coming days. Sounds interesting.

Jeremy Myers said...

Stan,
Yes, comment interaction is not ideal. Thanks for the clarification.

I think I see your point, and in theory and practice, I probably agree with you. I know of no person today in a brick and mortar church building who has the intimacy that people often share in a house church setting.

What I am unsure of is whether this has always been true, or if it is a byproduct of our relationally disconnected culture.

Maybe, back when church buildings were actually the community centers, and people had meaningful interactions with each other in their towns on a day-to-day basis, the Sunday gathering was much more meaningful and personal than it is now.

Stjuart said...

Guy,

Sorry for the VERY delayed reply, but I was looking back over this thread and just realized that you had asked me a question. Sorry.

As to my comment about Acts being prescriptive in an over-arching sense but not in its details, you asked me about some of the "grayer" instances and cited Acts 10:48. I think the answer lies in using Scripture to inform Scripture to inform our hermeneutic.

In the case you cite, we wouldn't baptize only in the name of Jesus because we have Jesus' own words in Matthew 28. Another example is the way the Church of Christ takes this phrase from Acts, "Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins" as evidence of baptismal regeneration. We have the reset of the NT, particularly the gospel of John and the Pauline corpus that speak clearly to belief and faith as the basis for salvation.

That's probably the best I can do, but that's how I tend to approach the details in Acts.

Beniciones.

Stuart said...

So, apparently, I can't spell my name or bendiciones. Sorry.

GuyMuse said...

Stuart,

I appreciate your "delayed response" and understand your point. I think it is good to allow the tension to exist between prescriptive and descriptive. Once we think we have everything all figured out, we don't!

Rusty W. said...

I didn't get a chance to read all the responses to the blog article, but I just wanted to give an amen to your position. I've gone back and forth with the "prescription description" debate with our leadership for a while. It seems to be a great tension to be faithful to the Scriptures in our modern context. I am with you, to think that we can do it better than the Apostles did it with the Holy Spirit seems arrogant and prideful to me. Not to mention, our results seem to have diminished in some sense.

Andrew Bernhardt said...

While Acts contains much descriptions of the early church, I don't think those descriptions should be treated merely as historical accounts with no application for today.

I would like the church today to be more like the New Testament church. But it won't happen by modelling ourselves after the early church. After all, the early church didn't become what it was by modeling itself on itself, but on Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can only become (in practice) the church God wants us to be by submitting ourselves (as individuals and as a body) to God, being led by the Holy Spirit, and living to glorify Jesus Christ. This is what the early church did when it functioned properly.