Each month we will pose a question to our featured ‘professor’. We welcome questions from our readers. Send in your questions!
Featured Teacher: Henry Neufeld, BA and MA degrees in Biblical Languages, owner and editor of Energion Publications, written or co-authored ten books, including What’s in a Version?, When People Speak for God, Participatory Study Guide Series: Hebrews and Revelation.
We often say we would like to be a part of an Acts 2 church. With your Biblical languages background would you look at Acts 2 and give us some of the points that would honestly describe an Acts 2 church?
There are a few passages in the Bible that are paradigmatic for the church. In terms of the nature of the church, I would cite Acts 2 (or perhaps 2-5), 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Revelation 1-3 (the letters to the seven churches). The Sermon on the Mount provides the key outline of what the Christian life is to be about.
I don’t mean to suggest that these passages can be read in isolation, but rather that understanding them in their context will provide us with the paradigm for what a Christian is to be, and, in turn, what the church is to be.
While my Biblical languages background helps me in understanding the Bible—that’s why I took that particular course of study—in such chapters, the main outlines are generally very clear in almost any English translation. Too frequently, I believe, we dive into such chapters in order to settle more minor points, while we miss the major outline.
For example, I recall going to Acts 2 along with various other passages in Acts in order to discover just what the gift of tongues was to be, and comparing this to 1 Corinthians 14. The problem is that reading 1 Corinthians 14 without also reading 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, or with just that one question in mind, often leads one to miss the actual emphasis of the passage. Similarly, reading Acts 2 looking for the nature and application of the gift of tongues often means we miss the fact that this was kind of the starting gun for the concept of world missions, something that would become clear if we continued to read the book of Acts.
Acts 2 is a very good place, however, to ask just what the most basic nature of the church is to be. It describes the birth of the church. In a very real sense we can think of the church as in gestation through the ministry of Jesus. With Acts 2 it becomes the church and not just a small group of followers. At the same time that Jesus is removed from them the disciples learn that he is still very much present. Note that while they are written by different authors at different times, the concept of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) fits tightly with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.
So what characteristics describe an Acts 2 church?
I think these are the key ones:
It is a church seeking unity
This theme runs through the chapter, starting with verses 1-4. Being together in one place doesn’t mean that they had no disagreements. Often in seeking unity we also seek absolute uniformity. Love (well defined in 1 Corinthians 13) does not demand that we agree about everything but rather that we learn to work together as a team even when we disagree.
I recall once when I was involved in organizing a city-wide prayer meeting that a young man who had been making calls to churches came to me with a problem. He had called a particular church, but the pastor told him that they saw no reason to participate in a prayer meeting with churches that were “wrong on doctrine.” Under the circumstances there was nothing I could do but tell him to go on to the next church.
I think this “working together in spite of disagreements” is modeled a great deal in the New Testament. At the same time, the church leaders do not abandon doctrine. They discuss and work it out. The paradigmatic chapter for this topic is Acts 15, with the end result that seemed good “to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That is an important line—it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit. If we were willing to get together more often and pray until we can honestly say that something seems good both to us and the Holy Spirit, we might get much further!
It is a church that proclaims
When the Holy Spirit comes on the newborn church, it immediately proclaims. There was no waiting and discussion; they simply got down to the business of proclamation (verses 5-36).
This passage is often the center of debates about the gift of tongues. But let’s skip that controversy and go to the main point. The gift given here introduces a critical theme in the book of Acts, the way in which the gospel spreads from Judea (2-7), Samaria (8), and from there on to the rest of the world. The gift here was for proclamation and was a sign of things to come.
It is a church that makes disciples
Besides it being Peter, the apostle, who makes the first proclamation, but further, those who were converted that day devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (42).
There are two sides to this leadership. First, the leaders are recognized as those who lead and teach. Second, the leaders spend their time teaching everyone. Now that may sound like a statement of the obvious, but often our modern church leaders are often people who preach on Sunday and do administration. The Acts pattern has everyone in action.
There is no Christian who does not have the call to make disciples.
It is a church that gathers
The newborn church immediately begins gathering to learn and to break bread. They are, in fact, so unified that they hold all their goods in common and take care of one another. There are debates about whether this is the best way for the church to live, in a sort of communism. But that is not the critical issue. The question is whether we trust our fellow church members as our own body enough to share in that fashion. The answer, I believe, is “no” and that means we need to continue in prayer for the unity of the Spirit in the church.
I want to draw attention as well to the breaking of bread. Communion, or the Eucharist, is often reduced to an occasional and perfunctory ritual. In the early church—the earliest church—I believe it was the center of gathering because it symbolized our unity as part of the body of Christ.
I would suggest reading Acts 2 a number of times prayerfully, each time asking, “How can I put this into action in my own church. I think we would all be amazed at what could be accomplished if we let the New Testament give us the principles of our church life.