Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Acts 2 community: There is no going back.

Let me run an idea up the Flagpole ... Please feel free to shoot it down.

I’ve been pondering the widely-held belief that the “Acts 2 Community” is the ideal Christian community: the one to which we should aspire. Here is what that community was like:
  • They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching; fellowship; to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
  • Everyone was filled with awe.
  • Many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
  • All the believers were together and had everything in common, and they gave to anyone as he had need. etc.

George Barna in his latest [odd] book Revolution basically uses Acts 2 by which to measure all other churches, past and present, saying: "Who wouldn't want to be a part of this?"

And the challenge, of course is that if the Church could get herself back to that, we’d be better off: we’d be more God honouring; less institutional etc. We need real community. And the 'Acts 2 community' is real community we need.

There is no doubt that the text here is describing a situation that is wonderful. That is clear. It’s also clear in Acts 4:32-35. The truth is -- I do want this kind of community. And I think that Acts 2 functions as a wake up call for our often lazy-consumer-driven church experiences.

But I'm not sure that God wants us to go back to this.

I am wondering whether the 'Acts 2 community' is an adequate model for us. It’s not enough. Here are my three reasons why we need to go beyond the Acts 2 Community.

1. They have yet to include a single non-Jewish person.

The Gentile question doesn’t get hammered out properly until Acts 15. God has to give Peter a bizarre dream to get him to move beyond racial boundaries. The Acts 2 community is a racially Jewish community only. It is yet to be inclusive.

Don’t we want the Jew-Gentile community that gets hammered out after Act 15? With all the difficulties that come with reaching out beyond racial comfort zones? I'm glad, as a Gentile, that the community did not remain the way they were.

2. They have yet to be tested under the fire of persecution.

That doesn’t happen until Acts 4 [a 'nibble'], Acts 5 [a flogging], Acts 6 [Stephen arrested], Acts 7 [Stephen murdered], Acts 8 [A full-scale persecution breaks out]. Up until that point, everyone loves ’em.

Don’t we want a Church refined by the fire? One where ‘convenient faith’ is shown for what it really is? Isn’t the persecution and the testing [post Acts 2] one of the most powerful aspects of Acts?

3. They have yet to feel - and work through - disillusionment.

The first ‘problem’ with the community doesn’t happen until Acts 5:1-11. And a major shock to the system it was.

Don’t we want a community that can deal with disappointment in a gospel way? The Acts 2 community had yet to experience the disappointment. Don't we want to be able to cope, without replacing the gospel with inappropriate idealism? I want a Church that reflects Bonhoeffer’s words:

  • "Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably productive, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship."

I think that I’d prefer the Acts 2 community together with what God does in that community after the ideal is described. God had more blessing for them. And we are the inheritors of that blessing.

There is no going back. Only forward.

Fire away.

Love, Justin.

38 comments:

Scott said...

OK, first cab off the rank . . .

I like your thoughts J-man. Acts 2 is really the first moments of the interim existence and in a bizzare kind of way they were lacking. I guess it's in the same vein as the fact that we don't go back to Eden, we are moving to the New Jerusalem.

The question is, should I tell this to my boss who has made the 5 characteristics of the Acts 2 church our 'vision statement'?

Justin said...

Yes to going forward to New Jerusalem idea, rather than back to Eden.

Should you say something to your boss?

I'd be interested to know what he thinks...

Reason Number 1 is especially important given the history of South Africa. Would that be fair to say, Scott?

michael jensen said...

This is profound, and true, so true.

They didn't even have bishops yet, so they can't have been a true church...

Scott: tell your boss to think again! but do it politely...

Anonymous said...

I don't generally like commenting because of my overwhelming fear of getting slammed (so be kind!) but your blog got me thinking this morning.

There is something that makes me feel slightly uneasy about using Acts 2 to describe the ideal church community.

I’m not quite sure what it is… given I DO aspire to a community with a ‘joyful, trembling sense of awe that you don't trifle with the God of the apostles’ (Piper) and the many outworkings of that awe in fellowship, prayer, worship, selflessness, generosity etc.

Perhaps what makes me nervous is possibility of this passage forming the basis of some utopian vision for community? Where the concept of the sinful nature is left behind and we can all live in beautiful harmony together…

I'm sure this is not how most churches look at it... but your comments on disillusionment and persecution got me thinking.

Nat

jodi mclaren said...

i think you can only go forward.

wrote an essay on this for a college exam and i think i said something along the lines of looking at Peters use of prophetic scripture it seems to me that he looks backwards only so that they would go forward - there never seems to be any level of contentment with the status quo - action must be taken (hence a call and response in 2:37 "what shall we do?"). and your right - the perspective of the people is to insular as they are filled with 'wonder and amazement' - sounds like the apostles are giving them the milk before the solid food will compel them to becoming more and more focused on the other aspects of being God's community united in Christ - with one aspect being them looking to the outsiders/gentiles.

it all falls to pot within a couple of chapters anyway - somehow i don't think Ananias represents an ideal congregationalist...

seapea said...

while i think anything and everything bible-based should be our "model," i don't agree with verse 44. i don't think a church should be where everyone's alike. that'd be:

a) boring
b) segregated
c) like a big high school cliques.

i think we're to accept whomever at church, as our brothers and sisters, and that's what a community is all about. yes, it's contradictory that as a "church," you have already separated from different others (be it religion, denomination, etc.) but just applying to a church (beyond religion & denomination) i think it'd more beneficial for a church to have a congregation of differences: rich, poor, small, big, dark, light, annoying, friendly, depressed, joyful, etc. etc.

that way, we can be of help to each other.

maybe i'm too idealistic!

Drew said...

Hi Justin,

I don't know you... friends of friends... but my wife and I have been very much struck by your bonhoeffer quotes. Where's a good place to start reading his work?

Tom said...

Justin,

Seems to me the Acts 2 church is a good model in some ways and in other ways is a unique event in time. In 2 Thes Paul warns against those who are idle, which I take to mean sponging off others. He encourages them to follow his example, and makes a point that he did not eat anyone's food without paying for it. That doesn't sound like an Acts 2 church, even though Paul holds them up as an example for others.

To me, a great church happens when people come together in the spirit of Acts 2 - teaching, fellowship, sharing, praising God, and enjoying the company of fellow believers. But I think it should stop short of selling everything to live on a commune. Sounds too much like being idle to me.

Anonymous said...

The thought that came to mind to me was the 'milk before solid food' that i then read in Jodi's post ... but we should be careful here in distinguishing between the Church as a whole and church as a local community ... it may be apropriate for some local churches to be rebuilding and going through an Acts 2 'state' and we should encourage them to be God's people in that place (without being patronisng), but then trust God to move them to the next place. Needing milk is good and appropriate at the right time for local churches. Just don't be stuck there ... try to move forward appopriately under God's guidance ... which will happen in it's own time.
Jeremy

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts!

i think that within this community of faith (devotion to prayer and God's truth) and action (meeting together and breaking bread together, making sure that everyone had enough and not putting their faith in 'riches' and wealth), that it was a great place for people to really encounter their sinfulness, work on it and be transformed. Not to perfection. But that, in my opinion, is a great place for real healing to be done in people's lives, and for faith to be expressed and grown. I see this as the perfect place for the sinful nature to be addressed. i don;t see them in opposition at all. (response to previous post). THe truth is, we don;t get a picture of the inidividual lives - just the communal life. You'd assume that within the context of prayer and teaching, and sharing with eachother, people really would have had to confront their sinfulness - ie, what they thought about wealth and security / other people. We're just not told about it. SO yeah, I don;t think the Acts2 church had no problems, and did not confront their sinfulness etc. I think that would have to have, we just don;t read about it. SO, it's for me part of a picture - what the church looked like at a particular time - not presciptive, but exciting!

I also question whether the churhc was persecuted at this time. My guess is that individual's did get persecuted - maybe by families who thought they were crazy etc for giving away their wealth ... i don;t know, just a guess, and proabably not right, cause it does say they enjoyed favour with all the people.

It would be really exciting to have been there for those early days, and i guess some of those people would have been there for the days of dissilutionment, and maybe they looked back at the early church days, like the returned exiles looked back on the old temple of Jerusalem when faced with building a sub-standard new temple. ... Haggai 2:3 "Who is left among you who say this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong...work for I am with you..according to the covenant i made with you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit remains in your midst.....The later glory of this house shall be greater than the former ....'

So on we walk with God and eachother .........

RHea

Anonymous said...

While all three points you raise are valid in terms of the context and conditions of the early church, I don’t believe they lead to the conclusion you have reached of “ there is no going back, only forward.” My reason for disagreeing with this conclusion is twofold.

Primarily, I see no problems with the basic characteristics actually outlined in the text of Acts 2. The principles of community established in Acts 2, and echoed in Acts 4 and even in 6 are a community:

•based on worship, the study of scripture, and prayer (v. 42),
•in which the Holy Spirit is working powerfully (v. 43),
•where the physical needs of individuals were met and people shared their possessions, which, interestingly enough sounds a lot like Jesus’ “Love your neighbour as yourself” (v. 45). (Note, when taken with 4:32-35 we see a picture of truly sharing what we have, not blindly selling everything but willing to make sacrifices when necessary for the good of others.)

The resulting characteristics of this community are a group of people filled with praise and with a compelling witness to their society (v. 47).

Interestingly enough, none of these characteristics are clearly detailed with an action plan or set of ways to make it work. Nothing in the principles of community presented in Acts 2 is, in any way, opposed to a multiracial community. Nothing in these characteristics precludes the possibility of persecution and disillusionment. In fact, from the echoes and hints we see of the life of the body of Christ in the epistles, prayer and the study of scripture and the apostles’ teachings, the work of the Holy Spirit, and care for the needy and the brethren continued to define Christian community, or were meant to define the community, even when facing disillusionment and persecution! However, the outworkings of exactly what that looks like clearly must be wrestled with by each new generation of Christians in each new place, which shouldn’t be surprising as God seems to eschew formulas and pat answers. However, the idea that these basic ideas, as a foundation for Christian life and relationships, are somehow limited to one context and situation, or merely a baby-step, seems contrary to the recurring ideas of what God’s chosen people look like (or ought to look like) throughout scripture. When asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life” by the rich young ruler, Jesus’ response was consistent with his other teachings on money, goals, and priorities, as well as the commandments – hopefully we haven’t moved beyond Jesus Himself! (I say this because I know that the concept of personal ownership is drilled into us by our capitalistic culture and, as such, this is often the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings to deal with.

My second problem is perhaps simply a problem of semantics. The idea of moving beyond implies that we have somehow mastered the first step. Perhaps it is merely my own experiences, but it seems that we have a long way to go before we can confidently say we’ve ticked the boxes and we are people defined by deep worship, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and, because of this first two qualities, actively extending God’s love to those around us in real, tangible, and self-sacrificing ways, resulting “God adding daily to those being saved”! Perhaps in order to “move forward” we must first look back and be sure we are getting the basics right.

Justin said...

Michael J --

Re Bishops -- Cheeky. Cheeky.

All my non-episcopalean readers, take no notice.

Justin said...

Nat --

Thanks for commenting. You won't get slammed here. I hope not anyway.

Yes to being uneasy.

Thats what prompted the comment for me. I was nervous about people using Acts 2 as a point of accusation for 'the Beloved'. I think that Acts 2 is a wake up call. I certainly do think that. But ironically, it sometimes [although of course not always] has become the basis for accusation.

Utopian stuff bugs me.

Please comment again, Nat! I love it.

Justin said...

Jodi -

Thanks again. Yes to looking back in order to look forward.

I'm not sure, though, whether its right to say that God was giving them milk, not solid food. They were devoting themselves to the Apostles Teaching etc.

The context for milk/solid food is in Cor and Hebrews. And both contexts about maturity and immaturity.

This is not the Acts 2 community.

Its just that God had something more for them.

We know that because anyone can pick up Acts.

Justin said...

Hi Seapea -

Yes to welcoming whomever. I think that this is in Romans 12:7 [or is it 13].

I'm not sure what you mean by "I disagree with V44". Its not really something to disagree with. Its just what they did -- they shared everything in common.

But you have said what you mean -- you want churches to be places where commonality does not deny wonderful differences.

That, I wholeheartedly agree with!

Thanks.

Justin said...

Drew --

Hi. Welcome. I'm no reader. Just ask the friends of my friends.

But both of the quotes are from "Life Together". That was were I first read any Bonhoeffer.

They are good quotes though. Thanks for noticing.

Justin said...

Tom -

Hi. Yes to the church being both a model AND unique. A good way to put it.

I guess we'll never know if "selling and sharing" everything will work. We'd probably never give it a go!

We know that it doesn't work on a national level -- witness communism and welfare states etc. But in a new community?

Some have tried it, and I guess it has worked sometimes, but not others. Not sure.

I would be wary of bringing in capitalist thinking as a way of deciding what to do, though.

Justin said...

Jeremy -

Nice to see you as a kind of regular.

'Moving Forward under God's guidance'. Thats kind of the story of Acts, isn't it?

Very nicely Put!

Justin said...

Rhea --

Wow. You are right. Because we only get simply a description of the whole church, and a brief one too, we forget that there were real people on the ground!!

What was going on for them??

It would be an argument from silence that individuals were persecuted by familes, had disillusionment etc. But interesting to think about.

And yes -- healing and confronting sin do happen in good, healthy communities that are like Acts 2.

Absolutley.

AND there is more that God has for us [which is my point in the post.]

Thanks Rhea. Keep talking, and we'll end up in Switzerland!

Justin said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by and making comments. Hmmm. I have decided earlier not engage with anonymous posters [bit like letters to the editor of a paper].

Which is a pity. Since your comments are so incredibly thoughtful.

Hmmm.

Are you committed to remaining anonymous? If you are, other people might engage with you.

Or you can email me personally if you'd like to remain anonymous: jmoff at hotmail dot com

But thanks for stopping by!

Justin said...

One more thing re Anonymity.

I engage with anonymous comments if for some reason its obvious that they should remain so. Like they make a private comment express something personal and maybe painful.

But if its adding a voice to the discussion, I'm keen to know who i'm talking to.

Hope thats OK.

Anonymous said...

Alright J! Come to Switzerland 10-20 August. 10 days of beautiful mountains and fresh air. Accomodation on us - just get your self there... but let us know soon as we would need to change our accomodation in this cool area: Chateaux D'Oex
PLEASE COME!
R

Andrew & Jessica said...

Hi Justsin,
The anonymous comment was from me (jessica). I had problems logging in, and then, forgot to sign it since I hadn't planned on being nameless!

Justin said...

Jessica!

Welcome. And I should have guessed it was you by your careful words, fine argument and generous spirit! Glad to have you over here.

I am preparing for Sunday today. So I will only comment on a few things. There is a concession coming, by the way!

I certainly don't mean by 'beyond' that we tick a box and move on. You are right. We have not mastered any of these things. [I'm not sure if they are there to be mastered. But I completely agree with you] ‘Beyond’ is not the right word.

I think the point I wanted to make is here: I think that I’d prefer the Acts 2 community together with what God does in that community after the ideal is described.

I think that I was using ‘beyond’ to simply mean ‘this and the rest’, by which I mean: We need to devote ourselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship , to prayer, the breaking of bread, and sharing what he have with those in need. Anyone who thinks that my post means we don’t now need to gather and devote ourselves to the Bible and express this new faith in new and profound ways has misheard me. And, as you point out --

The outworkings of exactly what that looks like clearly must be wrestled with by each new generation of Christians in each new place...

And those outworkings happen within the narrative of Acts [and the rest of the New Testament]:

The early church community, simply by circumstance and time, had to work out what it meant to be Christ’s body when Gentiles were allowed in [that’s the issue with Romans and Galatians etc.], when persecution took place [Hebrews, Revelation etc] and when disappointment came in [Esp. 1 and 2 Corinthians].

I need both.

I think that I have the same problem when people say -- ‘You just got to get back to Jesus and not get into all this Paul stuff’. There is no Jesus without Paul. Not for Gentiles, that is.

Now here is where I concede -- I would not want to say: We need to go beyond Jesus! But in a sense, we still need Jesus together with the gospel being worked out in a Gentile setting. That is, unless we say that we don’t want eternal life.

I’ve just read over that. And it appears in order. But let me know if there is anything that makes no sense. And I’ll have another shot on my Monday.

Luke Collings said...

It is important that we at this point in history don't attempt to take the church right back to its beginnings. I think that others have said just about everything as to why this can't be justified biblically. Perhaps the only other point is that if the church was at its high-water mark in Acts 2, it doesn't say much for the provision of the Holy Spirit if He has let things slide...

On the other hand, there is a responsibility for the church to be guided in their teaching and interpretation of the Bible by the same Faith as the apostles. Paul is reminded of Timothy's "sincere faith" that was first in his mother and grandmother in 1 Tim 1, and encourages Timothy to keep this faith alive in himself before instructing him how to pass this faith on others. If we must take anything from the church of Acts 2 (a church 2000 years ago in a completely different social and ethnic context), it is we must be united to this same rule of faith without concessions to concepts like "reason", "progress", and "unity", which have played havoc with the church over the centuries.

Luke Collings said...

Sorry, that should have been 2 Timothy 1.

mandy said...

Interesting to read everyone's thoughts. The only thing I would add is in reference to v. 47: "The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved". Unfortunetly this is something that just isn't happening in the majority of churches today...(at least in the West!!)

People may defend today's church by saying "it was a special time in history". But I think in many ways the Acts 2 community had a lot of things right, especially in the way that people were constantly coming into relationships with Christ through being folded into their community.

This is something we definetly need to "go back to" - sadly, we're a long way from actually moving beyond it in this respect.

Giraffe Pen (기린 만년필) said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Justin said...

Mandy.

Hi. Welcome.

Yes. We have a long way to go.

One quick question, and one comment(honest ones):

1. Do you think that by my saying that God had something more for the church than simply the Acts 2 community that some are defending today's church? Like -- that was unique, so we an get off the hook for not being evangelistic and folding thousands into the community?

[I certainly don't mean it as justification for lazy church! -- a point I make in the post.]

2. I want thousands into churches too! But first, how would we 'go back' to that? God was doing it. That is clear by the phrase: "The Lord added...". Its not something we can 'go back to'. Its only something God can do.

And second, I'm wondering if right now, millions are being added by God to 'their number' (not just thousands!). I wonder if we had a more global view of the world -- like including Nigeria -- whether we might say that Acts 2 was not big enough (!!) with regards to new believers being folded in! :)

I'm being a touch cheeky. Because I certainly take your point: each church cannot be lazy with the gospel, nor with community! And you fear that they are...

Is that right?

mandy said...

OK, attempted answers...

1. Maybe my comments were not entirely related to the point of your post, but when I read it I couldn't help asking myself the question "what are we NOT doing/what is NOT happening that was within the Acts 2 community? I guess my rationale is - read the Bible not just as a book with a message, but also a method. Thus, when reading Acts 2 I have always been challenged with the idea of numbers being added "daily" to those being saved.

2. Yes, only something God can do, but he CHOOSES to NEED faithful followers to do it.

Yes, millions are being saved which is very exciting (take China for example!)
But again, it is the word "daily" for the individual Western church that is the challenge. I wonder 1)why we think we can "feed" off sharing the gospel/reaching one person for weeks/months or even years, feeling like we've done our job (of course I include myself) and 2)whether we think it is still possible for people to be added to our number DAILY.

3. Yes, maybe lazy at times...but maybe to an even greater degree we're just not being smart enough in the way we try to reach out to outsiders (just a thought...). Maybe the method of the Acts 2 community could again be learnt from (??)

All written in love of course...

byron said...

Mandy,
If there were new believers daily being added to a congregation of say three thousand or so, then that is (at minimum) 2 per day (since 'believers', plural) = 730 annually = average of one convert per believer per four and a bit years. Daily growth, but not necessarily every believer daily seeing a new convert from amongst their fam and friends. Though I guess we also need to factor in the size of Jerusalem at the time (anyone got any ideas? I think I've heard approx 30-50,000 (NB means they v quickly hit 10%! Let the Sydney reader understand)). Anyway, just some basic thoughts.

Drew, I just read a little Bonhoeffer essay called 'After Ten Years', which was basically a theological reflection upon the ethics of attempting to assassinate a dictator (if you read between the lines just a little, but only a little), written within weeks or months of his failed attempt on Hitler. Really gives you a feeling for his 'situation' ethics and a great read!

But to finally contribute to the Acts 2 debate itself, a certain bishop of Durham has a suggestion that we read this narrative as the opening acts of a play in which we are to improvise the final scenes. Thus, we must learn from the earlier scenes about the plot and characterisation (of God, Jesus, HS, ourselves, etc), but not attempt to repeat those scenes from earlier acts/Acts. While this bishop applies this idea more broadly to the entire Bible, I'm quite comfortable with this model for at least Acts, as a helpful way through the prescriptive/descriptive impasse.

byron said...

MPJ, no bishops? If they had eucharist and baptism then there surely must have already been bishops; they wouldn't have made such a glaring, ahem, oversight...

Though seriously, there was Peter, of course...

mandy said...

byron,

thanks...but seriously, you can make statistics to prove virtually anything!!

Megs said...

i particularly liked your initial comments in point 3 - about Christian community being a place embracing disillusionment, disappointment, despair, the most awful things in life ... in which Jesus meets us, in pain, on the cross......

wouldn't it be good if Christian community were all about that, without the pressure to look good and have everything together?

Dan said...

Hey J Man

Thanks - I've enjoyed reading your posts about community.

I've got to lead a church houseparty on the topic of "Community" and would be interested in hearing more of your thoughts......

can you send me an email so I can contact you separately?

BTW - Your postings about Bonhoeffer have made me go out an put an order of "Life Together". Its waiting for me at Koorong but I'm keen to hear more from you before I hand over my money!

Drew said...

Well you are clever. I must point out that the positive characteristics of Acts II are what advance the Kingdom of God. Acts II is a turning point and a beginning. Maybe slightly too much straw dog. There has to be a demarcation. Frankly, Stephen's death is a different emphasis as is Peter's dream.

Justin said...

Good afternoon Drew from Kentucky!

Thanks for stopping by. I posted this two years ago!

I agree with the first part of your post(esp. the bit about me being clever):

Well you are clever. I must point out that the positive characteristics of Acts II are what advance the Kingdom of God. Acts II is a turning point and a beginning.

But I don't understand this part:

Maybe slightly too much straw dog. There has to be a demarcation. Frankly, Stephen's death is a different emphasis as is Peter's dream.

What is a straw dog? What lines of demarcation are you thinking needs to be drawn. How is a death a different emphasis to a dream?

I'd like to understand what you mean?

Samuel Lago said...

I think episcopalians would argue that it doesn't matter that there weren't any bishops as there were APOSTLES...