As I am reading Total Church, it is really getting my gears working. This morning I was thinking back to a topic that I frequently mull over, the Acts of the Apostles and how it (and other depictions of the early church) apply to us today.
I think if most people are honest, they will admit that there is an enormous disconnect between what we see in Scripture and what we practice in the church, at least in America and the former realms of Christendom. It is impossible to see it otherwise. The early church in the days of the apostles was a day of explosive growth amidst unbelievable persecution. In Acts 8:3 we read that Christians were having their doors kicked down and were dragged off to prison for the crime of being a follower of Christ. Along with persecution the church almost immediately faced false teachers, gross sin, and divisiveness. At the same time growth in the church was exploding, miracles were performed and the world was being changed. The more severe the persecution, the more the church seemed to expand. We haven’t seen anything like that on such a scale since the Reformation era.
Most of us can’t even fathom living like that and that might be in part why we have such a hard time applying Acts to the church. We see so little persecution and experience nothing like the movement of the Spirit that the early church experienced. It seems so foreign, so alien even, that it begins to seem irrelevant to church today, in our culture and context. Acts and the other accounts of the early church have been relegated to mere historical records that are not directly applicable to church practice today. I think it is dangerous to disregard Acts as an interesting story. Clearly the church is the tangible manifestation of the Gospel at work. Unbelievers should be able to see in Christians the fruit of the Gospel proclamation, not in organizations or buildings or people thanking Jesus for hitting a home run but in lives markedly changed. Careful study of the Scriptures can reveal to us important principles recorded for all time that have immediate and direct applicability for the church that are universal and timeless. I think the key is to avoid either dismissiveness or wooden literalism. Either extreme is going to cause trouble.
We are a people called out from the world and that calling is more than being told to go on living as we were before, concerned with the cares of the world, but with an added bonus of a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Without Scriptural guidance, it is pretty hard to figure out what that looks like. We have seen the results of making it up in our own wisdom in the form of 1700 years of empty religious rituals coupled a perverse blend of church and state that has given us our current hybrid cultural Christianity. I have a hard time reading Acts and looking around at the state of the church and believing that God intended this pivotal book to be strictly descriptive.
It is not enough to be proponents of Sola Scriptura only where we find it practical. Unless we are willing to apply the Scriptural treatment of the church in the same way we do justification, we will continue to see the church stumbling along, even in the most theologically conservative corners, mired in a failed religious system. It is important to note that God has not failed. He still builds His church and He saves His elect. God promised to build His church and that nothing would stand against it, and He has, but that has next to nothing to do with our manmade religious traditions. It is our unfaithfulness and our lack of trust that is at issue. Why do we trust what God has said when it comes to how we are saved and what Christ has done and yet seem so unwilling to exhibit that same trust when we speak of the Bride of Christ and how believers should live and relate to one another and to the world?