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The Church ~ Healthy Body Life
Luke's Vision for Church Life in Acts

People often view the Acts of the Apostles as a book about "going and telling"—a book that describes the spread of witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. But Acts is also about "going and gathering." Everywhere the Gospel was preached new churches were formed. Luke, the author of Acts, is usually referred to as a doctor and historian, but he also helped Paul plant churches, and Paul called Luke his dear friend and fellow worker.1 It would make sense then to think that Luke, like Paul, had convictions about church life. Luke said much about the church in Acts. Yet, we tend to go to Paul for instructions on the church. After all Paul wrote primarily to churches. We often turn to Acts more for the history of the early church and to fit Paul's letters to the churches into its timeline; but, in doing so, we may miss that Luke was more than a historian. He was a theologian, a church planter, and an active churchman with definite beliefs about what life together should look like in a congregation of Christ's followers.

Luke made his convictions about church life especially clear in Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; and 5:12-16, commonly referred to as the summary narratives. These three paragraphs describe the good things happening in the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem, which for a period of time was the only church anywhere in the world. Later in Acts Luke described church life in the newly planted Gentile churches. He gave special attention to church life in Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3), Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26; 19:1-20; 20:17-38), and Troas (Acts 20:7-12). These latter passages repeatedly echo the qualities of church life first introduced in the summary narratives. This repetition of exemplary traits, during the transition from a Jewish context to the developing Gentile context, demonstrates the cross-cultural continuity of these core values of healthy church life.

Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35, and 5:12-16 depict an exemplary fellowship in Jerusalem in which the members were filled with the Holy Spirit and submitted to the apostles' teaching. They were deeply connected to each other and got together often. They shared their meals and their lives with each other and experienced a profound unity. They prayed together. They gave sacrificially to meet the needs of those who were impoverished. They lived in the fear of the Lord. They testified to the resurrection of Jesus with great power, and people were saved daily. Great grace from God rested on the church in Jerusalem. The church blessed its city and found favor with the people.

Believers are regularly drawn to Luke's portraits of ideal church life in the summary narratives and are inspired by them to pursue God's best for their own churches. This is exactly the kind of response Luke wanted to provoke with them. Luke composed the summary narratives in order to capture the imaginations of readers by casting a vision for what life together in the body of Christ could be. However, in many scholarly works on the book of Acts, the summary narratives are underemphasized and even ignored as a resource for understanding Luke's theology of church life.

The historical-critical method deserves much of the blame for this gap in scholarship on Acts. This method assumed that the earliest church was rife with division. New Testament books like Acts that show the church working out her differences and experiencing unity were believed to have been written much later and were, therefore, historically unreliable. Also, Luke's summarizing comments on church life appear to some to be mere editorial seams between concrete episodes. The historical-critical method views these narrator comments as unhistorical additions made much later to idealize the development of the early church. These critical approaches undermined confidence in the historical reliability and authority of the book of Acts by cutting the summary narratives off from their literary context in the larger narrative of Acts, causing interpreters to miss their contribution to the theology of Acts as a whole. This weakness can be seen in the tendency of many commentaries on Acts to omit church life as a major Lukan theme.

We need to read Acts first through the lens of first century Greco-Roman history writing, rather than a skeptical historical-critical method. When we do, we see that Luke, like other first century historians, was educated in classical rhetoric, as well as historiography. Luke's education taught him how to use the Greek language in persuasive speech-making and in writing history.2 His story of the birth and expansion of the Christian movement is not a dispassionate recounting of facts. Luke was passionately devoted to Jesus Christ and wanted to communicate His Gospel convincingly to readers. He exploited his training in rhetoric to craft his portraits of exemplary church life in Jerusalem in a persuasive way too.

The disciplines of narrative and rhetorical analysis focus on literary aspects of the book of Acts and help us analyze Luke's narrative style in order to understand how he sought to persuade readers with his vision of ideal church life. Narrative analysis considers how the formal features of narrative discourse work together to convey meaning. Rhetorical analysis focuses on the persuasive effect an author sought to have on readers through his discourse.3 Luke utilized the narrative technique of summarization, modified to suit his own rhetorical purposes, to present his portraits of the Jerusalem church in an exemplary way.

All narratives alternate between showing and telling.4 When a writer shows, his narrator is hidden behind the interaction of characters and the action of the story. When a writer tells, he steps forward through his narrator to comment on his story. Summaries are a form of telling. Summaries also connect scenes together in a narrative work. With summaries an author can speed up the time of the story and convey the sense that much is happening in a brief discourse space. Luke used the summary technique in this way in his summary narratives to convey the dynamism of the Jerusalem church as they regularly practiced the exemplary behaviors described in them.

Luke chose to highlight the positive aspects of life in the Jerusalem church in the summary narratives, which I believe is the key to their purpose and to understanding Luke's rhetorical strategy in them. Luke did not ignore the many problems the Jerusalem church had to contend with, which he addressed in surrounding episodes. The church in Jerusalem struggled with duplicity (Acts 5:1-11), discrimination (Acts 6:1-7), persecution by the Jews (Acts 6:8-8:3) and the Romans (Acts 12:1-24), prejudice (Acts 10:2-3), and with doctrinal disputes (Acts 15:1-6). However, in choosing to emphasize only positive activity in the summary narratives, Luke utilized a rhetorical device well known in his day called an exemplum.

The Greek term for exemplum is paradeigma, which can also be rendered "paradigm" or "example."5 In classical rhetoric, exemplars were used as examples that helped prove a point, or as illustrations of behavior to be imitated or rejected. Ancient historians frequently employed them in their writing out of the belief that, in addition to informing, history should promote virtue and moral character through examples that instructed readers.6 New Testament authors regularly utilized Israel's history both positively and negatively as examples for the faith of readers (see Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:6; Hebrews 3:16-19). Luke's noble Bereans are an example of a positive exemplum (Acts 17:10-11). Paul's reference to Cretans as liars, brutes, and gluttons was apparently a well- known negative exemplum in his day (Titus 1:12). In Greek literature, an exemplary person or deed and its consequences needed to be worthy of commemoration by readers who were urged to imitate and even surpass the deeds of the exemplary subject.7

In Acts the portraits of Jerusalem church life in the summary narratives are presented in an exemplary way for readers to learn from and imitate. However, there is a significant difference between the secular use of the exemplum and Luke's use of the device in Acts. Secular writers encouraged readers to imitate an exemplary person by the strength of their own determination and resolve. Luke's first portrait of church life in Acts 2:42-47 appears immediately on the heels of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-41). This demonstrates Luke's conviction that the Holy Spirit gives birth to the church and that the power for exemplary church life results from the filling with the Holy Spirit as believers follow and proclaim the risen Jesus (Acts 1:8; 2:4; 4:31).

While at least twenty marks of exemplary church life can be gleaned from the summary narratives (see sidebar), four seem to predominate.

First, Luke's portraits begin with submission to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42). No account of Luke's theology of church life can ignore the authoritative role of the apostles' teachings and, later, their writings in the faith and life of the church. Even the emphasis on signs and wonders through the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12, 15-16) highlights their special role as Jesus' appointed leaders in the church.

Second, the believers shared their meals and their lives. The shared meal was one of the core relational activities in the church in Acts (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11). There is something about eating together that allows believers to enter each other's lives in a deeper way.

Third, the problem of poverty was addressed among the believers. The grace of God at work in their lives led these early believers to give sacrificially to meet each other's needs (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32, 34-35).

Fourth, the church witnessed boldly to the resurrection of Jesus, and people were regularly saved and added to their number (Acts 2:47; 4:33). The growth of the church did not mean that joining was easy. The risk of persecution associated with being identified with the apostles frightened some people away (Acts 5:13). Nevertheless, multitudes joined anyway, in spite of the risk to their safety (Acts 5:14).

Baptists strive to take the biblical pattern for the local church seriously as they wrestle with how to form their own churches according to New Testament teachings. Luke's voice on the church needs to be restored to the conversation. Like the other New Testament writers, Luke was a part of the early church to which believers everywhere are heirs. We need to hear his convictions about church life anew, as we follow Jesus together in local churches today.

 

  1. See Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16 for places in Acts where Luke traveled with Paul. See Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24;
    2 Timothy 4:11 for Paul's assessment of his partnership with Luke.
  2. For insight into what Luke might have encountered in his rhetorical training see, Mikeal C. Parsons, "Luke and the Progymnasmata: A Preliminary
    Investigation Into the Preliminary Exercises," in Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse, ed. T. C. Penner and C. V.
    Stichele (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 43-63. Also see Philip E. Satterthwaite, "Acts Against the Background of Classical
    Rhetoric," in The Book of Acts in Its Literary Setting, ed. B. W. Winter and A. D. Clarke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), 337-339.
  3. Dennis L. Stamps, "Rhetorical and Narratological Criticism," in Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament, ed. S. E. Porter (Leiden: Brill
    Academic Publishers, 2002), 220-221.
  4. Ancient writers like Plato (Resp. 392-394) and Aristotle (Poet. 1448, 1455, 1460) spoke of all narrative discourse broadly in terms of
    "showing" (mimesis) and "telling" (diegesis). See Irene J. F. De Jong, "Aristotle on the Homeric Narrator," Classical Quarterly 55, 2 (2005):
    620-621.
  5. David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox,
    2003), 173.
  6. Polybius 12.25. Also see ibid., 3.31.11-13; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 1.2.1; 5.56.1; Thucydides, Hist. 1.22.4. On the use of the
    exemplum in Luke's day see, Kristoffel Demoen, "A Paradigm for the Analysis of Paradigms: The Rhetorical Exemplum in Ancient and Imperial
    Greek Theory," Rhetorica 15, 2 (Spring 1997): 125-58.
  7. Matthew B. Roller, "Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Examples of Horatio Cocles and Cloelia," Classical Philology 99, 1 (2004): 4-6.

Marks of Exemplary Church Life
In his forthcoming book, Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts, Chambers identified twenty-four marks of exemplary church life. He summarized these marks into a list of twenty cross-cultural traits of healthy church life. Listed below are eleven of these qualities of a thriving church.

  1. An exemplary church calls people to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, demonstrated by baptism.
  2. An exemplary church deliberately assimilates new believers into the fellowship.
  3. An exemplary church submits itself to the authority of Scripture.
  4. Believers in an exemplary church meet together regularly and share in each other's lives.
  5. An exemplary church regularly participates in the Lord's Supper and centers its life on the Gospel it represents.
  6. An exemplary church commits to praying together.
  7. An exemplary church maintains reverence and the fear of the Lord.
  8. An exemplary church testifies boldly to the resurrection of Jesus.
  9. In an exemplary church believers give generously to meet each other's needs.
  10. An exemplary church cares for its city.
  11. An exemplary church earns the respect of its neighbors.

They Loved Their City
Acts 2:47 says that the believers had favor with all the people. However, the phrase can be rendered another way too. The phrase charin pros holon ton laon means "grace with (or toward) all the people." The preposition pros can be translated "with" or "toward." Most modern translations choose "with" and understand Luke to be saying that the believers had favor "with" the people of Jerusalem. This is an accurate rendering of the text and the situation (see Acts 5:13). However, Luke could also have meant that the believers had grace "toward" the people of Jerusalem. I think the latter translation has great merit for three reasons.

One, the word charin (grace or favor) appears with the preposition pros only here in the New Testament. However, this construction occurs at least nine times outside the New Testament in Josephus and Philo. In each instance the object of the preposition is always the person(s) toward whom the good will (charin) is directed. Thus, the people of Jerusalem are the ones toward whom the good will of the church was directed.

Two, the consistent focus of the first summary narrative (Acts 2:42-47) is on the exemplary behavior of church members toward others. It makes sense for Luke to retain this "other-centeredness" quality in his description of healthy church life. As the people of God loved their city, they found favor in return.

Three, God loves the city. The Bible speaks of the pilgrimage of God's people as a journey toward the city of the living God (Hebrews 12:22). God had compassion on Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). He told His people in exile to seek the welfare of the city where they were going (Jeremiah 29:7). If we have God's heart, we will love our cities too.1 When God's people love their cities with the compassion of Christ, it is a natural response for them to find favor with all the people.

  1. For more on this translation issue, see T. D. Andersen, "The Meaning of EXONTES XARIN PROS in Acts 2:47," New Testament Studies 34, 4
    (1988): 604–610.

 


Andy Chambers is a member of West County Community Church in St. Louis, Missouri; vice-chair of the SBC Committee on Order of Business; and senior vice-president for student development and professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University. Adapted from his forthcoming B&H Academic book, Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts.

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December 2011 Edition
Volume 20, Issue 2
December 2011