With One Accord
Six weeks of Sunday morning Bible study on Acts. Guess how far we got.
As we worked through the text — we covered chaps 1-2 pretty carefully, then bits of 4-6, 10, 15, and highlights of 16-20 — two things stuck out to me: First, neither the apostles nor anyone else had any clue what they were doing. They’re casting lots to identify the replacement apostle; they don’t prepare in advance the most important sermon ever preached, yet it turns out to be the most successful one ever (3000 baptisms sounds pretty successful); they can’t get all the hungry people fed in chap 6, so some “grumble”; it takes a persecution to get them out of Jerusalem (as Jesus had instructed in 1:8); Peter refuses to eat the pigs-in-a-blanket, even though heaven commands him to, and then the Holy Spirit pours out on Gentiles even before his sermon gets to the baptism part; At times the Holy Spirit pushes them in one direction, at others the Spirit prevents them from going where they thought they should go. They argue and fight, and yet the Spirit keeps dragging them along. The apostles and the church had no clue what they were doing. But the Spirit did, and the Word of the Lord continued to grow.
Second, it is pretty clear that as the Spirit dragged the church along, from a human perspective they were making all this up as they went. There was no constitution, catechism (yes, teaching; but no standard, memorizable catechism), church order, hymnal, bylaws, nor even unspoken set of rules to govern what they did nor how they formed themselves, or, more accurately, were formed into church. Do we let the Gentiles in? The answer seems obvious to us now, but in Acts 10-15 it did not. In fact, it didn’t seem obvious to those who received the Apostle’s letters to Rome and Galatia and Philippi and Ephesus (both Ephesians and 1 Timothy). How do we take care of the poor? There was a lot of debate about that (see Acts 5 and 6), but they made sure all were cared for. In our day, though, it doesn’t seem at all obvious that we should make sure that those in our congregations have their physical needs met. We’re more likely, in our Americanized version of The Way, to blame others for their own lack of daily bread, or to leave it to others to care for them. It seemed obvious to the apostles that they should meet, regularly, in the Temple courts in Jerusalem; we couldn’t possibly imagine having anything to do with the Temple. Some who preached the Gospel message seemed to be paid for it, others insisted that they not be paid. Yet we have come to define a “pastor” not only as someone who carries out the ministry of the Word, but, in addition, is paid, full time–with benefits at a guaranteed level–for his work. As if ordination was the bestowal of a union card. How many sermons have you heard (or preached) on this text:
“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:33-35)
Take a look at who said that, and in what context. You might have preached on 1 Cor 9 a few weeks ago, but you probably didn’t preach the entire chapter, especially 9:1-18.
Now, my point in all this is not that we should blow everything up and “go back” to the “primitive church.” We have enough silliness with “house churches” that bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything that was going on in Acts or the Pauline letters. American “house churches” (the term itself does not accurately translate the Greek) are simply a reflection of our me-centric, privatized religious experience. But, we must admit, the typical Lutheran congregation with its bylaws, constitution, and tax-exempt, 501c3 status is also a reflection of 20th century American religious experience. That is not to say that either one is inherently “right” or “wrong” or “biblical” or “cultural.” The point is that we have been making church up all along. Which is inevitable, even necessary. Sometimes we do so in accord with the Spirit’s will, sometimes the Spirit has to drag us into new directions, even against our will. What “church” looks like is different in the 1st century than it was in the 5th, 15th, and 20th. It is different in Russia, China, Africa, South America, and Peoria. It is not “better” or “more biblical” because they were doing something in the 3rd, or even the 1st century. Just as it is not “better” or “more biblical” just because we do it. What is “biblical” is to submit to Christ as Lord and to live as his body. Which requires humility. Because if it were up to us, we would be as clueless as were the apostles.
A cartoon forwarded to me last week sums up some of the hubris that we often have about the way that we “do church” [click on the picture to view]:
[This image comes from the “St Thomas the Doubter Church” blog; while I haven’t listened to and read everything on the blog (obviously), it has some insightful (albeit cutting) commentary in its cartoons.]
So how about a little humility when it comes to church? How about not assuming that we have everything figured out? How about being open to having the Spirit spank us around once in a while, so that He can push us in the directions that the Lord of the Church is taking us? What would happen if we, like the church of Acts 15, gathered, shared what the Spirit is doing, turned to the Word, and admitted that we were wrong? Perhaps then we could be “of one accord” (15:25).
Two of my colleagues, two of the world’s foremost scholars of the Lutheran Confessions, Robert Kolb and Chuck Arand, put this very well from a confessional perspective:
[R Kolb and C P Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology. A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 13.]
Luther’s reminder that God calls Christians in the midst of a sinful world to turn from their mistakes, failures, and disobedience each day of their lives reminds theologians of their need to return to Scripture continually to check out whether they are faithfully reproducing God’s message. This is true not only because students of God’s Word can make false formulations but also because Satan’s deceptions take so many forms and God’s gift of humanity has so many facets. In different situations and in confrontation with various forms of evil, God’s message for a fallen world takes on new and different expressions. The unchangeable truths of Scripture must be proclaimed to specific human beings in their specific environments as the gospel addresses their realities and brings its power to change those realties through forgiveness and the promise of new life in Christ. God’s Word not only describes reality but also creates it.
“With one accord”: living under the Lordship of Christ, submitting to him and his word and committing to one another as the people among whom Christ’s reign–his kingdom–is manifest in the world. The Word creates this reality. Let’s keep listening.