A true confession: I am guilty of romanticizing the early church—a lot, not a little. Long ago, during the Jesus Movement, I fell in love with the first five chapters of Acts. (My favorite band was even The 2nd Chapter of Acts). I loved the promise of Pentecost and power one high—the miracles, and the extraordinary love for one another.
When I read of Pentecost and the weeks following, I thought, “Wow, they have both holiness and power!” The “both” caught my attention because I was a 4th generation member of The Church of the Nazarene. Their distinctive doctrine focused on the power of the Spirit to entirely sanctify us and remove our bent toward sin. When I looked at the love and unity of the early church in Acts 2, I saw holiness.
Partly because of the Jesus Movement, I noticed that there wasn’t just purity of heart in Acts 2, there was power. In fact, when talking about Pentecost, Jesus told His disciples “you shall receive power when Holy Spirit is come upon you”. Power! In the Nazarene tradition that power was understood as sanctifying power—the strength to live holy lives. But it was hard to ignore that in Acts, the power to heal was an important engine for church growth.
Most importantly, I made a fundamental shift in my hermeneutical approach to Acts. I had always approached Acts as merely a history of the early church. But what if, I asked, Acts was not just an account of what was, but a picture of what ought to be. What if Acts is normative and not just descriptive? As a thought experiment, I removed from Acts everything that was an expression or a result of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Almost nothing was left.
I quickly made the power and purity of the New Testament Church the goal of my heart, and even my life. The power emphasized by the Pentecostals and charismatics would, I thought, be joined to the holiness message of the Nazarenes. We could reject the false choice between the fruit of the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit. We would seek to express both the character and the ministry of Jesus. With another former Nazarene, I helped start a small gathering of the church dedicated to being as “New Testament” as possible.
It turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. Much prayer did not turn into much power. Purity of heart was more elusive than one prayer of consecration. Dying daily to self, it turned out, was daily. And then there were, over the years, some scandals, some divorces, and some fakery among the groups with which I fellowshipped.
So, I have returned to Acts with different eyes—perhaps eyes both weary and wary. I have read chapter six where the Hellenistic Jews and the traditional Jews were complaining of discrimination in the care of widows. Wait! Are these the same folks who in chapter two had all things in common? Who in chapter four “were of one heart and soul”? I had seldom thought much about this eruption of division. I had usually skipped to the next part of chapter six that tells of the deacon, Stephen, who performed “great signs and wonders among the people.” Stephen’s story, and Phillip’s in chapter eight were proof that the power of the Spirit was not just for apostles or some “apostolic age.”
Even more disconcerting was the strife between Jewish and Gentile believers. Both, I assume, were baptized in the Holy Spirit, so why didn’t that instantly bring unity and revelation of God’s will? Why did Paul have to warn the churches against the Judaizers in so many of his letters? Paul romanticized nothing. In a farewell address to a gathering of elders, Paul urges them to be on guard:
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:29—30
Today such talk would make Paul of little demand as a speaker at pastor conferences.
And there are also the little endnotes in Paul’s letters where he mentions those causing problems for the church. And all of II Corinthians where Paul is forced argue for his apostleship. And even the split between Paul and Barnabas over whether to take Mark with them.
Many years ago when my father was pastoring a Nazarene church, his patience was sorely tried by some mean and petty board members who, none-the-less, claimed to be saved and sanctified. He called his father, who also had been a pastor and asked, “Dad, what does sanctification do for a person?” My grandfather, who had seen Nazarenes from the earliest days of the denomination, simply said, “It helps.” In my youth I would have protested, “It should do a lot more than that!” Now, I think, “We need all the help we can get.”
One of my favorite stories from Acts was the story of Peter being delivered from prison by an angel. This is a great text for sermons on the power of God to set us free. We are also told the church was earnestly praying for Peter’s deliverance, so it is also a good text for sermons on the power of prayer. What I usually skipped was what came a couple verses before in Acts 12:1—2:
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church
intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with
For obvious reasons, this verse doesn’t inspire many sermons, which is okay. It is healthy to hope for angelic visitations and earthquakes like the one that set Paul and Silas free in Acts. However, we must include the murder of James in our story of the early church. I am sure the church prayed for the deliverance of James just like they did for Peter. This verse, I am afraid, is also a lesson about prayer.
I am still committed to seeking the purity and power of the New Testament church, but I am more open to structures that try to mitigate the problems the church has always faced. However, if the cure for problems in the church is denominational structures, we must make certain the cure is not worse than the disease. The structures must be a means to an end—not an end in themselves. And certainly, we have seen among both Catholics and Protestants that church structures can hide and even enable predatory leaders. Sadly, denominations that grow out a move of God, years later oppose God’s next visitation.
And yes, I still believe that holiness is the answer to many church disruptions, feuds, and troubles. Leaders living a crucified life would end many of the problems that plague the church. Hower, a careful reading of Acts and Paul’s epistles reveals there will always be scandals, disappointments, false teachers, and exploitive leaders. So I am not singing, “Give me that old-time religion”.
My personal answer comes from John 21:20—22. Jesus, appearing after his resurrection, had just told Peter, “Follow me.” Peter looks around and sees John and asks Jesus, “Lord, what about him.” Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Like Peter, I have often asked God about this leader or that leader, or even why God healed one person and let another die.
Jesus’ answer is always the same, “Follow me.” It would be nice to do this alone in a cabin near an Oregon beach. But every time I start following Jesus, I end up back with His people. I always run into His command that we love one another as He has loved us. He loved us when we were still sinners, when we had failed and betrayed him. He washed the feet of all his disciples, even Judas.
I choose to follow Jesus through all the troubles of the church. I accept that God’s field is sown by His good seed and that the tares were sown by His enemy. I leave the tares to God. I am not going to abandon God because of what His enemy has done.
Many fail. Much fails. But loving God and His people never fails to be the right choice, even when our hearts are broken. If the church is reduced to ruins, you will find my tent pitched in the rubble.