10 reasons why Acts is normative

10 reasons why Acts is normative February 19, 2013

One major source of the differences seen in the church today I outlined in my Charismatic-Cessationist Spectrum are differing approaches to the book of Acts. Some say it is merely a descriptive book to tell us the story of the growth of the early Church. Others say it is prescriptive, giving us an idealised model of what church life should be like, it is in other words “normative.”  That does not mean that churches will always look like this, but it does mean that this is a model to aspire to.  It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am in the latter group! Indeed this belief is partly why I believe prophecy is for today that somehow didn’t make it into my 25 reasons post.

  1. All biblical narrative is intended to be instructive for us today.  If Paul can say of the events of the Old Testament “these things took place as examples for us.” (1 Corinthians 10:6) how much more the events of the New
  2. If we are not intended to learn lessons about how to do church from the book of Acts then how are we to understand “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).  Should that be re-written to say “all except the narrative bits”?
  3. God designed the Bible to be mostly a narrative for a reason. Throughout history more people have been so-called “oral learners” who relate better to stories, and truth be told even those of us who think we have outgrown them are actually still heavily influenced by stories, as the success of Holywood demonstrates.
  4. Jesus promised his disciples something “better” than having him with them, and there is no hint that we are now second class citizens to the disciples, in fact we are all in a kingdom where the least of us is in a better position than John the Baptist! How bizarre to think that God would dangle a vision of church life in front of us, then snatch it away.
  5. The fact that by around 300AD church life looked very different from the book of Acts means nothing, since we believe that the church should be restored to the teachings of the New Testament, why not the practices?
  6. Pragmatically other models of church government have been invented and largely failed. The organic yet well led picture we have of church life in Acts is something that is tried too rarely.
  7. Churches are surely not meant to be either wholy independent from each other, nor part of some dominating hierarchy. Acts offers us a better way where major strides can take place spontaneously (Eg the way that the Antioch church began) but leadership and mutual service of churches is a regular feature. Traveling ministries of apostles and prophets bind the churches together into a family.
  8. Luke writes what is almost an idealised account of the churches early years. It is strange indeed that few if any mistakes are included in the narrative if what he is writing is not “see this is how it is done…”  Remember that all the mistakes of the Old Testament saints are recorded, why does Luke largely not do that?
  9. Luke seems to be writing at a time when the future of Paul’s ministry is far from certain, and appears to be laying down a model for those that will come after him.
  10. Luke does not end the book by explaining that things in the church would now be different as the original apostles had departed, and nowhere does the Bible propose a future essentially without the Spirit.  Far from it, Paul challenges us “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)

It is fair to say that the above views have previously been a bit of a minority viewpoint. A reader on Twitter recently asked what non-cessationist commentaries on Acts I was aware of. Thanks to another reader, I was thrilled to read the introduction to Ben Witherington’s commentary, in which he argues that Acts, broadly speaking, is indeed normative. Here are a few truncated quotes to get you interested:

  • “There is no hint that Luke takes the so-called apostolic age as somehow unique and unrepeatable”
  • “Luke believed that God continued to act in his own day in a similar fashion…[to that] portrayed in Acts”
  • “Receiving the Spirit and water baptism are never simply identified in Acts” –
  • “Luke believes a person is not a fully-fledged Christian if they’ve not yet received the Holy Spirit”

Read the rest of the introduction and buy the book here:   http://amzn.to/12X1gXH

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  • Murray

    OK – I hope you aren’t going to worship in a building this Sunday. See you either at someone’s home or at the local synagogue.

  • Jim

    The thing that many people miss about Acts is that it is a narrative but it also has some of the earliest sermons. It not only tells us what the early church did but also what they believed.

  • Nathan

    It seems like you’re saying that the book of Acts is instructive rather than prescriptive. It also seems like anyone who would consider the book of Acts as ‘descriptive’ would agree with the majority of your views listed here (the ones that describe Acts as Instructive, anyway. Perhaps a third category, or a clearer categorisation of ‘Descriptive’, ‘Instructive’, for understanding Acts is needed? One that acknowledges that while the book of Acts is an historical account (Descriptive) it also has a lot to teach us about how church is to function (Instructive), especially helpful in church planting or frontier missions situation, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Normative given that it did occur at a specific historical time and is therefore unrepeatable. Not to mention that we don’t have Apostles (at least not in the same sense as Peter, Paul, etc.) and it was a unique time in Redemptive history, almost a transition period, where we see the gospel spreading from the Jews to the Gentiles (an unrepeatable act given that the church is largely ‘Gentile’). There are simply to many historical issues to consider Acts to be Normative, like all narratives they are meant to be instructive, as we compare what happened with what the Bible reveals about how things should be carried out (e.g. Comparing church government in Acts to Paul’s teaching about elders and deacons with an understanding that Paul was a frontier missionary & that it can take time to establish a church & train elders). We can learn a lot from Acts but to call it Normative is taking it too far.

  • rosesandcobblestone

    Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians is viewed as a major corrective to that church whose members also viewed the miracles and signs as normative. What did Paul say? After chastizing them for the rampant immorality they tolerated (all the while they were practicing the flashy spiritual gifts) he tells them in the 13th chapter that these things would pass away. What lasts according to Paul? Having the love of God in us and our behavior towards others reflecting this. Christians whose lives of holiness, through sanctification by the Holy Spirit, doing the works of God which demonstrate obedience should be viewed as the higher priority norm, than things that ultimately pass away.

  • AndyWilliamson

    So should 1 Cor 14:1 read “Pursue love and… …forget about the spiritual gifts as prophecy won’t be around much longer”? Paul’s correction to the Corinthian church was to say that love should be the motivation for everything we do, not that spiritual gifts were only here for just the first part of the last days.

  • NS

    Not saying where I stand, but your argument statements don’t really support your conclusion that Acts is a model rather than a description.

    1: “All biblical narrative is intended to be instructive for us today” … “these things took place as examples for us.”
    >Who would argue that Biblical description is not also instructive?
    >Do we still follow all OT examples referred to by Paul? e.g. some examples are there to be learned from and avoided, therefore are not normative models.
    2: ‘“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” … Should that be re-written to say “all except the narrative bits”?’
    >That’s just a plain silly statement. Do you follow the narrative example of Abraham lying about his wife? Or Solomon having concubines? Or cheating someone into marrying the wrong sister, then the right one? You just can’t argue that if you say that not all narrative is a model to follow it’s being treated as less than inspired.
    3: >Agreed. So what? Adds nothing to this logical argument.
    4: >As 3.
    5: >Are you saying here that all models of churches that aren’t exactly like Acts are wrong? Where is the clear instruction that churches are to mimic the exact C1st model, rather than follow the example to build in a way that is culturally appropriate in all settings, as the early church did in its C1st setting?
    6 and 7: “Pragmatically other models of church government have been invented and largely failed.”
    >I think it’s hard to argue that all non-Acts modelled church structures have ‘failed’ (however you define ‘failed’?!) as some huge ‘succesful’ churches are more like a business structure, and some long lasting denominations have a non Biblical pyramid hierarchy.
    >Nor is the converse of your assertion true, i.e. that all organic NT modelled church structures are guaranteed to succeed. Have you never come across any organic/apostolic/charismatic church horror stories?
    8: “It is strange indeed that few if any mistakes are included …”
    >What about Paul’s battles with Peter’s mistakes over Jewish believers and enforced legalism???
    >Does Luke/Acts try to evaluate, or simply do what a good historian does, and record events accurately?
    >There’s no critique, e.g. of whether Paul was right or wrong to insist on a Roman trial, or whether all the churches planted were healthy. He just records what took place.
    9: “Luke seems to be … laying down a model for those that will come after him.”
    >This is not stated anywhere, it’s just a possible interpretation if that conclusion is your preconceived starting point. Other interpretations are equally possible.
    10: “Luke does not end the book by explaining … Far from it, Paul challenges us “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)”
    >Your argument confuses authors and their purposes here, and thus falls down as irrelevant to your own logic.

    Overall, I don’t think you’ve made your case very well.

  • NS

    NB: How to work out whether you treat Acts as descriptive guidance, or a model to mimic:

    Q: Do you take care to follow the Acts 15 prohibitions?

    A: Probably not – because they were relevant to the host culture of their world, and the culture within the mixed Jewish/Gentile C1st church.

    The description gives us a demonstration of how the church loved all races carefully, and should continue to do so today, appropriately in all contexts.

    But did it give an exact model of practice to mimic forever in all settings?

    No, because that would be to invent NT ‘Law’ which is the opposite of the message of Jesus and the NT.

    Hence, Acts must be descriptive of what took place, in order to deduce the principles, and apply relevantly into all settings.

    However, if you think Acts is a model, then review your eating habits to check you follow Acts 15.

  • Josiah

    I have a few honest questions based on your discussion. Having been raised in the Assemblies of God church but “enlightened” through the teachings of more conservative evangelicals, I’m now revisiting my theological underpinnings. Your work has me thinking of the following:
    1. I’ve just read Acts 8: 4-25. Peter and John laid their hands on “new believers” and those believers received the Holy Spirit.
    a. Were these people true believers before Peter and John laid hands on them and they received the Spirit? If they had died before this act, would they have gone to heaven?
    b. Can a person be saved without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
    c. Or is it that a person receives the Holy Spirit through faith (and is saved), and then receives the “gift” of the Holy Spirit as evidenced in speaking in unknown languages…through the laying on of hands?
    2. If the Holy Spirit is our seal unto the day of redemption (Eph 1:13,14), but we don’t receive Him unto others lay hands on us and pray, then how is it that we are saved when we first believe (i.e., become “new believers,” as in the case in Acts 8)?
    3. If Acts is a theological book (as opposed to an historical narrative), what do you make of believer’s baptism? Does a person become a child of God through the physical act of baptism (Acts 2:38) as long as it is done “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins”?
    4. Does Luke instruct us in Acts that the church is organic? That is, did Constantine do the Body of Christ a disservice by instituting the practice of doing church in a building?

    I’m glad the Lord led me to your blog. God bless you!