By Paul J. Casebolt
When I began to preach in the late 1940s, I soon en-countered a colloquial expression voiced by both those in churches of Christ, and those not in the church. I think that the expression may have been made in derision by those not in the church, but some in the church seemed to reluctantly concede that the observation was not without some merit.
Preachers in churches of Christ were accused of centering their sermons in the Book of Acts, and even some preachers in the church observed that everywhere they traveled, brethren were conducting Bible classes in the Book of Acts. As far as non-members were concerned, they may have felt that references to the examples of conversion in Acts emphasized baptism too much. And, preachers in the church may certainly have connected the events of Acts 2 with the commission given to the apostles, the invitation of the Lord, and the establishment of the church.
In retrospect, one thing was certain: brethren in general did seem to have a better knowledge of the Book of Acts compared to their present-day counterparts, and the churches were in much better shape from the standpoint of unity, doctrine, and practice than they now are. And I think that I can see a direct connection between the situation as it then existed, and now.
We may have erred in emphasizing that the Book of Acts was “a book of conversions,” and that its content was primarily directed toward the alien sinner, or non-member. It is true that alien sinners were converted by the thousands, and that sinners today must obey the same commands in order to be saved. And the Lord will add those being saved today to the same church that is mentioned in Acts 2:47.
But I think that we have either failed to grasp another important fact about the Book of Acts, or we have for-gotten what we once knew, and have neglected to teach and preach that fact. The apostles’ doctrine and examples found in Acts are indispensable to the welfare of the Lord’s church (Acts 2:42).
We must remember that the church is responsible for preaching the gospel to the lost, and that the Book of Acts is an example of the church discharging this responsibility. The gospel was to be preached in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then to “the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and the church discharged its responsibility in this mat-ter (Col. 1:23). No other generation has saturated the earth with the gospel as did the church of the first century, and partly because we are divided as to whether the church can accomplish its mission or whether we should turn this task over to some human institution or arrangement.
Some are even teaching that the church has no organization, no work, no worship, and no mission. The Holy Spirit instructed the church at Antioch to “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (Acts 13:2). The church which sent Paul and Barnabas to “the work” was later assembled to hear Paul and Barnabas rehearse”all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27). Paul later tells us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
The church has a mission, a work, a worship, and an organization, and there is no better place in the Bible to find these things described and proscribed than in the Book of Acts. The church was not to be patterned after the old earthly Israelite kingdom (Acts 1:6), and this fact is ignored by the premillennialist and by brethren who attempt to change the spiritual nature of the church (John. 18:36). Jesus ascended into the clouds of heaven, and “shall so come in like manner” (Acts 1:9-11). This manner is described in other passages of Scripture outside of Acts, and certainly does not harmonize with the idea that Christ returned the “second time” (Heb. 9:28), in A.D.70 at the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ is still reigning “on David’s throne” (Acts 2:22-36), and shall continue to do so until the conditions of 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 are fulfilled.
The Book of Acts teaches the church concerning the mat-ter of needy saints, both in precept and example. The Jerusalem church took care of its own needy (Acts 4-6), the Antioch church sent relief to their brethren in Judea, Paul and Barnabas delivered this help to the elders (Acts 11:27-30), and Acts 21:18 has reference to the time when Paul helped to transport the contribution of several churches to the needy saints at Jerusalem. Some study and preaching in the Book of Acts will go a long way towards helping brethren resolve their problems concerning benevolence.
Besides evangelism and benevolence, the matter of edification was addressed and accomplished in The Acts of the Apostles. When the churches rested from Saul’s persecution, they were edified (Acts 9:31). There was continual edification in the church at Antioch by the “prophets and teachers” of that congregation (Acts 13:1, 2). Paul and Barnabas traveled among churches already established for the purpose of edification, confirmation, and exhortation (Acts 14:22).
When churches were established and ready, elders were ordained “in every church” (Acts 14:23). This, along with Paul’s instructions to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:28-31), gives no support to the sponsoring elders/church idea so prevalent in the brotherhood today.
The worship of the early church is partially addressed in Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7. No “fellowship halls” were erected for the purpose of entertaining people or satisfying fleshly appetites, and an approved apostolic example establishes the time for observing the “breaking of bread” or the Lord’s sup-per (Acts 20:7). And Paul certainly did not endorse at Troas what he condemned at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:17-34). But brethren will reject this apostolic example of Acts 20:7 in order to destroy the force of a like example in Philippians 4:14-18.
It may well be that the church of our time is in worse condition than the church of the first century and the 1940s because we have failed to heed the church’s responsibilities as described by the apostles’ doctrine and examples recorded in the Book of Acts.
And maybe we can begin to correct some of the doctrinal problems and division so prevalent in the church of our time by trying to find the church in the Book of Acts in-stead of the alien sinner. We might even be successful in converting more sinners by practicing what we used to preach.
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 16, p. 5
August 15, 1996