Have you ever been in a place where non-Christians (and Christians!) have condemned Christianity for having so many denominations and divisions?
Consternation over denominations
If you are like me, you may have responded by trying to either present your own church as the most noble and correct one since Jesus rose from the dead (bad move!), or you may have mumbled something about Christians not being perfect!
You may have ruefully wondered- why do so many denominations exist in God’s kingdom anyway?
Church denominations are not a new fad- different types of churches had begun forming right after the early history of Christianity. Wikipedia lists at least 40 major divisions within Christianity, with myriad sub-divisions. One source says by 2001, there were nearly 33,000 Christian denominations across the planet, but all this really depends on how you define the term “denomination”.
But then again- how come so many Christian denominations?!
Denominations and the “Acts” effect
Here are some reasons. Some people had desired to stick closely to traditions their “Christian” ancestors gave them. By sticking so they have been defined as a particular type of church. This need not be necessarily bad.
In other cases, huge cultural shifts (changes in clothing, ethnicity, song styles, musical instruments, urban to rural settings or vice-versa) have created new denominations.
Many denominations have also risen as a reaction to things that has marred the church’s purity – for example, obsession with gold jewellery/ casteism/ the latest idol that fancies us. And of course, in the next generation you have someone who reacts to the aforementioned reaction and creates another denomination. Ad Nauseam. Yet some denominations have been created simply because church-leaders have had painful, bitter differences that for better or worse, could not be resolved.
But what if I tell you that a large number of denominational differences may have come up just because how churches have misunderstood the Book of Acts?
Surprising? Please know I am not trying to give a simple answer to denominational problems. But, hopefully Christendom is divided by more than one book sandwiched between the Gospels and the letter to Romans?
The book of Acts records the story of the disciples and the rise of the first church that Jesus Christ built by his Spirit just as He had promised. But most of us who have simple ambitions, like learning daily application from Acts, may not even know if this book is supposed to be read like Old Testament- historical stories that may not always have daily application, or like New Testament letters, where almost every line gives us solid truths to learn and practice.
In the book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart remark –
Such diverse practices such as baptism of infants or of believers only.. taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, the baptism of the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues, the selling of possessions and having all things in common, and even ritual snake handling(!) have been supported in whole or in part on the basis of Acts.” (page 88, How to Read The Bible For All Its Worth, Zondervan, 2003).
So is the book of Acts best left alone?
What practices from it should we continue? What practices should we omit? Who draws the line?
The book of Acts can be interpreted correctly only if we first understand the purpose behind the book of Acts and the way it has been structured. So, do we have a statement of purpose for Acts? Yes, here it is –
It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:3-4, (Emphasis mine).
The Holy Spirit inspired Luke, the author of the Luke-Acts volume (the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were actually one volume) to write with one aim in mind:
The reader needs to know that the things he has been taught are trustworthy because the book of Acts show how the first church and the apostles themselves understood and lived out the same teachings.
In them we have a model for how to be the church today and how to do missions today.
But – where do we find the teachings that Theophilus had learnt 2000 years ago?
I would venture to say the Spirit of God taught him nothing more than the teaching in all the New Testament letters written by Paul, Peter and other apostles (Eph. 3:9-10, 2 Tim. 3:16-17). This makes even more sense when we realize that most N.T letters pre-date the book of Acts and that the Gospels came after the letters too. The letters were all that the first church had as teaching from God the Holy Spirit.
Three practical principles to study the book of Acts
So the book of Acts was written to support and affirm that which was already taught to the churches. Douglas’ and Stuart’s book also suggests some principles for readers and students of the Word today:
1) If a pattern repeats itself throughout the book of Acts and it is present in other parts of the New Testament, then it must be practiced by churches today. For example, gospel-preaching, water-baptism, prayer, church-community life can be seen from churches in Jerusalem and Samaria, to those in Antioch and Ephesus and finds mention elsewhere in the N.T.
2) If a pattern is not prominent in Acts, then it applies to us only if it has been taught elsewhere in the New Testament letters. This can create a good case for spiritual tongues because it not just repeats itself in Acts but is also taught in 1st Corinthians 12-14. This also means it is wise to not create “doctrines” based on isolated incidents from Acts.
For instance, “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” need not happen with tongues every time someone is saved, because the N.T letters simply have no teaching on it. Therefore, discussions on debatable or unclear issues should be taken out of the books of Acts and into the Epistles that have been clearly written for our instruction.
3) Anything that was purely cultural then is not repeatable for churches today. If needed, they can be translated to today’s culture and time.
Care must be taken that the function (as taught in Scripture) is practiced, though the form may change. For example – in Acts, Apostle Paul entered the synagogues to reason with the Jews, but it would be a stretch to conclude that likewise, we should today enter the Ohel David Synagogue in Pune. The cops guarding the protected building may not appreciate our logic, but then neither would Paul, had he been around.
We need to fulfill the function – contact people to speak the Good News. How we do it today- i.e., the form, can be left to fit today’s culture and life-rhythms. It could be street-skits, tract-distribution, prayer-meetings, or whatever works best in your situation as long as the Good News of our Saviour is preached.
Will using these three steps resolve all global denominational conflicts?
Most likely, no. Besides, I am not sure we are enabled or asked by the Lord to do so. Our God is in total control over denominational problems. But let us commit ourselves to the pattern of teaching we have received.
Hope I have left you with more answers than questions about the book of Acts.
If not, we can always dialogue in the comments’ section below.