Should We Be the Acts 2 Church?

But despite the rosy glow we paint around the edges of the first church in Jerusalem, it’s not without flaws. And it’s not really what church is or should be. At least not now.

My whole life I’ve heard the plaintiff cry, “I wish we could just return to the way the early church did things.” Sometimes it comes as a whisper after the church service ends, and sometimes it’s a loud cry of exasperation when another megachurch pastor bites the dust. 

It could be nostalgia—some sense that things in the past were better than the present just by sheer force of being not-the-present. But often I believe the desire for a return to the Acts 2-style churches is genuinely sincere. After all, there’s something enticing about the free-giving, almost commune-like way of doing church that the first disciples experienced.

But despite the rosy glow we paint around the edges of the first church in Jerusalem, it’s not without flaws. And it’s not really what church is or should be. At least not now.

What the Acts 2 church missed

In the opening pages of the book of Acts, just over a hundred of Jesus’s disciples and followers gathered together in secret. Jesus had ascended to heaven a few days prior, promising to send divine empowerment through the Holy Spirit. But often forgotten in that moment are his instructions that the disciples would be Jesus’s witnesses to “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). 

Come the Holy Spirit did, and, like a reverse Babel, all the languages of Jerusalem were unified in the mouths of the disciples. But unfortunately very much like Babel, the apostles and disciples stayed in Jerusalem. Their ministry didn’t reach at all to Judea or Samaria, let alone the ends of the earth.

The idyllic image in Acts 2 of the church gathered together, sharing their belongings and food with each other and listening to the apostles is, for sure, a wonderful idea. But it failed to live up to the expectations that Jesus had already placed on his people. The church was for the whole world—not for a small group of believers living in Jerusalem.

Why, might you ask, did that first church not immediately try to expand? It’s dangerous to speculate on motive when the text doesn’t bother to tell us. But I have a sneaking suspicion it was because that earliest of churches fully expected Jesus to return within the week, or the month, or certainly within the year. 

When Paul wrote the book of 1 Thessalonians (the earliest epistle we have), he wrote against the backdrop of expectation. The entire letter reads as if Paul’s holding his breath against the immanent return of Jesus. So much so that he writes, “We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:15). He doesn’t say “those who are still alive,” but “we.” 

There was very much a sense in the earliest churches and among the apostles that they would all live (should they not first meet martyrdom) to see the return of Jesus.

And that the same sense pervaded the first church in Jerusalem. They met at the temple and more or less stayed where Jesus left them. Their numbers grew and Peter and the other apostles demonstrated great power. But they stayed put. It wasn’t until the problem of people management started messing with the harmony that church-as-we-know it started to form. 

The apostles appointed deacons to manage the day-to-day logistics of distributing food and mediating disagreements (Acts 6:1–6). When one of those deacons ran afoul of the temple’s leaders and ended up dead, the Jerusalem church could no longer continue on in its idyllic manner.

Paul (then Saul) attacked the church and its leaders and members scattered, again, very much like Babel (8:1). But for the first time since Jesus’s ascension, the people were beginning to follow the pattern he’d laid out for them. They went to “Judea and Samaria.”

From there the gospel—and the church—spread. But with it came a whole host of other questions. When thousands of people with varied backgrounds and cultures (not to mention previous forms of deity worship) gathered together to “do church” what was supposed to happen?

What the early church needed

The pattern of the Jerusalem church proved difficult to reproduce elsewhere. The churches needed leadership structures, and Paul made sure to build them. Like the Jerusalem church, he appointed elders—stand-ins for the apostles—and deacons to manage the day-to-day. Organization became important, as did money. Wealthy people such as Lydia entered the church, and different churches financed other congregations’ efforts (Acts 16:14–15; 1 Cor. 16:1). 

But the trappings we so often want to throw off of church (the organizational structure, the programming, even the building) were part of creating an environment that a massively diverse group of people could come together in a new kind of unity.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, we get a sense that Paul’s responding to a laundry list of questions the church asked him (1 Cor. 7:1) and issues that were reported to him about the way the church has functioned (1 Cor. 1:11).

Throughout his letter, Paul discusses how the church should function both from a moral standpoint (no sleeping with in-laws, don’t sue each other, and stop fanboying over celebrity Christians), but also from an order-of-service perspective. Paul lays out the proper way to celebrate Eucharist in chapter 11. There he also discusses how to order worship, when to pray and how, and even how congregants should present themselves during worship so as not to distract from Jesus, the centerpiece of their gathering.

By the time we finish reading 1 Corinthians, the church and its problems start sounding quite a bit like the churches we’re used to today. There’s politics, arguments, debates over worship, and even people loyal to one preacher over another.

And by the time Paul’s writing his last letters—ones we’ve called the pastoral epistles because they’re all about how to run a church—it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t coming back anytime soon. Authority structures, programs, and worship formats are important because they’re the unifying thing that brings together diverse peoples. And Paul (and Peter in his letters) wants to make sure that the churches are ready for the long-haul.

Loving the church we’ve inherited

It’s certainly been long. Two thousand years have elapsed since the apostles died, and the church continues on. It’s certainly had its issues. It’s not a perfect organism and powerful people have exploited the church for their own gains countless times. Churches have hurt congregants, outsiders, and the weakest of the weak. But that’s not new to today.

The body of Christ is imperfect, made up of people failing (hopefully) forward, and is bound to run into the same problems that Corinth had two thousand years ago. But the basic structures for authority, the basic components of worship, and the gathering together haven’t changed. We may long for the idyllic days of Jerusalem’s gathering, but the point of church wasn’t to hole up and wait for Jesus’s return. 

The church was meant to be the place where God’s people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures gathered in unity to show the world that Jesus was worth following. And the church we’ve inherited these centuries later still has that same purpose. Instead of looking backward in longing, let’s look forward to being the people—and the church—that Jesus asked us to be in Acts.

A people, filled with his Spirit, who love each other, and show the world it’s worth risking even death itself to follow Jesus.

It’s certainly worth aspiring to help our local congregations love each other the way the Jerusalem church did in Acts 2. But it’s also naïve to jettison all the parts of church that the apostles and the leaders of the church established since. All the structure, orders of worship, and “rules” we often chafe at came about as a way of solving the messy problems that arise when you put different people together into a big family.

And that’s okay.

The hope of Jesus’s body is that, one day, we’ll share in complete unity of mind and spirit and harmony of behavior. But we’re not perfect yet. So until that day, let’s love the church we’ve inherited, serve each other well, and wait for the return of Jesus.