by Andy Chambers
The early chapters of Acts paint a portrait of church life so compelling that countless Christians have turned to them for guidance as to what their churches could be. I believe Luke wanted to provoke such a response from readers.
Throughout Acts as Luke describes the beginnings of the Christian movement, he does not simply show the gospel spreading from city to city. He shows gospel preaching resulting in local churches, beginning in Jerusalem. Sometimes we hear only of the church’s original meeting place in a particular city, like Lydia’s home in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Other times we hear that the gospel has spread across entire cities. Teaching and preaching in Acts occurred “in various homes” in Jerusalem, “from house to house,” and even in a rented “lecture hall” in Ephesus (5:42; 19:9; 20:20). Yet everywhere a church was planted Acts tells readers something about life in the newly formed community of believers.
Luke had definite convictions about life in the community of faith that he skillfully wove into the fabric of his narrative. However, when recent commentary introductions consider the purpose and major themes of Acts, they often overlook or give insufficient attention to Luke’s con- cern for church life. The desire to write a theologically oriented history of the beginnings of the Christian movement usually tops lists of Luke’s purposes for writing Acts. Another popular argument is that Luke wrote to evangelize Gentiles in an effort to bring educated pagans to Christ. Less widely accepted theories include a political defense for the church or for Paul before Roman authorities. Still others argue that Luke wrote to counter false teachers like the Gnostics or the Judaizers.
Somewhere in discussions of the purpose of Acts a concern to edify believers and churches is usually noted, but most do not identify church life as a major theme. Interpreters with an eye on contemporary church concerns tend to focus on missional aspects of Acts. They read Acts as a call to believers to “go and tell” in fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8 that His disciples would be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Acts can be no less than that. Yet, Luke was deeply concerned with “going and gathering” too, with the kind and quality of churches being planted in the growing Christian movement. Luke’s missiology cannot be separated from his ecclesiology.
I propose that forging a vision for what life could be like in the gathered church, while certainly not his only priority and perhaps not his highest, was clearly one of Luke’s major concerns in writing Acts. Luke’s starting point and core texts for his theology of church life are his well-known descriptions of ideal life in the Jerusalem church in Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35; and 5:12–16, commonly referred to as the summary narratives. Luke does not state his purpose for these three paragraphs explicitly. From a historical perspective, they simply provide a snapshot of life in the newly formed Jerusalem congregation.
From a rhetorical perspective, however, I believe Luke deliberately chose positive aspects of church life for inclusion in the summary narratives. He did this in order to present his portraits of church life as a positive example for readers to study and emulate in their own churches. could be like in an exemplary church. For Luke, the summary narratives describe what life could be like in an exemplary church.
The summary narratives have long been recognized for the way they emphasize positive aspects of life in the Jerusalem church. Yet, few commentary introductions mention the summary narratives in discussions of major themes in Acts. They tend to be referenced only in sections on literary forms, along with prologues, speeches, episodes, and the like, without reference to their contribution to the theology of Acts as a whole. What is missed is how the literary shape of the summary narratives and their relationship to the rest of Acts set them apart within Acts and highlight their theology of church life for readers.
I believe that presenting an exemplary pattern for church life was high on Luke’s theological agenda and that he started with the summary narratives to make his case. I argue that Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35; and 5:12–16 function precisely this way in Acts. To make my case I show how summarization could be used in an ancient author’s narrative/rhetorical strategy generally and how Luke employed summarization to suit his own rhetorical purposes.
The historical-critical methodologies that dominated twentieth-century New Testament research, especially source, form, and redaction criticism, tended to separate the summary narratives from their literary context within Acts. As a result, interpreters often missed their contribution to the overall theological vision of Acts. This development was unfortunate, because it eclipsed the role of the summary narratives in articulating a theology of church life for readers of Acts. As a consequence, Luke’s voice through the summary narratives has been overshadowed in contemporary conversations about the formation of biblically faithful churches. I do not suggest that Luke’s voice is not heard at all today. His rhetorical appeal for the special function of these texts comes through even in English translations of the Bible, as evidenced by the tendency of modern authors to navigate toward specific verses in them when discussing current church concerns.
Yet their contribution as a whole to the theology of Acts, is still being missed. We shortchange our efforts to develop a Scripture shaped vision for church life when we do not give adequate attention to the extensive descriptions and reflections of the church’s earliest historian.