Is it proper to speak of a corporate group having a “lifestyle”? I suppose it is only odd if there is not a common “life” that members of the group possess. But the church does share a common life given by God through Christ and the Spirit. So let me propose “lifestyle” as an appropriate term for the church’s life together.
Following on the heels of Pentecost, in Acts 2:42, we see the church in action: “They were devoting themselves to the apostles‘ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (New English Translation).
I grew up in a tradition that labeled this verse a “charter of the church”, the fundamental components of the congregational gathering. Yet, it is more a lifestyle than a liturgy that we see illustrated. (It is what John Mark Hicks has called “practicing the kingdom of God”.) In the time frame of this verse, the church is not yet a distinct social institution. She is self-consciously a group of followers of Jesus still operative within first-century Jewish religious life. They meet in homes for fellowship, but they also meet for worship in the temple in Jerusalem. A definitive format for a worship service is not the immediate point of the passage.
So what are the essential attributes of this way of life for the church? A closer look at the verse can help us:
And they were persisting in the teaching of the apostles and in the fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers [personal translation].
This verse contains two sets of two prepositional phrases with noun clauses, each set joined by “and”. I don’t think it’s a list of four activities that can be independently isolated. What is more likely is that the last two items (“the breaking of the bread” and “the prayers”) are the most prominent examples of “the fellowship”. Thus, at the most general level, the believers were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship.
Let’s examine the first activity: the apostles’ teaching.
Some thoughts on this:
- This teaching is a direct application of Jesus’ “Great Commission”. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus gives the call to disciple the nations, a process consisting of “teaching”. Immediately upon baptism, the new converts enter a lifestyle of being taught.
- The content of the teaching is most likely focused on Jesus’ commands (“teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Matt 28:20)). Although certainly focused on the person and work of Jesus, their teaching would have a central purpose of the Great Commission in mind: the formation of the obedient life of a disciple within a community of disciples. It seems that too often teaching in the church can easily focus on transfer of data, an idea that is not at the heart of biblical “teaching”. In fact, people will often say, “That man is more of a teacher than a preacher”, i.e. meaning that he is more of an explainer than an exhorter. And some teachers can easily retreat into a mode of communicating data without practical application. Yet, biblical teaching is, at its heart, squarely focused on the transformation of disciples, rather than transfer of data.
- The apostles’ teaching is what the church is to carry on. It is not without purpose that Luke emphasizes that the apostles themselves were doing the teaching. Their identification matters, for they helped to serve as a foundation of the church. And it is our own generation in the church that bears supreme responsibility for faithfulness to the original apostolic witness. Adherence to confessions and creeds must be subordinated to adherence to the teaching of the twelve.
- Devotion to the apostles’ teaching consists of both hearing and obeying. As Alan Knox has properly noted, Acts 2:42 is not a description of the church’s devotion to merely listening to teaching. It also connotes the seriousness to which the first disciples of the church gave themselves to obeying the teaching. In other words, sitting for an hour (or two or three) per week listening to preaching does not fulfill the intent of this verse. The emphasis rather is persistence in applying the teaching to life.
- Our generation needs “Acts 2:42 teaching” now. Over my life, I’ve seen fluctuations in how people perceive teaching. There have been times of great interest in verse-by-verse expositional teaching (John MacArthur comes to mind). I’ve also seen reactions away from this approach through the rise of topical teaching that focuses on the how-to of the faith (e.g. Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, etc.). Yet, it seems to me that the former can easily become so information-focused that you lose the primacy of application that the apostles had. And the latter, when disconnected from a disciple-making, Great Commission focus, can reduce biblical communication to merely principles on how I can “do life better”. I have been greatly impacted by both expository preachers and down-to-earth how-to communicators. Could it be in our day that something more may be needed and helpful? I think there are many people out there today who are ready for teaching which is singularly targeted toward personal transformation into the image of Christ.
For you teachers out there: when you teach, is your purpose personal transformation in your hearers? Or are you too often content with seeking transfer of information alone?