Last year I read and responded to an alarming public post by Kris Vallotton, co-leader of Bethel Church in Redding, CA. Bethel had recently become popular, for it’s supposed miracles, along with it’s band, “Jesus Culture.” The original post can be found HERE.
The article became widely circulated and debated, to the point that we did not have opportunity to respond to many comments. And, for that I apologize, as we hope to support local church saints on their quest for biblical truth, never write and run.
However, this last month I did peruse the comments and noted a common theme in defense of what happens at Bethel (along with other more conservative mainstream Pentecostal environments). That theme seems to rest in utilizing the biblical Book of Acts, as a reference point for modern church conduct. To sum it up, many people feel that, “The miracles of the Book of Acts justify similar miracles for today.”
Because this has become such a widely held support system for the cultish behaviors of Bethel, along with other more conservative Pentecostals, it’s good that we examine it in light of biblical evidence, always with the goal of insuring we’re part of Christ’s true church and not a Satanic fraud. Is it true that the Book of Acts supports this modern behavior? Is the Book of Acts a model for the 21st century church?
Below, we’ll provide the facts which indicate portions of Acts can be PRESCRIPTIVE for modern practice while many other portions are simply meant to be DESCRIPTIVE of a unique period in early church history. It would be very easy to leap off into academic depths, but I’ve attempted to format this article in four simple sections, hopefully launching you into further study. The four sections are: 1) How is the Bible arranged? 2) How is history arranged? 3) How does the book of Acts fit? 4) How should the book of Acts be used?
How is the Bible Arranged?
To understand the Book of Acts, we must understand the entire Bible. The Bible provides us at least five genres of literature. The Law, which includes the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, expressing God’s plan concerning government and religious custom. Historical books, such as Exodus and Joshua, and narratives such as the Gospels, which outline portions of history God wished to document. Wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and poetic books such as Psalms, providing metaphorical truth to live by. Discourse material, making up 21 letters in the New Testament, and representing clear didactic teaching in a formal style. Prophecy, the writings of both Old Testament and New Testament books, such as Isaiah or Revelation, which predict future events.
When studying the Bible, a proper understanding of the genre is critical to a proper understanding of the text. This principle is true of all literature. For example, a person does not read Harry Potter when attempting to learn about news in Washington D.C. nor does one read Vogue if attempting to learn regarding the life of Abraham Lincoln. Every text has a context, every context has a genre, and every genre has a purpose for it’s original reader.
How is History Arranged?
Once we know which genre we’re reading, we seek to learn how and why it was written. Throughout biblical history, God has related with man in at least seven specific ways. First, with Adam and Eve God expected them to replenish the earth, rule the animals, and keep from eating the fruit of one tree. Next, God expected Adam’s descendents to work for food and allowed women to endure pain in childbirth while looking forward to the coming Messiah. Third, following the flood God saved just one family, and asked they replenish the earth, hold dominion over creation, and institute capital punishment, trusting that God would never again destroy all mankind. Fourth, following the tower of Babel, God called Abraham, promising he would become a great nation and asking his descendents be circumcised as a sign of separation. Fifth, God worked through Moses, instituting a period of law, wherein the Jewish nation alone related to God through obedience to the law of Exodus 19-23. Sixth, Christ Jesus came and God relates now to His people, the Church, via personal faith in Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Seventh, a one thousand year reign of Jesus Christ on earth will soon begin, wherein born-again believers will rule with Christ, and those left on earth will repopulate it under His direct rule.
If a biblical student whishes to remain literal, historical, and grammatically appropriate, he will find that this is the ONLY way one can interpret all 66 books of Scripture in a seamless, logical, and non-contradictory way.
Where Does the Book of Acts Fit?
We’ve learned that a sovereign God supernaturally revealed each book of the bible with intended goals (genre) and to fit within an intended timeline (history). So, before we study the Book of Acts, we must discern which genre of literature it is and where it fits within God’s master timeline.
The best way to understand the purpose of a biblical text is to allow the biblical text interpret itself. Again, this is true of all literature. (Ex. For 100 years, the Oxforidan theory questioned the legitimacy of Shakespeare, contending that Bacon, Marlowe, and a group of men wrote the works using the name Shakespeare as pseudonym. However, circa 1987-2010, the Claremont Clinic, using the writings themselves, determined Shakespeare’s work showed consistent, countable, profile-fitting patterns, and indicated authorship as a single individual.) The text proves or discredits itself!
When Luke wrote the Book of Acts, he announced his goal from the beginning. “That Theophilus might know the certainty concerning the things wherein he had been instructed.” Thus, Luke’s stated goal was to convey historically accurate information to Theophilus, preserving the memory of great deeds done by the first generation of Christians.
Why did Luke do this? After the first generation of Christians was passing from earth, Luke likely realized that a decent record of Christ’s work in the holy church didn’t exist, so he chose to write one. Luke wrote his first Gospel (Luke) explaining Christ’s life up to the cross and subsequently wrote the Book of Acts to explain Christ’s work through the Holy Spirit following the cross. This explains why the Book of Acts ends so abruptly – It was a book specifically designed to document the “beginning” of the church age.
Thus, the four Gospels, and the Book of Acts, sit clearly as historic intermediary between the era of Law and Grace. Let us restate this for clarity, “The Book of Acts, like the Gospels, is clearly an historical record.” Based on the previous two sections of this article, the Book of Acts fits snuggly (along with the Gospels) into the Historic genre of literature. In essence, it’s a “snapshot” of the generation of apostolic church planters between Christ’s ascension and the completion of the canon, wherein select apostles structured the church via supernatural function.
Luke’s historic purpose is also clear in the outline of the book itself. Externally the book documents the church’s spread from Jerusalem to Rome. Internally the book describes the expansion of the church from Jew to Gentile. The book continues to document this back and forth struggle. Luke does a tremendous job of bringing life to history – Noting the works of various apostles, explaining why the church chose various leaders, showing the form of their prayers, the courage of their arduous missionary ventures, and even their martyrdom. The book is a riveting historical narrative.
Thus, when studying the Book of Acts a student must take great care to analyze what Luke writes as DESCRIPTIVE (historic account) and what is PRESCRIPTIVE (a model for ministry). Even a cursory glance at the book proves the importance of such analysis, for there are many things the early church experienced, which the modern church does not mirror. There are dozens, but let’s note a few:
+ Acts 1:26 shows the apostles selecting leaders by drawing lots. Most modern churches do not, and should not, play five card draw to select who will preach.
+ Acts 2:2 explains a violent wind that tore through the meetinghouse. Again, not an expected occurrence during modern small group sessions or Sunday worship.
+ Acts 2:42 speaks of 3,000 people gathered every day to eat bread and share all of their stuff. According to surveys, the average American attends church once per month and donates 2-4% of his/her income.
+ Acts 5:1-10 explains Ananias and Sapphira struck dead for giving an insincere offering. Frankly, we all should be thankful the Holy Spirit is more patient today.
+ Acts 9:1-4 describes Paul converted by being knocked off a horse and blinded for three days. It appears, God has been much more generous with millions of modern conversion stories.
+ Acts 12:20-24 depicts an ungodly leader dropping over to be eaten by worms. Is God not being much more patient with many world leaders today?
+ Acts 13:11 portrays Paul striking Elymas blind for doing false magic. Many Christians of today watch David Blaine and Harry Potter movies, yet their Pastor allows them continue seeing.
The list goes on and on – Prayerfully, the main point is clear – We cannot pick and choose which portions of the Book of Acts we want to use for convenience and which ones we’ll set aside due to confusion. We cannot relish miracles and tongues while ignoring judgments and penalties. If we do, we become ignorant at worst and hypocritical at best while thieving the very text we hope to honor.
Outside of obvious heresies like Bethel in Redding, Benny Hinn, Osteen, and others, this is why even mainstream evangelicals sometimes struggle when they begin terming their church “An Acts 2” church. Once they’ve used the term, they must support the term, and well-thinking people of their congregation read the text and become confused. Much of the Book of Acts stands as exemplary principle but hasn’t been a part of methodological practice for over 1700 years, and this makes it confusing for both preacher and congregation. The call goes out, “Be an Acts 2 church!” and people cheer, but most churches do not really go out and sell their buildings, ask the congregants to sell their homes, hold daily services in the local shopping mall, make decisions when violent wind rushes through the windows, elect leaders only through gambling, blind anyone with false intentions, and hope not to die by rotting worms. Thus, even the average bible student gets confused when a principle is termed a practice.
Is it good to have the heart of an Acts 2 church? Yes! But, not ONLY an Acts 2 church. Myriads of revealed Scriptural truths came forth in the forty years following early-church inception. Dozens of epistles followed, dozens of new leaders emerged, dozens of doctrines were shaped, and dozens of missteps were corrected, helping to document and mold the intended accuracy of Christ’s bride. Thus, as much as we’re to be an Acts 2 church, we must also be an Acts 3, 4, and 5 church… For that matter, an Ephesian, Colossian, Thessalonican, and Philippian church as well.
How Should the Book of Acts be used?
When studying historic literature of any kind, there are three interpretive rules which help determine which portions of Scripture are meant for historic DESCRIPTION versus which are meant for modern PRESCRIPTION. In essence, how do we know which parts of the Book of Acts are simply historical explanations and which are to be modern practice? When studying, use these:
+ Non-contradiction – Does the selected item of study in the Book of Acts contradict any other teaching within the book or remainder of New Testament literature?
+ Story or command – Does the selected item of study remain in story form or is it commended as action by the author or inspired church leader?
+ Reinforced – Is the word or practice reinforced by the remainder of Scripture, specifically the 21 books of discourse material meant for the modern church age?
In short order, the student should read the passage in question and then immediately compare it to the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and John, asking three important questions: Firstly, does the practice in question receive further support from the apostles? Secondly, is the practice recommended or refuted for the developing church? Finally, was the practice exemplified in the remainder of early church history? These principles allows us to discern which early church practices continued on (i.e. Great commission evangelism) as opposed to which faded (i.e. a separate Baptism by the Holy Spirit).
Theologians have utilized these principles of interpretation and held a cohesive and non-contradictory view of the New Testament for 1700 years. It is because of these principles that none dared term themselves an “Apostle” for 1800 years. That is, until the New Apostolic Reformation of Bethel Church, IHOP, and Eugene Petersen recently determined “anyone” could become one simply by going to their website to pay $400. Frightening.
The Scriptures are clear that apostles were called and commissioned by Christ as a generation foundational to the early church and all others stand only as buildings atop that foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20). Yet, according to Wagner these men, “are part of a new Christian order, inspired by the G12 movement, to grow discreetly by recruiting pastors of independent congregations, assimilating themselves through cell group meetings, church planting, and rapid cyto-kinesis, making a loosely knit network to dominate the preexisting Christian denominations around the world.” All of this based on the principles of dominionism (peace and prosperity), signs and wonders, apostolic governance, and relational prophecy.
This is precisely the satanic deception that Scripture warns will over-take Christianity in the last days. Peter wrote,
“But false prophets also arose among the people just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” (2 Peter 2:1-9, Matthew 7:15, Matthew 24:4-11, 1 Timothy 1:3-11, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Jude 1:4, Revelation 2:18-29)
By following proper rules of interpretation you’ll find the Book of Acts to be a glowing storyline of political, social, spiritual, and ecclesiological intrigue. And, you’ll discern the foundational principles later documented in the epistles meant to confirm optimum practice for the remaining 1800 years of church history. Meanwhile, you’ll avoid the many pitfalls common to 20th century mysticism, which takes a snippet storyline from the bygone era, only to haphazardly infuse it as an excuse to perform whatever form of mania seems to attract an audience.