Church Structure


Acts 2:42-47

Text Comment



v.42

“They” = 3,000 + 120 or thereabouts; so almost all the church believers of but a few days. Not meeting in one place all at once, of course, but in many different congregations, as v. 46 indicates. The only place they may have gathered virtually all together was in the temple and there, of course, they would have been among many others who were not Christians. As will be the case in all of the great city churches that are mentioned in Acts and Paul’s letters. They met in separate homes, as we know they did in Corinth, and, no doubt, were organized and cared for in these smaller congregations, yet still were regarded as belonging to the single church of Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, etc.


There is a debate as to whether the four activities mentioned are to be regarded as four separate things being done in the course of days and nights or as four elements which together made up the typical early Christian gathering.


If the latter, “fellowship” might refer to a common meal, but that is less likely, in my judgment. This is the only instance of the word “koinonia” in Acts, so it is hard to tell for certain.


“breaking of bread” Luke’s term for what Paul calls “The Lord’s Supper.” Not simply eating together, though there is evidence that early Lord’s Suppers were regularly taken as part of, as the conclusion of a regular meal eaten together, what would later be called “the agape.” “Breaking bread” does refer to the Lord’s Supper almost certainly, because that it itself a circumstance wholly trivial in itself, only significant because of the Lord’s act at the last supper, and only significant subsequently as a sign. You have the same phrase again in reference to the Supper in 20:7.


“Prayer” lit. “the prayers” which may be a reference to the praying they did together in their own services or may be, as is perhaps more likely, their participation in “the prayers,” that is the regular worship of the temple, as we know they did, in any case, cf. v. 46 and 3:1. We will comment later on the implications of this fact for our view of the relationship between the OT and the NT. Here “prayer” as in “Book of Common Prayer.”


v.43

In other words, the miracles of which we have a record in Acts 2-5 were but particular instances of what occurred much more often. Would that we knew more!


v.45

My experience growing up, I’ve told you before. Still, we should note that the right of private property is still recognized and honored (5:4), this practice is nowhere commanded in the NT, other passages seem to take a different view (Eph. 4:;28; 1 Cor. 16; 1 Tim. 6 etc.), and Paul’s churches seemed not to have practiced the community of goods. Still, the motive and principle underlying this practice in the early Jerusalem church are so consistent with the spirit of Christ and the gospel, the last thing we can afford to do is consider carefully why we don’t have to do the same!


It is worth noting how this text lays bare the materialism of both the right and the left of the evangelical church: both the view that sees the gospel in terms of “standard of living” –something Christ never did– or to see the Gospel as the foundation of capitalism and the justification of huge disparities in standard of living.


Remember, it was Paul, whose churches did not practice the community of goods, who wrote to the Corinthians in reference to their gift to the poor in the church in Jerusalem: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written, ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.'” [2 Cor. 8:13-15]


v.47

A summary that both indicates the continuing extension of the kingdom and that sovereign grace lay behind that extension. Cf. Acts 13:48 “And those who were ordained to eternal life believed.”



Throughout the Bible we are taught that the church is, at one and the same time, an organization and an organism. It is an organization in that it has a structure, officers with stipulated authority, rites and ceremonies, appointed tasks and activities, creedal boundaries, etc. It is an organism in that it functions in the world, or is to function, as a communion of saints, of spiritually gifted people employing their gifts for love’s sake, building one another up, living together as members of a single body, each depending upon the other for life and health.


Like it or not, the church is an organization with a government, set of beliefs, stipulated activities, ceremonies, and the like. And we have something of that organization here, in a list of the activities of the church early in the history of this epoch: a church gathered under authoritative teaching, expressing its faith in sacramental fashion, meeting regularly for worship. This is what the church does.


Now, through the ages Christian people have tried to have a church with much less of this structure, this organization, feeling that the organization quenches the spirit and kills the life. Some have sought to do away with it altogether — authoritative teaching (that is, teaching by church officers) in the Brethren movement, sacraments among the Quakers, etc. — but try as they might they cannot do this and should not, for the Lord appointed this structure and it is by this structure that he enables the church to accomplish the tasks he has assigned it in the world. Almost always there is a one-sidedness however, the church either too much organization and not enough organism or vice versa. Every church, every Christian tradition struggles in this way. Roman Catholics, e.g., have tended through the centuries to stress the church as an organization, a government with rites, and so much so that RC theologians have used the word “church” to mean “the bishops.” In RC theology, you can have the church present with no Christians, so long as you have a priest or bishop. The Plymouth Brethren and Quakers, on the other hand, use “church” to mean simply the meeting of the brothers and have tended to minimize or reinterpret those texts that seem to refer to the church as an organization with leadership whose life is built around common rites and actions.


Rabbi Duncan, in commenting on this tendency to one-sidedness in this regard, said “Puseyism [i.e. high church or Roman Catholic like Anglicanism following the Oxford Movement] is a carcass [a body lacking a soul], Plymouthism is a ghost [a soul lacking a body].


The trick, of course, is to have both structure and living communion. Then you get what God intended and the benefits of both as correctives to the tendencies of each.


Here we see both together in the most beautiful way and see how the two dimensions of the church’s life strengthen the other and produce the good that Christ intends. The structure — authoritative teaching, sacraments, stipulated worship, etc. –assures that the church lives its life and accomplishes its appointed tasks in the manner that Christ has designed, the communion of the saints assures that those tasks are done in love and with spiritual elan and power and so produce a genuine effect. [It is not too much to say that every day and in every way every faithful congregation struggles to maintain this balance, this tension, between organization and organism, at one moment falling too far the one way — doing the right things lifelessly — and at the next moment the other way — doing the wrong things with enthusiasm! At different periods the church’s theorizing about its life and work tends to favor one or the other poles of this continuum.


Today it seems to favor the “organism” pole. Partly because this is more natural to us as American democrats with our anti-establishment, anti-authority prejudices, partly because we are still in reaction to too much lifeless formalism, and partly because we think that a more formless church will be more attractive to outsiders, we are in a period when the church’s structure or organization, that is, its government, its offices and officers, its rites and ceremonies, its creedal definitions — are being minimized, if not altogether mislaid.


You see it in many ways — ministers in business suits to make less visible the clergy/laity distinction; the diminishing place of the sacraments in the life of the church — the movement in some circles to enlarge that place is still very much a minority movement — the decline of stated services — especially preaching and teaching services [American evangelicals today hear much less preaching than their fathers and mothers did! — the average American congregation today meets together once a week] and their replacement by small groups, etc., the decline of stipulated services for prayer, are some indications of this tendency.


Now, I want to comment on this phenomenon and on this issue because it seems to me that Acts addresses directly this issue and it is one that is of the utmost importance for Christians thinking about their life and the life of the church in our day.


Perhaps you noticed that there was no reference to anything in that list of four things in v. 42 that could be considered ministry to the world. If you were to say what four things the church is responsible to be doing in the world, surely many of you would have mentioned “evangelism” or “charity toward the poor.” And, as Acts itself will make clear, those are the church’s responsibility and calling. Jesus made it clear that the church was to bear witness to the world both in the great commission and already here in Acts 1:8. Here her care of the poor among her number is highlighted and, later, her calling to help all the poor. So, there can be no thought that these ministries are not central to the church’s life and work in the world, to her purpose as Christ has established it.


But, this text seems to say that the church’s ministry to the world flows from her common life, from the vitalizing activities believers share together when they are together as Christians.


It is noteworthy that the church’s common life is described as it is in v. 42 and the passage closes in v. 47 with a statement to the effect that church’s influence continued to be exerted in the world, its reputation was climbing and many were flocking to join it. That is, Acts tells us of the life of fellowship and worship Christians had together and then indicates what an impact the church was having on the world. The suggestion seems to be very clear that the one came from the other, that the church’s common life, the activities of those Christians together mentioned in v. 42, gave the tremendous power to the church’s witness.


Today, I think it is clear for everyone to see, this connection, this order, is no longer the basic assumption of Christian ministry in evangelical churches and is becoming less and less so as time passes.


The ministry of the church to the unsaved world has been brought right into the life, the communion, the worship of the church itself, often requiring profound changes to that common life and experience that has characterized the life of the church through the ages.


It seems that most folk today simply assume that the Sunday services of the church are the main vehicle of ministry to the world and that those services must be constructed in such a way as to be attractive and accessible to unbelievers. The result has been the reduction of worship, the removal of much of the liturgical life of the church that people suspect would be off-putting or confusing to the unsaved, the diminishment of the appearance of the church as a kingdom or world apart — in architecture, dress, ceremony, music, etc. — the removal in preaching of large tracts of Holy Scripture that are not thought to be relevant or engaging to the unsaved, and the diminishment of the sacraments as a central feature of the life of the church. [These are now often moved to other days of the week, a change that is virtually unprecedented in Christian history. Even in some PCA churches!]


But I want all of you to see the error of this approach, biblically and historically. The Bible connects — and not just here in Acts 2, though powerfully here in this chapter, in this part of Acts where Luke is giving us representative facts, laying down as it were the foundation for an understanding of the life and work of the church in the world — the interior life of the church, especially its common worship, with its impact on the world. The one leads to the other, empowers the other, renders the church’s witness persuasive and attractive. The mixture of the two things, turning Acts 2:42 into a mixture of actions of the interior life and actions of ministry to the world all which go on together, is contrary to this foundation.


What happens, what is happening, is that both the church’s life and its witness are impoverished, and, what is worse, changed from what Christ intended them to be. For what we get in Sunday services designed for unbelievers is less worship, less of the Word of God for the people of God — it cannot be otherwise, for an unbeliever, in the nature of the case, cannot worship God and will find the Bible uninteresting or positively offensive if preached in order and comprehensively.


But, what is not appreciated, I think, is that the ministry is weakened also. Fact is, the most successful period of evangelism in the church’s history was this period of 300 years following Pentecost. 120 became 1 in every 10 in the Roman empire. And, functionally speaking, the Sunday services of the church were a minor, almost incidental instrument of that evangelistic triumph. The service was designed for the worship of God by the people of God; the Word was preached comprehensively, with no thought of leaving out what unbelievers would find uninteresting or offensive. Unbelievers were not even allowed to remain through the entire service in many instances. And yet, fueled by such times together before God, Christian people were never more effective in winning their neighbors and the general witness of the church — taking seriously its own relationship with the living God — was more powerful than it has ever been since! (Very much as indicated in v. 47! “The Third Race!)


Celsus’s unintended compliment! But, does church history furnish us with proof that such a widespread and effective and bold witness can be sustained without the basis in the interior life of the church represented and described in v. 42? I do not think that it does.


That is why, in my judgment, there has come to be in our day such a concentration on technique — a Madison avenue approach to witness. Find out what people want and give it to them: the approach of George Barna and the other church growth gurus. They have little confidence that the generality of Christians could ever win the world, and so they place the issue in the hands of people prepared to market the product in modern ways, side-stepping the saints almost entirely. In their literature and in the approach of many who follow them, the ability and the approach of the church’s staff is far more important to eventual success in reaching the world than the holiness of God’s people. You may think I am overstating this point for effect, but I tell you I am not. There is virtually no thought whatsoever to the connection drawn so powerfully between Acts 2:42 and 2:47.


Worship is for Christians. Much of preaching must be for them as well. The sacraments are and must be. We know that unbelievers are present and that, sometimes, their presence is arranged by God for the purposes of their own salvation. But he can effect such a result as well from a service of genuinely Christian worship, sacrament, and the Word, as he can from a service designed for them which Christians attend.


What this short passage, taken by itself, seems to suggest is that Christians rightly and carefully attending to the activities of the church’s own life — worship, fellowship, the Word, sacrament, and prayer — are far more likely to live their lives “high above the ground” as did these who practiced their faith with such an otherworldly abandon that they were willing to consider what they owned as belonging to all their brethren — just like in a real family! People who live like that have an impact, far above others, upon the beliefs of those outside the church.


But, won’t people find the church strange if it insists on its peculiar practices and its spiritual culture when that culture is so alien to the lives of most people in America today? Yes, they will find it strange, but, by the Spirit of God, they will also find it powerful and attractive and suggestive of realities they crave but know nothing about. When the church changes its culture to that of the world around it, it more and more offers the world only what it already has! Christianity itself has its own culture — oh, it shares to a certain extent the culture of any people, place, and time — American churches were always different from Indian, etc. — but, much more, Christianity has its own culture, its own way of doing things that reflects its beliefs, its convictions. Its music has always been different, its architecture, its activities, its literature, its manner of daily life. Christianity after Pentecost took its own culture into the Graeco-Roman world and refused to give up its culture. Those who embraced the faith learned a new culture, as was only to be expected, the Christian faith and life being as different as it was from the faith and life of the people of that time. Converts left one kingdom and entered another.


This was, here in Acts 2, of course, a remarkable time — miracles were being performed, the Spirit was drawing the elect into the church by the thousands — but the principle must be the same today — as history shows, I think, it has been for these 2,000 years. We do not enlarge our witness by turning our worship services into evangelistic meetings. We only weaken ourselves and so our power to persuade others in the long run. We do not reach the world by preaching less of the Bible to Christians — and we are, even in the PCA — we simply cause the Word of God to sit much more lightly on the hearts and the consciences of God’s people so that they become over time much less people of the Word and much less inclined to live their lives according to that Word and so much less able to adorn that message by the lives they lead. [I may have told you before, CTS alumnus Carl Robbins, now pastor of the PCA church in Las Vegas, studied PCA preaching as part of his DMin studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA. What the survey (a survey of 200 men who were the pulpit ministers of their churches) revealed was that the PCA has a shrinking canon, if attention in the pulpit is any measure of the authority of a book or a section of the Bible. For example, 100% of respondents had preached within the last three years from the Gospel of John and from Paul. Only 11% had preached in the same period from the historical books of the OT and only 16% from the Minor Prophets. Less than a third had preached from the Major Prophets in that same three year period, slightly more than a quarter had preached from the Old Testament poets, less than a third had preached from Acts, but 96% had preached from the Synoptics.


No doubt much of this disproportionate emphasis on certain parts of the Bible is due to the fact that these ministers are not long in any pulpit. When they arrive at a new charge, where better to begin than in the Gospel of John or the Letter to the Ephesians; certainly not Hosea or the Song of Songs! Some of it is due as well to the disappearance of the evening service in our churches. People are hearing much less preaching than they used to. But, they are also hearing much much less about certain subjects — divine judgment, for example — because those subjects are featured prominently in parts of the Bible that are little treated any more in PCA pulpits.


Almost half of the ministers surveyed by Mr. Robbins said that on the Lord’s Day morning they preached primarily on “topics” (the family, Christian finance, etc.). Only a fifth of the respondents preached consecutively through books of the Bible. It is very interesting to me that though most of the respondents indicated that they preached primarily topical sermons, 87% characterized themselves as “expository preachers” and only 6% as “topical preachers.” Perhaps this betrays a misunderstanding of the term or perhaps it indicates that a conviction remains that the exposition of the Scripture should be the basis of Christian preaching even if, in fact, it no longer is in many cases. More interesting still was the fact that when asked “What factors influence your choice of preaching texts?” 30% chose “Issues that you perceive need to be addressed in the congregation” and 59% chose “The leading of the Holy Spirit.”


This is the recipe for disaster so far as the influence of Holy Scripture on the lives of God’s people is concerned. It renders preaching still more vulnerable to the temptation to pick and choose among the favored subjects and themes of God’s Word and to ignore or minimize large stretches of biblical revelation that are difficult or unpopular


Sundays are for the believers, for the body of Christ, for our worship of God, our fellowship with one another, our hearing of the Word of God, our sacramental life. Of course we have unbelievers present and there is nothing wrong with inviting them to church. But we invite them to a service in which Christians are doing what only Christians can. God can use that to saving effect if he pleases. But, from that experience of our life together before God, is to come, must come — else we dishonor all we have done on the Lord’s Day — a witness born to the world, a witness all the stronger for the life that our common activities have produced in us by the will and grace of God.


I cannot see how the current approach cannot but inevitably make the church more like the world. If when we are together as Christians, in those most powerfully influential and constitutive and defining activities by which we confirm the character of our existence as Christians, the meaning of our faith, and convey the same to our children, we more and more do what the world wants us to do; then that must, in turn lead us to ever more desperate techniques to try to persuade the world to come over to us, when, it must seem to the world that there isn’t really that much difference and it has little to gain in joining a group that has changed itself already into the world’s image.


We would do much better to return to the old way: sacred acts and services that indicate to everyone how different our life and our faith is from that of the world, how deeply we care about all that defines us as Christians and about the glory of the God we serve, how little we take our cue from the world and its tastes because of our conviction of unseen things, how certain we are that strength for right and happy living comes from another place and in other ways than the world thinks, and then, from that life together in worship and family love to reach out to the world with words that our actions make plausible.


That, it seems to me, is what the church has always done when it has been healthy and exercising an impact on the world. What we are doing today is, I think, what the church has always done when she has been beguiled into thinking she could influence the world by taking on the world’s form and fashion. That has made her popular with some but her true influence has always waned in such time and, before long, one can no longer tell where the church stops and the world begins. Luke is showing us the old and the better way. The life of worship together as Christians leading to powerful witness in the world.