What does the ideal church look like? Graham H. Twelftree, in his recent book entitled People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church, poses that very question to the author of Luke-Acts. While Twelftree admits his study is not comprehensive he does claim it identifies and explains the major aspects of Luke’s ecclesiology. Given the amount of subjects covered in the book and the controversial nature of some of the material it would be unrealistic to think that Luke and Acts scholars as well as those interested in ecclesiology will not appreciate Twelftree’s nuanced analysis and careful investigation of Luke’s writing.
Some of the more stimulating conclusions from Twelftree’s study on Luke-Acts are: 1) the church’s origin, which he argues is in Jesus’ calling of the disciples rather than at Pentecost, 2) Pentecost as an eschatological event for the purpose of empowering people for ministry, 3) the church as the true and faithful expression of Israel, 4) the meaning of breaking bread for the early church was not a remembrance of Jesus’ death, but instead it was an occasion for recalling the meals they joyously shared with Jesus, 5) the mission of the church is to preach the gospel to those outside the church and apply social justice to people inside the church 6) and finally, unlike Israel, the church is a people directed primarily by the Spirit not by the Scriptures. The book concludes with a helpful summary chapter that reinforces each section.
One of the most thought-provoking sections of the book is Twelftree’s presentation of Luke’s view of the church’s mission. Twelftree makes a compelling case for a Lukan perspective of church mission that is likely at odds with the manner in which many evangelical churches prioritize their compassion ministries today. Twelftree argues that Luke perceives a major element of the church’s responsibility is to meet the needs of those inside the community rather than aim at social action outside the church. Twelftree provides plenty of examples for this view such as the parable of the Good Samaritan who reached out to assist a Jew (insider). In Acts the widows in the church are cared for, not those outside the community of the redeemed. There are important practical implications to consider in this chapter. A helpful addition to this section would have been a discussion as to why this particular ministry model was important for Luke.
While I believe Twelftree raises some important issues regarding church practice, I question if there is a true parallel between ancient hero biographies and the New Testament narratives as he claims. Many of Twelftree’s conclusions rest on viewing Luke’s two-volume composition as being similar to an ancient hero biography where the author composes his narrative with the expectation his readers will model the behavior of the major characters in his text. Twelftree believes that Luke intended Luke-Acts to be this type of literature, prescribing practice, rather than merely describing history.
Twelftree perceives a similarity between Luke-Acts and Greek historians, noting these accounts were meant to be example stories. However, the Greek writers normally wrote about powerful individuals in politics or mighty war figures. The political or military figures are not present in Luke-Acts. In addition, some of the literature Twelftree cites to establish the ancient practice of teaching exemplary behavior such as Enchiridion by Epictetus and Isocrates’ Advice to Demonicus are not narrative. Instead they are didactic and give direct instruction on behavior. This is unlike Luke-Acts where behavior and practice are narrated in story. Luke-Acts lacks any of statements where the author encourages his audience to follow the actions of the major characters. Further, works such as Plutarch’s Lives taught moral lessons by examining the character of famous men. Twelftree contends Luke is teaching his audience to model major characters’ practice and not their morals or virtues.
Luke does use scriptural models in his narrative taken from the Old Testament such as the conversion of Paul. Paul’s conversion mirrors many stories from the Hebrew Scriptures where God appears to and commissions individuals for service. It seems from this pattern we can conclude that part of Luke’s intent was to show the continuity of God’s dealing with people and the manner in which he forwarded his redemptive purposes. From patterns such as these it would appear that in part Luke’s narrative was to teach about God’s sovereign freedom to carry out his work as he chooses, regardless of the time period in redemptive history.
While some of Tweftree’s views are unique in nature, nevertheless I found the book thought provoking and well worth reading. Anyone who wishes to biblically understand the church and takes seriously her mission will find many of his discussions compelling and informative.