It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God by Mark Love

It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of discernment in the first 15 chapters of Acts. 

The title of the book, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and To Us is taken from Acts 15:28, which is part of the letter written to the gentile Christians after the Acts 15 council. After the council, this letter summarized what had been decided. What is clear from the context is that this was not simply a decision of a single leader, or a small group of leaders, but of the broader church. The main thrust of It Seemed God to the Holy Spirit and To Us is to explore the book of Acts to get clues into how the early church practiced discernment and how other spiritual and relational practices in the church helped to facilitate that group discernment process.

Mark Love is intentionally exploring these early church practices for the purpose of helping the modern church learn from them. So this is not just a biblical studies book, but a book for the church today. Central to his thesis is that, “…Pentecost gives birth to…a community living in [a] new social arrangement of the kingdom of God–a church.” (p22)

I am going to quote a long passage from early in the book because I think it sets the stage for how he understand the role of the book.

“I am demonstrating several convictions I have about ministry in how I deal with these texts. First, ministry finds its life in a deep engagement with Scripture. Ministry emerges naturally through a long habitation with Scripture. Good ministry is an art, requiring a well-funded imagination. In shaping a theological imagination, Scriptures must be more than a tool one uses to solve puzzles. Instead the deep structures of texts—the way they move, their rhythms, the peculiar way they name things—must become deep structures for ministers as well. This deep imagination, related to Scripture, is exactly what we find in Acts 15 when James summarizes the discernment of the community in relation to the inclusion of Gentiles.” (p25)

Love also assumes that most churches are not designed for practicing communal discernment.

“…our congregations are not built for discernment. We prize control and mastery, rather than surprise and pliability. If the church is a boat, we are building oars to propel the boat under our own power, rather than constructing sails to receive the empowering wind of the Holy Spirit.” (p50)

As part of the exploration of Acts, Mark Love particularly looks at the way that modern churches and the church shown in Acts understands economics (Acts 2), planning and efficiency, power structures (Acts 6), eating together and church design differently. Depending on who you are, different parts of this book will raise different questions, but I think virtually everyone will see areas where their church community falls short of the types of communal practices that the early church practiced as they sought communal discernment. Using the chapter titles, this book should prick the conscience of almost everyone: The Spirit poured out on all flesh, There was not a needy person among them, the importance of eating together, living together in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, Truly understand God shows no partiality.

The final two chapters expand on what has been hinted at throughout the book. Some communal practices can be adopted by modern local churches that can help facilitate group discernment. Some of these overlap with other books that are particularly about group discernment, like Quaker Discernment and A Way of Discernment, but the orientation is toward modern adaptations of what is found in Acts. I assume that these are the chapters that will produce a lot of quibbles because the reality is that every church will have different settings and will, therefore, have to adapt these practices to their setting (as Mark Love specifically suggests.).

One of the issues I felt repeatedly as I read the book is that I do not know that any church can practice as the early church did. There is a long history of church reform movements trying to recreate the early church as they understood it. Being familiar with the church history of those movements and how they often devolved into a type of legalism focused on maintaining the practices instead of orienting toward how the practices encourage discernment is an eternal problem. This is similar to Jesus’ comment about the sabbath being made for people, not people being made for the Sabbath.

Another tension I felt while reading the book is the role of supersessionism. I need to explore this more, but the recent attention to anti-Semitism has raised my awareness of supersessionism. I think it is just the case that Acts is written with supersessionist ideas. That makes some people very uncomfortable because of their understanding of what scripture is. But the early church was imperfect. The church today is also imperfect, usually in different ways from how the early church was imperfect, but one of the values of cross-cultural exploration is that it can reveal new ways to understand ourselves because different cultural expressions of the church have different blind spots.

I have three main takeaways from It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us. First, much of the work around discernment is theological, not biblical. I understand why that is, but I think books like this that attempt to root discernment in biblical studies are helpful corrective. Second, the Holy Spirit and Pentecost are wildly undervalued within church theology and practices. Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love is helpful in this regard, but assuming that we should be oriented toward the Holy Spirit in a post-Pentecost world is frankly undervalued. Third, spiritual practices are not just individual; they are communal. The way we are the church will influence what we value as a church. We often do what we have always done because we are not intentional. The practices of the historic church should be regularly explored to see what is cultural and what is transcultural. There has been a retrieval of liturgical practices in evangelicalism in the past couple of decades, but the church’s practices are more than just the liturgy. There is still much work to be done to understand how the church’s practices influence the church’s mission.

It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God by Mark Love Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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