The Book of Acts: A Pattern for Modern Church Growth

Jared W. Ludlow

Jared W. Ludlow, “The Book of Acts: A Pattern for Modern Church Growth,” in Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 1–29.

Jared W. Ludlow is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University

The book of Acts was written by Luke after his Gospel as the second part of a great two-volume work on Jesus Christ and the early Christians.[1] Whereas the Gospel of Luke focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Acts of the Apostles builds upon what Jesus did and taught (see Acts 1:1), recounting the story of the young, emerging Church and the work of the early Apostles as they went forth as witnesses of Christ “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (v. 8).[2]

During Christ’s lifetime, the spreading of the gospel was focused on the house of Israel, and consequently most of the events occurred in Judea and Galilee. In Acts, however, the commission was to minister to scattered Israel and to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. This expansion was not without its difficulties. Long, dangerous travels, persecutions, issues of Church policy, incorporation of foreigners, and maintaining distant congregations challenged the Apostles as they sought to fulfill their commission to carry the gospel message to the nations.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received a similar commission to preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (see D&C 133:37). Many modern Church leaders have stressed that one of our greatest callings in this dispensation is to further the kingdom of God on earth.[3] For this reason, the Church is more of a world organization than ever before in its history. Yet this growth has not come without its own stumbling blocks as well. Besides the continual struggle against the adversary and his lieutenants who constantly fight against the ministry of the Church no matter what day or age,[4] many logistical and cultural challenges arise as the Church grows in various parts of the world.

Consequently, in spite of the many centuries that separate us from the early Church of the New Testament, we can relate to the circumstances facing the Apostles in the book of Acts as we confront similar challenges of contemporary Church expansion.[5] The Apostles’ efforts, struggles, and successes provide great lessons and models for Latter-day Saints as we strive to fulfill the commission to carry the gospel to the entire world. In likening the scriptures unto ourselves, we can examine some episodes from Acts and ask, how did the first Apostles overcome obstacles in the growth of the early Church and how can we incorporate their solutions into similar modern-day dilemmas?

Commission of Apostles—Acts 1:8

The first adjustment the early Apostles faced was the absence of Jesus. They had spent several years accompanying Jesus during His ministry, but upon His Ascension they were left to carry on the work alone. These Apostles were given a commission to be witnesses of Christ “unto the uttermost part of the earth,” and they were promised power through the Holy Ghost in order to help them fulfill their stewardship (1:8). With this endowment of spiritual power, the Apostles truly became the pillars of the growing Church with Peter as the chief pillar.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the receipt of apostolic keys and the commission to take the gospel to all the world are also significant matters. The modern-day Quorum of the Twelve has received their keys and power of apostleship through a line of authority from three of the ancient Apostles: Peter, James, and John.[6] Doctrine and Covenants 27:12 discusses how these ancient Apostles were sent to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith as those “by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and special witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them.” Section 107:23 further delineates the role of the Twelve Apostles as “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.” Thus their ministry is similar to the early Apostles: to serve as especial witnesses of Christ, not just to the Church but to the entire world.

The Prophet Joseph Smith described the Apostles’ calling in the following manner:

They are the Twelve Apostles, who are called to the office of the Traveling High Council, who are to preside over the churches of the Saints, among the Gentiles, where there is a presidency established; and they are to travel and preach among the Gentiles, until the Lord shall command them to go to the Jews. They are to hold the keys of this ministry, to unlock the door of the Kingdom of heaven unto all nations, and to preach the Gospel to every creature. This is the power, authority, and virtue of their apostleship.[7]

The modern Apostles likewise have been endowed with power from on high and rely on the Holy Ghost to fulfill their special mission. Inspiration from the Spirit guides all their activities from the calling of Church leaders, to preparing messages, to planning the future direction of the Church.

Replacing a Vacancy in the Quorum—Acts 1:15–26

One of the early Apostles’ first actions as the authoritative body of the early Church was to replace the vacancy in the Twelve resulting from Judas’s betrayal and death. Peter, the chief Apostle, stood in the midst of about 120 male disciples and encouraged them to choose someone to take the vacant office (see 1:15, 20–22).[8] They decided to select a man who had been a living witness to Christ’s ministry, and so they put forward two names, Joseph Barsabas and Matthias (see v. 23). They then petitioned God, who knows men’s hearts, to show them which of the two He would choose (see v. 24). They cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias, who then joined the eleven Apostles (see v. 26).[9]

The issue of succession among the first Twelve is very applicable to the Quorum of the Twelve today. As the Church is currently organized, any vacancy in the Twelve (or other General Authority office) is filled through revelation by the President of the Church. President N. Eldon Tanner explained, “They are chosen by the President through inspiration and revelation as he considers the names of those who, at his invitation, have been recommended by members of the Twelve, together with those whom he might be considering himself. Because of the inspiration and revelation involved, a General Authority is actually divinely appointed and is approved by the Council of the Twelve before being called and set apart, and later sustained by the general conference.”[10]

President Spencer W. Kimball further described the role of the Apostles in relation to succession of leadership in the presidency of the Church:

Full provision has been made by our Lord for changes. Today there are fourteen apostles holding the keys in suspension, the twelve and the two counselors to the President, to be brought into use if and when circumstances allow, all ordained to leadership in their turn as they move forward in seniority.

There have been some eighty apostles so endowed since Joseph Smith, though only eleven have occupied the place of the President of the Church, death having intervened; and since the death of his servants is in the power and control of the Lord, he permits to come to the first place only the one who is destined to take that leadership. Death and life become the controlling factors. Each new apostle in turn is chosen by the Lord and revealed to the then living prophet who ordains him.

The matter of seniority is basic in the first quorums of the Church. All the apostles understand this perfectly, and all well-trained members of the Church are conversant with this perfect succession program.[11]

Although there is no “casting of lots” in the same sense today to decide apostolic succession, the suggesting of names and the revelatory principle behind the method is still very much the same.[12] Today it is more common to signify selecting or sustaining a Church leader through raising the right arm, and this is done on the quorum level by unanimity when sustaining a new member, and by the worldwide Church at special conferences.

The calling of Apostles as special witnesses of Jesus Christ hearkens back to the original calling of the Apostles who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry. President Joseph F. Smith taught that the modern Apostles “are supposed to be eye and ear witnesses of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. It is not permissible for them to say, I believe, simply; I have accepted it simply because I believe it. Read the revelation; the Lord informs us they must know, they must get the knowledge for themselves. It must be with them as if they had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears and they know the truth.”[13] President Joseph Fielding Smith was asked whether it is necessary for current members of the Quorum of the Twelve to see the Savior in order to be an Apostle. He replied: “It is their privilege to see him if occasion requires, but the Lord has taught that there is a stronger witness than seeing a personage, even of the Son of God, in a vision. . . . The seeing, even the Savior, does not leave as deep an impression in the mind as does the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the spirit.”[14]

The Lord continues to direct His Church through revelation in the appointing of Apostles from seemingly random occupations and walks of life similar to the early Apostles who had been fishermen, tax collectors, tentmakers, and so forth. These Apostles are then privileged to have spiritual experiences that allow them to stand as witnesses of Jesus Christ and proclaim His reality throughout the world. The Lord guides the growing Church through this significant quorum of leadership to the point that there is little concern in the Church today over succession and the direction of leadership of the Church.

Gift of Tongues—Acts 2

Another problem the early Apostles faced was how to spread the gospel among many different lands where many different languages were spoken. Shortly after they had reconstituted their quorum, a dramatic spiritual experience occurred on the day of Pentecost that helped pave the way for the spreading of the gospel in different lands. The term Pentecost comes from the Greek name of the Jewish festival Shavu’ot, or Festival of Weeks. The festival carried this name because it was held fifty days after Passover, or seven weeks (shavu’ot Hebrew for “weeks”), and celebrated the firstfruits of the grain harvest (see Leviticus 23:15–21; Deuteronomy 16:9–12). On this particular occasion in Acts, the Apostles were gathered together when suddenly a spiritual experience unfolded, and “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues” (2:4). This manifestation of the Spirit not only empowered the Apostles, but astounded the nearby multitude because “every man heard them speak in his own language” (v. 6). They were amazed because much of the multitude was from various parts of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, yet they heard these Galilean Apostles speaking in their own tongue.

With such spiritual preparation, Peter arose and addressed the interested audience. As he preached the gospel, many desired to know what to do. Peter’s subsequent, simple invitation is the everlasting invitation of the gospel: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (2:38). Many accepted Peter’s invitation, and about three thousand souls were baptized that day. These new converts formed the base of the Church in its heartland of Jerusalem (vv. 42–47), but still many others probably returned to their homelands and planted the seeds for future work among the gentiles and, moreover, for the future establishment of the Church in distant lands.[15]

The modern Church also has the challenge to spread the gospel throughout the world so that each may hear the gospel in one’s own tongue. The gift of tongues manifested on the day of Pentecost is one of many gifts of the Spirit elaborated in scripture, both ancient and modern. We are encouraged to seek after these gifts, especially missionaries serving in foreign lands. According to H. George Bickerstaff in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

Gifts of the Spirit are to be sought for their beneficial effect rather than for their remarkable character (see 1 Cor. 14). In fact, as Joseph Smith observed, only one or two of the gifts are visible when in operation. In its commonly understood sense, the gift of tongues is one such, but President Joseph F. Smith stressed its more practical aspect: “I needed the gift of tongues once, and the Lord gave it to me. I was in a foreign land, sent to preach the gospel to a people whose language I could not understand. Then I sought earnestly for the gift of tongues, and by this gift and by study, in a hundred days after landing upon those [Hawaiian] islands I could talk to the people in their language as I now talk to you in my native tongue. This was a gift that was worthy of the gospel. There was a purpose in it.” In this way, the gift is frequently enjoyed by LDS missionaries today.[16]

Modern Church leaders, however, have warned us to be cautious in using this gift because of its potential to lead us astray. Elder Robert D. Hales stated:

We are told by prophets in this dispensation that revelation for the direction of the Church will not be given through the gift of tongues. The reason for this is that it is very easy for Lucifer to falsely duplicate the gift of tongues and confuse the members of the Church. Satan has the power to trick us as it pertains to some of the gifts of the Spirit. One in which he is the most deceptive is the gift of tongues. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (1801–77) explained the need to be cautious when considering the gift of tongues. “You may speak in tongues for your own comfort, but I lay this down for a rule, that if anything is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.” “Speak not in the gift of tongues without understanding it, or without interpretation. The devil can speak in tongues.” “The gift of tongues is not . . . empowered to dictate . . . the Church. All gifts and endowments given of the Lord to members of his Church are not given to control the Church; but they are under the control and guidance of the Priesthood, and are judged of by it.” The gift of tongues is used by missionaries to teach the gospel to the nations of the world.[17]

Our usual interpretation of this gift, communicating in a foreign language for teaching, differs from some other Christian groups, but even from the time of Paul (see 1 Corinthians 14), the wisdom of properly communicating and understanding through this gift is the key blessing. This gift may also allow individuals who are temporarily living in a foreign country to hear the gospel in a foreign tongue, understand it, become converted, and return later to their homelands to build the Church there. This blessing allows the gospel to be carried throughout the world to people of many different languages.

Additional Church Organization—Acts 6:1–8

As the early Church began to expand and include different groups, one particular administrative issue arose that required the attention of the Apostles. Acts 6:1 describes a situation where Grecians were murmuring against Hebrews because their widows and poor were neglected in the daily ministration. The Grecians, usually referred to as Hellenists, were a group of Greek-speaking converts to the Church who were living in Jerusalem as Hellenized Jews. Hellenism was the spread and influence of Greek thought, culture, religion, and language throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Many Jews in the land of Israel, but particularly Jews living outside of Israel in Diaspora (exile from the land of Israel), became Hellenized and thus adopted many Greek ways of thinking and especially the Greek language. The Greek language had become so dominant among Jews several centuries before the rise of Christianity, in fact, that a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible became necessary, thus giving birth to the Septuagint. The Hellenists of Acts 6 probably formed their own community based on language and cultural practices, although their religion was shared with fellow Jewish converts to Christianity.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, were more traditional Jews who had converted to Christianity. They maintained a stronger link to their Semitic language background and culture, speaking Aramaic, which was closely related to Hebrew. Jesus’s first Apostles would be considered Hebrews because of their local upbringing. Among early Christians they also may have maintained a somewhat separate community based on shared cultural and linguistic traits.

The issue that arose between these two groups was over caring for the poor, specifically the widows among the Hellenist community. The Hellenists felt their widows were being neglected by the Hebrews, so they took their concerns to the Apostles. The Apostles met with the Hellenist community and explained that with the growth of the Church and the need for their missionary service in new areas, they could not adequately care for the widows alone (see 6:2). They decided, therefore, to call seven men from among the Hellenists to take this responsibility so that the Apostles could continue to focus on the “ministry of the word” (v. 4).[18] One of the most well known of this new group of leaders was Stephen, who later became an early martyr for the Church as he boldly defended himself before the Jewish leaders and beheld a vision of the Father and the Son just before being stoned to death outside the walls of Jerusalem (see chapter 7). Thus a new Church leadership position was instituted that helped the Churchwide work go forward while also addressing the local needs of members.

The modern Church’s rapid growth in areas throughout the world has created many challenges in administering such a vast area while still nurturing the individual. There are thus many examples of organizational changes that have allowed the Church to expand globally yet continue to assist members on a more local level. Sometimes we wonder how these organizational changes and new titles apply to our sixth article of faith, which states, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church.” When the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote this article of faith, he was following the phrasing of Paul in the New Testament in outlining some of the duties, functions, and offices of ecclesiastical leaders of his day. President Harold B. Lee cautions that we need modern revelation to fully understand the offices and duties mentioned in the New Testament:

We are able by reading the Bible to identify every priesthood office existing in the restored church of Jesus Christ, but modern revelation, giving us the complete organization, is necessary in order to understand how the organization functioned and the relationship of church officers to each other.

One of the errors into which men, unguided by revelation, have fallen today is to confuse terms used in the Bible describing the duties and nature of various callings in the Church with the proper titles by which priesthood offices were designated. Hence such words as pastor, evangelist, minister, overseer, father of the flock (a term applied to bishops and applied in apostate churches with titles which mean father) were often used in reference to duties rather than to designate an office of the priesthood.[19]

We can thus see that these duties and functions persist, such as overseeing a congregation or quorum as a pastor (shepherd), in the various offices of the priesthood and administrative titles of the Church today.

As alluded to above, some recent notable examples of organizational changes include Area Presidencies and Area Seventies as well as some Apostles living abroad in a specific region for an extended period of time. Currently there are eight Quorums of the Seventy to allow better geographic organization and supervision. Members of the third through the eighth quorums do not serve as General Authorities but rather as area supervisors who help train local leaders and assist Area Presidencies, who are mostly General Authorities serving in the First or Second Quorums of the Seventy. Also, from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and Dallin H. Oaks recently lived abroad in the Chile and Philippines, respectively, and later Elder L. Tom Perry lived in Europe. Their direct presence allowed greater service to the local membership while maintaining their roles as witnesses of Christ to all the world.

Cultural Diversity—Acts 8:26–39

As the early Church began expanding, it brought together many different cultures, which was both a challenge and a blessing. An interesting episode in Acts that highlights the growing diversity of the Church and its converts is the encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian in Acts 8:26–39. Philip was prompted by an angel to go south from Jerusalem to Gaza. While en route he overheard an Ethiopian man, a prominent official of the Ethiopian queen, reading from a key messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53. The Ethiopian did not understand what he was reading, which provided the opportunity for Philip to explain and preach of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. After some teaching and traveling, they came upon a body of water, where the Ethiopian proclaimed his belief and was baptized. This encounter is interesting because here was an Ethiopian, probably a Jewish convert or God-fearer, since he had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was reading from Isaiah, who was baptized by one of the seven leaders chosen to watch over the Jerusalem Hellenist Christian community. What a potpourri of cultures, languages, and backgrounds! Yet the Spirit brought them together, and presumably the Ethiopian then took his newfound faith with him back to his home region, thereby building a foundation for the Church that would later bring about the conversion of the king and create a Christian kingdom in Ethiopia in the fourth century.

One great example of diverse cultures united under Christ, according to President Marion G. Romney and others, is BYU–Hawaii, which serves as a microcosm of the growing international Church, with the majority of the students coming from over seventy countries studying and worshipping together. “This college is a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of the Master Teacher have an opportunity for developing an appreciation, tolerance, and esteem for one another. For what can be done here interculturally in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth.”[20] Another example is the missionaries at Temple Square, who come from all over the world to Salt Lake City, to spread the gospel in their own languages next to Church headquarters, while many other missionaries go throughout the world learning new languages and associating with new cultures.

Due to the globalization and movement of peoples throughout the world today, the Church has continued to expand among many different cultures, sometimes even among people living away from their homeland where the Church has not been fully organized. This expansion and blurring of borders has created some interesting results along with problems as some congregations, especially in major cities of the world such as Toronto, London, Paris, New York, and Hong Kong, bring together many different cultures, languages, and backgrounds. Some individuals become pioneers in a very real sense as they take the gospel back to their homelands to introduce the Church on new soil. Consequently, they form the foundation for the future growth of the Church in that area. Some of the first African converts fulfilled the role of pioneer for the Church in their homelands.

There are many pioneers in the Church in Ghana. Some of them were baptized while studying or working outside the country, then returned home to share their newfound truths with family and friends.

Monica Ohene-Opare was baptized as an exchange student in New York in 1979. She married shortly after returning home and helped convert her husband, Emmanuel. Each of them has since held a variety of Church callings. Currently, she is president of the Primary in their ward, and he is president of the Accra Ghana Stake. But their most important leadership contributions may have been in family life.

Sister Ohene-Opare knows that their five children have been blessed with an opportunity that was not available to her: they are among the first generation in Ghana to grow up in the gospel, “and it has become part of them.” She says she is grateful that they have its high standards to help them confront their challenges.

Emmanuel Abu Kissi’s experience with his extended family is typical of Church growth in Ghana—one person’s testimony becoming a catalyst for the faith of others.

Emmanuel was studying medicine in London when LDS missionaries contacted his family. His wife, Benedicta Elizabeth, was healed of illness and depression through a blessing they gave her. In what they taught, Emmanuel found answers to questions that had troubled him for years. The Kissis were baptized in 1979.[21]

There are also some cases where members meet in language wards different from their host country so that they can maintain their gospel study and worship in a familiar tongue. Thus to adapt to growing, global dynamics, the Church sometimes encourages mixed congregations, sometimes separate language congregations, and all the while strives to strengthen individual members in areas where the Church is developing so they can build a strong foundation for future growth in those areas.

Spreading the Gospel beyond Original Cultural, National, and Racial Groups—Acts 10

Another particular challenge the early Church had was taking the gospel beyond the house of Israel to the Gentiles since so much of their past history and efforts were focused on the “covenant people.” Acts 10 details two intertwined visions involving the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and most likely a God-fearer,[22] which were key experiences for Peter in widening the expanse of the work towards the Gentiles. The chapter opens by recounting a visionary, angelic experience Cornelius received wherein he was told to summon Peter from nearby Joppa (see 10:3–6). As Cornelius’s men were journeying toward the city, Peter himself received a vision of a large cloth whereon were all types of strange beasts and fowls. In the vision he was commanded to partake of the animals, but he resisted due to their unclean status (see vv. 9–14). After two repetitions of the same command and refusal, the cloth returned to heaven and Peter was left to puzzle over its meaning. At that moment Cornelius’s messengers arrived and enquired after Peter (see vv. 15–17). Peter received a spiritual prompting that they were sent from God, and he, along with some companions, accompanied them back to Cornelius (see v. 23). At Cornelius’s house a small group had gathered desiring that Peter preach to them, which led to an outpouring of the Spirit (see v. 44). The Christian companions that had accompanied Peter, who were of Jewish background, were astonished that the Holy Ghost was also poured out on the Gentiles (see vv. 45–46). Peter pointed out that since the Gentiles had received the witness of the Holy Ghost, what should preclude them from being baptized? At which point Peter commanded that they be baptized in the name of the Lord (see vv. 47–48).

Peter and his companions learned through the vision and through the spiritual preparation of these Gentiles that “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (34–35). Peter also felt he could no longer call any man common or unclean (see v. 28). Apparently this new attitude towards the Gentiles was resisted by some Jewish Christians, as some contended with Peter when he returned to Jerusalem and they found out about his dealings with the Gentiles (see 11:1–3). It was very difficult for many of the early Christians to envision the gospel including non-Israelites because so much of the covenant focus, and even Jesus’s ministry, had been toward the house of Israel. Now they were being asked to extend the blessings of the gospel beyond lineal boundaries and focus on worthiness and the Spirit instead. But after Peter shared his vision and experience with them, emphasizing the manifestations of the Spirit among them, they were pacified (see vv. 4–18). Yet this issue continued to hang over the early Church as they tried to understand the role of gentile converts vis-a-vis the house of Israel and Mosaic customs.

Perhaps a Latter-day Saint experience that could be comparable to the early Church’s inclusion of Gentiles would be the inclusion of groups not already fully a part of the Church, such as the revelation in 1978 extending the priesthood to all worthy males. Because of decades of Church policy and hypothetical reasoning for the priesthood ban, it was a difficult change for some members of the Church. In 1981 Elder McConkie discussed the parallel between the inclusion of the gentiles and the lifting of the priesthood ban. He illustrated the difficulty the New Testament–era Church members must have had in reversing centuries of practice. They may have wondered if all men could come to Christ on an equal basis with the seed of Abraham despite the new revelation given to Peter from God. Similarly, lifting the priesthood ban ended years of practice and highlighted the importance of current revelation today.

We have revelations that tell us that the gospel is to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people before the second coming of the Son of Man. And we have revelations which recite that when the Lord comes, he will find those who speak every tongue and are members of every nation and kindred, who will be kings and priests, who will live and reign on earth with him a thousand years. That means, as you know, that people from all nations will have the blessings of the house of the Lord before the Second Coming.

We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.” There are statements in our literature by the early brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.[23]

Modern revelation is the key to guiding the Church through new situations and changing dynamics. The current prophet is able to give us the counsel that we need today. Sometimes revelation will require changing our perspectives and leaving our comfort zones, but the blessings to us and the Church will certainly be worth our effort. We must seek for a testimony of modern revelation so that we can be assured that we are being led by God’s representatives on earth today.

Changes in Church Policy or Practice—Acts 15

A key issue the early Christian Church faced in regards to new converts and policy was how much the Jewish customs and traditions that had been the background of the earliest Apostles and converts should persist. Since Jesus had followed the requirements of the law of Moses throughout His life, although He often disagreed with different Jewish groups about their interpretations or supplementary traditions, some early Christians felt that maintaining aspects of the law was necessary to properly follow Jesus and comply with the covenant.[24] Other Christians, most notably Paul, felt that since Jesus had fulfilled the law, the requirements of the law were not necessary for salvation and the Christian covenant was beyond these Jewish aspects, thus making it unnecessary for Gentiles to comply, although many Jewish Christians, such as James the Just, continued to do so. These opposing viewpoints occasionally clashed and resulted in a council in Jerusalem around AD 50 to settle the matter (Acts 15).

The Jerusalem council began with vigorous debate, after which Peter arose and reminded the group of Apostles and elders of the visions and experiences he had had concerning the Gentiles and the spiritual manifestations they demonstrated. He encouraged the council not to put a yoke (the law of Moses) upon them that they would not be able to bear (see v. 10). Paul and Barnabas likewise spoke of the many spiritual experiences they had shared with the Gentiles as evidence of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles’ conversion (see v. 12). Finally James, the brother of Jesus and a key figure in the Jerusalem congregation of Christians, reiterated prophecies that declared that God would form a covenant people from among the Gentiles. He suggested that they not be bound to the law of Moses but instead keep a few requirements related to idolatrous food offerings, chastity, and improper meat slaughtering, which would have been common in gentile communities particularly as part of their pagan temple worship (see vv. 19–20). The council accepted this arrangement, and letters accompanied by two representatives from the council were sent out to congregations of primarily Gentile Saints, particularly the largest Gentile congregation in Antioch, Syria (see vv. 22–32).

Although some Christians, usually referred to as “Jewish Christians” or “Judaizers,” continued to stress the Mosaic traditions in their Christian worship (see 21:17–25), the Jerusalem Council’s policy helped pave the way for a greater inclusion of Gentiles into Christianity. In addition, with the missionary efforts of the Apostles throughout the eastern Mediterranean, the Church membership eventually reflected a gentile majority. What had begun as a small Jewish following in the Galilee started to stretch throughout the Roman Empire, eventually to become the imperial religion in the fourth century AD. Today Christianity is the largest religion of the world as it has been spread through conquest and missionary efforts into many parts of the globe.

The Latter-day Saint Church has also faced many issues that have resulted in policy changes and official declarations sent out to Church membership to inform and educate the members about such changes. Two of the most notable examples are included in the Doctrine and Covenants: the manifesto regarding plural marriage and the extension of priesthood blessings to all worthy males. Like the early Christians after the Jerusalem Council, not all members of the Latter-day Saint Church have accepted these policy changes but rather have maintained the previous stand, sometimes to the point of forming their own Church organizations. Yet with the principle of continuous revelation, we should be open to new direction as our leaders are inspired for our day. President Boyd K. Packer expressed this sentiment when he said, “Revelation is a continuous principle in the Church. In one sense the Church is still being organized. As light and knowledge are given, as prophecies are fulfilled and more intelligence is received, another step forward can be taken.”[25] The ninth article of faith expresses the hope that even greater revelations are forthcoming: “And we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (emphasis added).

For some, however, a new direction through revelation proves too difficult. President Packer commented on this group: “There are those within the Church who are disturbed when changes are made with which they disagree or when changes they propose are not made. They point to these as evidence that the leaders are not inspired. . . . Changes in organization or procedures are a testimony that revelation is ongoing. While doctrines remain fixed, the methods or procedures do not. . . . The doctrines will remain fixed, eternal; the organization, programs, and procedures will be altered as directed by Him whose church this is.”[26]

A question that often arises among members of the Church is, what is the difference between a doctrine that does not change and a policy or practice that can change?[27] Although it would be impossible to list all such differences, perhaps it is helpful to focus on the principle behind a policy. Certain doctrines and principles have been taught through the ages in the various settings where God’s covenant people have been, yet how the Church or law of God was administered in those settings varied. One example from the Church in the 1840s was the ordinance of baptism for the dead. The doctrine or principle behind this ordinance is that vicarious work can be done for the deceased, and if the departed spirits accept the gospel in the spirit world, this ordinance can be effective for them. That doctrine or principle is unchanging. The practice or method of carrying out baptisms for the dead, however, has changed. Initially baptisms for the dead were done in the Mississippi River, yet after the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, it became policy to only perform these baptisms within the sacred temples (see D&C 124:31–42). Thus once again a belief in modern revelation is the key to presenting additional information about doctrines, correcting improper practices, and changing policies and practices when necessary to reflect new situations.

Robert J. Matthews offers an interesting perspective on this issue:

There was that conflict between the doctrine of the Church and Jewish culture. The long-standing cultural tradition persisted among many Jewish members for years, even after the doctrinal question was settled.

In like manner today, there may be questions on which the doctrinal foundation is clear but on which tradition or custom are so strong that the Brethren are impressed not to take a firmer stand, trusting, as did Church leaders in New Testament times, that if the basic revealed principles are known, the Holy Ghost will eventually lead the adherents to forsake their tradition, or academic popularity, or peer pressure in favor of the word of God.

The resolution of the problem reported in the book of Acts gives our present generation an informative model as to how both Church members and those of different faiths may react when revelation confronts tradition and long-standing custom. Only living prophets could correctly handle the situation then. Only living prophets can do so in our day.[28]

As of today, the Latter-day Saint Church has expanded far beyond its humble origins and its western home along the Rocky Mountains.[29] In fact one of the most amazing aspects of its growth is that within the past decade the Church has had more members living outside the United States than within. It has truly become a world religion with congregations and temples dotting the globe. This growth has of course produced new problems and issues, but the principle of current revelation helps adapt the administration and organization of the Church to meet its needs.

Summary—Acts of Ancient and Modern Apostles

The book of Acts provides many helpful examples of issues and stumbling blocks the early Apostles overcame as they worked to fulfill their commission to take the gospel to all the world. As they did so, they relied heavily on the Holy Spirit to not only strengthen themselves and make decisions but to manifest conversion in others. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland expressed this sentiment about the role of the Spirit in guiding the Church:

From the outset (at least from the first verse of the book of Acts) the declaration was that the Church would continue to be divinely led, not mortally led. And that was important for the people to hear in that terrible hour of confusion and fear. Indeed, a more complete title for the book of Acts could appropriately be something like “The Acts of the Resurrected Christ Working through the Holy Spirit in the Lives and Ministries of His Ordained Apostles.” Now, having said that, you can see why someone voted for the shorter title—but my suggested title is more accurate! . . .

Christ was not only directing the actions of His Apostles through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit; He was also speaking through them by the same Spirit. This is a lesson about the governance of the Church of Jesus Christ, both ancient and modern.

The Father and the Son direct this work still, having Their impact upon Church leaders, teachers, and individuals through the means of the Holy Ghost. And it is through that same instrumentality that we must have our impact upon those we teach.[30]

Because of the Holy Spirit’s witness, they knew they could take the gospel beyond the house of Israel and include others that had not been part of the ministry before. Modern Apostles today also rely on heavenly direction through the Holy Spirit to know how to lead the Church and how to administer such a rapidly growing and diverse membership in an orderly fashion. In the process, new policies, procedures, and leadership positions have been implemented just as in the early Church. We can better understand some of the challenges facing the Apostles in Acts because of similar issues today, and hopefully we can gain strength and insights from their solutions as we support our Church leaders and fulfill our own roles in carrying the gospel throughout the world to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples.


[1] Luke states at the beginning of Acts that his writing is addressed to Theophilus. Some regard Theophilus as merely a metaphor for any “friend of God,” which is the literal meaning of the Greek word. Possibly though, Theophilus was an actual early convert to the Church whom Luke was trying to strengthen in the gospel (see Bible Dictionary, “Theophilus,” 785). He may even have been Luke’s benefactor as Luke traveled around the eastern Mediterranean compiling his history of the Christians. Acts primarily relates the work of some of the early Apostles, focusing particularly on the leadership of Peter in the first part and the missionary efforts of Paul in the second part. Acts 1:8 seems to foreshadow a brief sketch of the entire book as it describes the Apostles’ commission to be witnesses “in Jerusalem (chs. 1–5), and in all Judaea, and in Samaria (chs. 6–9), and unto the uttermost part of the earth (chs. 10–28)” (Bible Dictionary, “Acts of the Apostles,” 603). The book of Acts ends its account before the martyrdom of Paul around AD 65.

[2] All scripture references are to passages in Acts unless otherwise designated.

[3] For example, see Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 167.

[4] Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 165.

[5] Some helpful articles comparing Latter-day Saint practices and beliefs with what is presented in Acts include Robert L. Millet, “The Saga of the Early Christian Church,” and Robert J. Matthews, “Unto All Nations,” both in Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6, Acts to Revelation, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987); John W. Welch, “The Acts of the Apostle William E. McLellin,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836, ed. Jan Shipps and John E. Welch (Provo, UT, and Urbana: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994); and Edward J. Brandt, “And He Gave Some, Apostles,” Liahona, September 2001, 32–39.

[6] Further priesthood keys and power would subsequently be given through other spiritual manifestations (see D&C 110).

[7] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:200.

[8] The King James Version of v. 20 uses the term “bishoprick” for the vacant office, which is a translation of the Greek term episkopos (overseer, guardian; bishop). This verse actually comes from Psalm 109:8, where the Hebrew term is pkudah (oversight; charge; position) which the Greek Septuagint translates like the New Testament as episkopos. Later in the New Testament the Greek term episkopos will be used for the office of bishop, but that is not the sense here, especially since it is based on an Old Testament passage that is describing general leadership rather than a specific office.

[9] The “casting of lots” was usually done by each voter writing a name on a pottery fragment (sherd) and casting it into a pile for counting. It can be perceived today as an odd method of selecting someone; however, in the ancient world there was certainly a feeling that God’s will was manifest through this selection process by the inspiration of which name was selected in the end. Proverbs 16:33 seems to capture this sentiment: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”

[10] N. Eldon Tanner, “The Administration of the Church,” Ensign, November 1979, 42.

[11] Spencer W. Kimball, “‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,’” Ensign, January 1973, 34.

[12] President Joseph Fielding Smith explained the various ways vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve have occurred, including the first Apostles in the modern dispensation being selected by the Three Witnesses. He also stated, “At other times, the members of the Presidency and the Twelve present names which are considered by the First Presidency and one chosen by ‘lot’ much as Matthias was” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956], 3:150–51).

[13] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998), 178.

[14] “The Twelve Apostles,” Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty, in Roy W. Doxey, ed., The Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), 6:24–25.

[15] See Bible Dictionary, “Acts of the Apostles,” 603–4.

[16] Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, s.v. “Gifts of the Spirit,” 2:545.

[17] Robert D. Hales, “Gifts of the Spirit,” Ensign, February 2002, 14–15.

[18] The phrase “serve tables” in 6:2 is a translation of the verb diakoneō (serve, wait on; care for, see after, provide for) from which the later title diakonos (deacon; servant; helper, minister) came. It is too early in Church history to see these seven as receiving the specific title deacon, but rather in the general sense of serving and ministering (see also use of related noun “ministry” or “service” in verse 4). It seems the subsequent preaching of the gospel by some of these seven, as related in Acts, goes beyond their duties outlined here and may be a further commission they received later.

[19] Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 322–23.

[20] “Center Dedicated on CCH Campus,” Church News, February 10, 1973, 15.

[21] Don L. Searle, “Ghana: A Household of Faith,” Liahona, October 1996, 37–38.

[22] God-fearers were Gentiles who had become sympathetic to Judaism but had not fully converted, most likely due to the Mosaic requirements of circumcision, ceremonial cleanliness, and kosher diet. It appears they regularly attended and even financially supported synagogue worship and affiliated themselves with Jews in society. Many early Gentile Christian converts, including Luke himself, had probably been God-fearers and thus were already sympathetic to the scriptural message and embraced Christianity’s lack of Mosaic prescriptions.

[23] Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 131–32.

[24] Acts 15:5 uses the title “sect of the Pharisees which believed” in Christ to describe some of these “Jewish Christians” who persisted in their desire to maintain Jewish practices as part of the Christian covenant. These would not be Jewish Pharisees that were frequently mentioned and refuted in the Gospels, but Christian converts who strongly desired to maintain their Jewishness, and who were probably of the Pharasaic sect before their conversion and maybe even still maintained some connections with the Pharisees.

[25] Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 137.

[26] Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, November 1989, 15–16.

[27] A helpful article on this topic is James B. Allen, “Line upon Line,” Ensign, July 1979, 32–40.

[28] Robert J. Matthews, “A Crisis, a Council, and Inspired Leadership,” Ensign, October 1995, 59.

[29] The center of ancient Christianity reflected the shift towards the gentile world as described in Acts. The first Church center was the site of Jesus’s Atonement and Resurrection—Jerusalem. Even before the Jewish Revolt and destruction of the Temple in AD 70, when most Christians had fled Jerusalem, Antioch became an important focal point. It was in Antioch, according to Acts 11:26, where Jesus’s disciples were first called “Christians.” By the end of Acts, Rome had become an important center not only due to its status as capital of the empire but because of its being the location of Paul’s and Peter’s martyrdoms. Eventually the bishop of Rome came to be seen as the chief successor of the Apostles and as the father of all bishops (pope). Thus for western Christians, Rome is associated more as the capital of Christianity than Jerusalem or any other site of Jesus’s actual life and ministry.

Likewise, early Latter-day Saint Church history is full of shifting centers of Church headquarters. Due primarily to persecutions, not unlike what the early Christians experienced, Church headquarters moved from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois, and eventually to Salt Lake City. The Church is now most associated with Salt Lake City, yet it is really the last of the early headquarters of the Church. Many future prophecies regarding the role of the Church or “kingdom of God” headquarters will deal with earlier abandoned Church centers that had to be left due to political situations, similar to how Jerusalem will play a key future role although it also had to be abandoned by Christian leadership.

[30] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching, Preaching, and Healing,” Liahona, January 2003, 37–38.