People sometimes refer to the “primitive church” when speaking of early Christianity, but “primitive sect” is more accurate. Ernst Troeltsch came up with the classic distinction between a church and a sect (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vol I, pp 331-343):
(1) A church largely accepts the secular order and is a conservative force in society. A sect may be indifferent, tolerant, or hostile to the secular order.
(2) A church draws members from all strata in society, but is often dependent on (or allied with) the upper classes. A sect recruits mostly among the lower classes.
(3) Initiation into a church usually occurs by being born into it. Initiation into a sect occurs on the basis of conscious conversion.
(4) A church seeks to embrace the whole world within its apparatus of redemption. A sect offers salvation to a small group of elect (its members).
(5) A church is a large, hierarchal organized institution. A sect is composed of small, largely autonomous groups.
In trying to understand the author of Luke-Acts, Philip Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, crosses Troeltsch’s model with the typology of Bryan Wilson, who describes movements exhibiting tension with the world. That tension can manifest itself in one of seven types (Magic and the Millennium, pp 18-26), grouped in three sets according to where the emphasis falls in “responding” “to” “the world”:
(“responding”) Conversionists believe that people must change in order for the world to change. Meaning, they must experience a profound and supernatural transformation of the self.
(“to”) Manipulationists say that people must learn to see the world differently. Thaumaturgists believe that people must work magic/miracles to bring relief to the world.
(“the world”) Revolutionists insist that the world must be destroyed by God, with or without human participation. Introversionists say that people must retreat and abandon the world. Reformists believe that people can amend the world through supernaturally-given insights. And Utopians claim that people should reconstruct the world (but more radically than the reformist option).
These aren’t exclusive alternatives — the Qumran community was both revolutionist and introversionist, for instance — but which ones are applicable to the community of Luke-Acts?
Esler identifies conversion, thaumaturgy, and revolution as the potential candidates, but in the end finds only the first applicable.
“The relevance of the conversionist response is self-evident, in view of the author’s preconception with individual penance and acceptance of the Gospel in baptism, which enable the believer to enter a zone of Spirit-filled experience.” (Community and Gospel, p 59)
With respect to the thaumaturgical response, he claims that the incidents involving Simon Magus, Elymas, and the Jewish sorcerer in Paphos show Luke to be aggressively anti-thaumaturgical, and that “the cures effected by the application of Paul’s scarves and handkerchiefs in Ephesus…are far too insignificant to displace Luke’s anti-thaumaturgical theme” (p 59). And regarding revolution, he agrees with Conzelmann that (Lk 21:32 notwithstanding) Luke has eliminated a belief in an early and revolutionary apocalypse (see pp 60-64).
I would quibble with Esler over the thaumaturgical question, while agreeing about the other two. Even if apostolic healing should be understood as more miraculous than magical, it amounts to the same thing as far as Wilson’s typology is concerned. Luke’s community was thus a conversionist and thaumaturgical sect, a group of Jews and God-fearers who had severed from the “church” (synagogue) of Judaism, and found the solution to worldly evil in terms of radical repentance and spirit-possessed healing.