Learning Acceptance from the Early Church

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, upon recommendation of the Council of Bishops, created a Commission on the Way Forward with an assignment “to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”  This Commission could benefit from studying the experience of the early Christian Church as it moved from its Jewish origins to include Gentiles. This is laid out in the Acts of the Apostles.

To begin with the early church had the example of Jesus who associated with persons who Pharisees considered unclean: tax collectors, women of questionable character, Samaritans, and other “sinners”. He healed a child of a Gentile official and a servant of a centurion from the occupying Roman army.

In the early church the first recorded occurrence of granting acceptance to Gentiles happened when Philip encountered a eunuch, treasurer for the Ethiopian queen, riding in a chariot on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The eunuch was reading aloud a selection from the prophet Isaiah about a sheep being led to slaughter [Isaiah 53:7-8]. He invited Philip to get into the chariot and explain the passage. Starting with that section, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. As they came to some water, the eunuch asked to be baptized. Philip consented and baptized him with no questions about his sexual status (Acts 8:26-40).

In the next occurrence an angel came to Cornelius, a centurion living in Caesarea, a pious Gentile who gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly. The angel told Cornelius to summon Simon Peter (Acts 10:1-8).

But before Cornelius’ emissaries arrived, Peter had vision of a sheet being lowered to earth with all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Kill and eat.” Peter declined, explaining, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice insisted, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This led Peter to accept Cornelius’ invitation (Acts 8:9-23)

In Caesarea Peter found that Cornelius had assembled a gathering of family and friends. Peter told them that it was forbidden for a Jew to associate with outsiders but that God had told him he should never call a person impure or unclean. He told them, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another” (Acts 10:24-35).

Peter proceeded to preach about Jesus Christ, proclaiming, “He is Lord of all!” To the astonishment of the circumcised believers who came with Peter, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word, and they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:36-48).

This didn’t sit well with circumcised believers in Jerusalem, who criticized Peter for entering the home of the uncircumcised and eating with them. But when Peter told them of his vision and his experience in Caesarea, they calmed down and praised God for enabling Gentiles to change their hearts and lives (Acts 11:1-18).

Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus became a missionary to Gentiles with considerable success. Although a former Pharisee, he didn’t insist that Gentile converts undergo circumcision and adopt other strictures of Mosaic law. But other Pharisee believers insisted that they should.

This led to a major meeting in Jerusalem attended by Paul, Barnabas (a fellow missionary), the apostles, and elders. Paul described “the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles.”  Peter insisted that God “made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith.” James declared that “we shouldn’t make trouble for Gentiles who turn to God.” At his suggestion the council unanimously adopted a letter which demonstrated acceptance by telling Gentiles that the only burden placed on them would be avoidance of sexual immorality (though undefined) and idolatry (Acts 15:1-29).

The Commission on the Way Forward can review this experience and consider lessons applicable for today. To me it teaches that we should welcome all persons, including those who differ from the majority because of race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and other characteristics, and not discriminate against any of them. We should apply what Peter discovered: “God doesn’t show partiality to one group of persons over another” (Acts 10:34).

Howard W. Hallman is a United Methodist layperson. He is author of Living in God’s Kingdom: Here and Now (2016). Bio at https://livingingodskingdom.org/howardhallman/  @LivinginGodsKingdom

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