In August, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to allow persons who were in publically-accountable life-long monogamous same-gender relationships (the acronym now in use to keep the terminology consistent is PALMS) to be on the leadership rosters of the church (pastors, diaconal ministers, and associates in ministry). There are many who point to these decisions and make the claim that the ELCA has abandoned the “authority of scripture”. The rhetoric is often quite shrill.
I’ve spent some time in scripture with an eye toward evaluating the response of those who claim the scriptural “high ground”. I’ve taken my time in this process, and have invited members of the congregation I serve to consider scripture’s guidance and experience with what I think is a similar controversy described in the last 2/3 of the book of Acts. I’ve been careful to ask these participants whether or not they believe (a) that the story has similarity to the conflict within the ELCA and (b) whether or not it is instructive for our life together. We have participants who are anxious to rush to judgment about the Assembly votes themselves, but I try to gently steer them back to the questions at hand. Thus far, the process has been very helpful.
Beginning at Acts 10, we learn about a vision that Cornelius has where an angel of God appears to him and instructs him to summon Simon Peter. Cornelius is a “God-fearer”, which means that he is a Gentile believer who has attached himself to portions of Jewish law and practice, but who has not submitted to circumcision. There is no indication in the text that Cornelius has any idea about the reason he would be instructed to summon Simon Peter. Likewise, in these opening verses of the story, we have no clue what God has in store for Cornelius. Meanwhile, as the messengers of Cornelius are approaching Simon Peter, this disciple of Jesus has a vision of his own, where a sheet is lowered from heaven with all sorts of animals on it and a voice commands Simon Peter to eat. He objects and resists, because there are unclean animals on the sheet, but the voice declares, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. The Spirit further commands Simon Peter to go with the Gentiles sent by Cornelius.
We found it interesting that the only possible reference to any other part of scripture declaring all food clean is Mark 7:14-19. If that is indeed a place where Jesus declares all food clean, would not have Simon Peter, a disciple present at the event, have recalled it and known its significance before this new vision? We also noted that there was a three-fold repetition of the instruction and still Simon Peter remains puzzled.
Simon Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and specifically states that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile”. Simon Peter further states, “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) That is different than what the voice stated in Acts 10:15, and demonstrates an expansion of the teaching of the vision. One of our questions of the story thus far is whether or not Simon Peter’s expansion carries the weight of a new revelation by God. If so, it has tremendous implications about that which the Old Testament calls an “abomination”. We also note that by this time in the story, there are few clues as to what God is doing with this encounter. Simon Peter makes a speech, and says “…anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him …” and “… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” There appears to be both obedience (to what is not clear in this particular text) and trust/belief lifted here as important.
Then, in Acts 10:44-45 an absolutely astonishing thing happens. The gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon those who are completely outside the bounds of who is acceptable according to Jewish thought and Jewish law (contained within scripture). The significance of this cannot be minimized. If we were wondering at all about what God’s purposes were in bringing together the orthodox of orthodox Simon Peter who had never eaten anything unclean and a Gentile dabbling in the faith but not really committed, here it is. Note too that the astonishment is among the circumcised believers accompanying Simon Peter. This is not a throw-away reference. Time and cultural changes tends to make it hard for us to recognize the new thing God is doing here.
After the dramatic and powerful experience in Caesarea, Peter (and likely those with him) travel to Jerusalem where the decisions Simon Peter made were openly challenged. Specifically at issue was the table fellowship with Gentiles, in other words, his willingness to even to be engaged with the Gentile Cornelius. I love the way the text describes Simon Peter having to go through his experience “step by step”. At the end of this description, Simon Peter says, “… who was I that I could hinder God?” The challenge by the leaders in Jerusalem was that Simon Peter had made some poor decisions, and Simon Peter’s witness is that he was simply following the lead of God.
Hearing this account, the leaders in Jerusalem had no spoken objections. We would expect the matter now to be settled. We also noted that there is “relief” sent to the believers living in Judea. We will continue to see this theme throughout the rest of Acts, even when the controversy is not over.
The story of the controversy isn’t apparent again until Acts 13-14. Following a speech by Paul in Antioch, there are some “Jews and devout converts to Judaism” (read all circumcised) who challenged Paul. Paul defends the ministry to Gentiles, but is driven out by the Jews. The same thing happens in Iconium.
In this part of the story, I don’t read “Jews” as “Jewish people” as much as I do “faithful people of God who hold on to what scripture says is the only faithful way of inclusion into the faith, that is, circumcision”. At stake for them was the adherence to the law as revealed to Moses. They were protecting the traditions and scripture from those who were claiming a new revelation from God that contradicted more than 3000 years of God’s history with God’s people. I’m sure they held these teachings very passionately and were absolutely convinced of their continuing validity. However, participants in our study made the observation that if they were right, then the Christian Church developed completely in error and the witness of Paul is completely wrong.
In Acts 15-16, the controversy has grown so intense that a consultation occurred with the leaders in Jerusalem. A compromise is worked out. James orders that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised, but need to be obedient to the law in some minimal ways, including abstinence from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. This remains an uneasy compromise for many, and there is lack of trust that even this compromise is right or will work.
What was he thinking?!? On the heals of this consultation, Paul circumcises Timothy! Now, Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father was a Greek (Gentile), but there is a perfect opportunity to assert the freedom granted by the consultation. Yet, one might say, Paul was either respecting the bound conscience of the Jewish believers in the area or was tired of the conflict or had more important things to focus on. Our group is not to this point yet, but I’m anxious to learn what they make of this part of the story.
In Acts 21, Paul is arrested. Paul has gone back to Jerusalem, where people of the circumcision party are bound and determined to silence this one who is contaminating the true faith. They attempt to kill him, but soldiers (Gentiles) arrest him and save him. Paul’s story continues eventually to Rome where he is in house arrest. Note that this conflict is the very thing that spread the Gospel to Rome through Paul. The witness of the author of Acts is that this very conflict is used by God to spread the Gospel.
I notice that in the midst of the controversy, with its center in Jerusalem and to a certain degree with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, Paul never suggests the withholding of offerings or “relief” to the church and the people of Jerusalem. He always encourages the Gentiles to give generously to the very people who would exclude them from full participation in Christianity if they do not submit to the ritual of circumcision.
I don’t claim to know what God is doing in the ELCA. Our current conflict seems overwhelming at times. I watch people who saw themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ in July, now name-calling in September. I’m of the firm belief that the story of the conflict between the circumcision party and the god-fearers in Acts (and in Galatians) can be instructive for us as we seek to find ways to live with our differences. Faith is often shaped in the times when God seems absent and there is not the clarity we desire.