With the background clear, we can encounter Acts 11:1-18 directly.
The Structure of the Passage
The narrative exists as a chiastic structure with Peter’s vision at the center.
- The Judean (Jerusalem) circumcised believers (Jews) hear about Gentile converts and criticize Peter
- Arrival of the Caesarean (Gentile) messengers/decision to go with them
- If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
- Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles at Cornelius house
- The Judean circumcised believers are silenced
Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners at Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:11, Luke 15:2. Now the church is remembering from the perspective of about 85 CE, on the moment when its original boundaries were broken and Gentiles accepted. The issue is not settled here; a later Council discussed at Acts 15 will formalize this decision (the Council took place in 50 CE, so 15-20 years after the end of Jesus’ ministry).
The text raises at least two questions for us.
- What is the authority for decisions about boundaries in churches?
- Are we living out the good news with respect to boundaries?
Christian dialogue often refers to canonical Biblical passages but the amazing testimony of this story is that the Bible may not hold the right answer. After all, in his vision, Peter correctly references the Torah regarding permissible foods; the response is that even Biblical provision falls before God’s intention.
If we can’t rely, as a Calvinist would say on “sola scripture” (scripture alone), what authority will we turn toward for decisions? The passage doesn’t answer but it does seem to have some indications. One is the validation of the evident presence of the Holy Spirit. A second is found in Peter’s address to Cornelius’ household where he references “the testimony of the prophets”. Exegesis and Spiritual presence seem to be guides. It’s left to us to discern these.
We can discern in the history of our own tradition as Congregationalists successive boundary breaking moments. Membership in a Congregational Church in New England generally required an extensive profession of faith and implied property ownership. By the end of the 17th century, women and non-property owners were accepted and the Great Awakening included the founding of many new churches by members who were far more democratic that predecessors. In 1854, Antoinette Brown was ordained after a long struggle, the first woman ordained in the US. The abolitionist movement broke boundaries of race. More recently, many churches have broken boundaries about sexual identity.
Yet its easy to see socio-economic-racial boundaries in our churches. How can we become more diverse?
Once when I was a new pastor of a declining church, a long time leader in the church said to me, “I hope you can bring new people into the church but I hope they will be our sort of people.” I think the issue of boundaries is about moving from focusing on our sort of people to God’s sort of people.