The Apostolic Council and the General Assembly

Presented without Scriptural proof-texts for our reading enjoyment.

Back in the day, as I understand it, there was a lot of arguing about whether non-Jews could be followers of Christ.  There was the establishment position – definitely not, no way, no how.  This was the position of the Apostles who knew Christ in life as far as we know, and it was the position of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem when Paul was alive and preaching.

On the other side, you had Paul, and a few others who agreed with him.  They thought there was room for Gentiles to be followers of Christ.  They did not know Jesus when he was alive, as far as we know (Paul was the “apostle” who broke from the normative definition, since he was someone who never met Christ as a living person and yet considered himself a “witness”) but they felt that Jesus was calling Gentiles to come and follow.
Now, as the Peter and Cornelius story points out, the anti-Gentile folks had Scripture on their side.  The chosen people were the chosen people.  That’s about it.  The rules were pretty darn clear, and they were very, very old.  What God has made clean, do not make unclean.  There is no room in God’s realm for the unclean.
But then a little problem – God comes to Peter and says “You know that unclean stuff?  Its clean now.  Get over it.”  Peter, of course, tests this new teaching out in his relationship with Cornelius, a Gentile, just the kind of person that the leadership of the early movement felt was so undesirable.  Peter hears from God, goes to meet Cornelius, and changes his mind (or his heart if you prefer, or his theology, or his doctrine, or his orthodoxy, or his orthopraxis, or all of the above).
There are a lot of angry people who could quote a lot of Scripture which would contradict what Peter did.  But he was called by God, and after testing it himself, it made sense and seemed to be the right thing to do.  And you know what?  Peter had some Scripture on his side too.  Imagine that.
The result of this was that there were a bunch of big fights (or really, little fights that were a big deal).  So everybody got together in Jerusalem to work things out.  They decided that there would be two gospels – the gospel of the circumcision and the gospel of the uncircumcision.   (I don’t think Blogger takes greek fonts, so you’ll have to look those up yourself).  Two gospels!  Can you believe it?  One was the traditional gospel and one of them was, basically, Paul’s, and now Peter’s after he had his own vision and made his own decision.
Of course, now we take it for granted that Gentiles can be Christians.  In fact, things have changed so much that Christian = Gentile, from a Jewish point of view.  How things have changed!  Who would’ve thought?  What the great majority of the very first Christians, who knew Jesus personally, thought was absolutely correct we now take to be obviously wrong.  Incredible stuff, here.  Incredible.
I bring this up because I think there is something in there, perhaps, for our own fight over whether homosexuals can be followers of Christ, whether we can accept them as equals and recognize God’s call in their lives.   One side, the side currently in authority in most Churches, has strong cleanliness issues with homosexuality, and they have some Scripture they can quote (homosexuals are as bad as shellfish, after all).  This sounds familiar to me, does it seem familiar to anyone else?  And yeah, I get that unclean is also a moral judgement – it was for shellfish too.
On the other side are people who say they are hearing from God, that they are seeing God calling people to service in the Church beyond being tolerated on the fringes.  They are testing this out themselves and finding – holy of holies! – these people are so much more than just their sexual orientation, and they are so clearly called by God it is like being slapped in the forehead when you see it.
So, maybe, we all gather, and somehow, we find a way to make room for both positions.  We work things out at least as well as the early Church tried to work them out.
Because here’s the thing.  Two thousand years later, we are all Gentiles.  Paul’s position, Peter’s position, won out.  It took time, but the truth was made clear in time.  And now, of course, we can’t imagine things differently.
Maybe we can let that happen this time.  Maybe we can take the time to really see what is true, what is right, rather than screaming at each other about it, rather than making absurd declarations of war, of disaster, or schism, or the falling sky.
And in the meantime, we find a way to mutually respect, to allow room.  In disagreeing, we are participating in the great salvation history of great disagreements, in Scripture and after we closed the canon, to this very day.  It happened in ancient Israel, in the early Church, and it happens now.  It is who we are, in part at least.
If I can figure this stuff out, so you can anyone, so the only excuse is that we’re too invested in our position being right, at the expense of our brothers and sisters, to contemplate some third way that actually makes room for God to be glorified.
Have we, in two thousand years, learned anything?

7 thoughts on “The Apostolic Council and the General Assembly

  1. You tend to skip over the fact that Peter went back to his old ways and Paul had to call him out. Also, Paul wrote some of his letters because sexual immoderacy and indecency was ruining the local congregations.You can’t take things out of context and generalize. Both Peter and Paul would be amongst the first to argue against homosexuality in the Church. In fact, Paul wrote some very scathing things about it.However, I agree that we have to find a way to have dialogue and walk together on these issues, otherwise both sides of the dilemma are going to ruin our denomination.


  2. Stushie,I think it is a historical and cultural anachronism to compare what we commonly refer to as homosexuality to what Paul condemned (in passing) in his writings. You are projecting your own strong cultural bias across two thousand years of linguistic and cultural barriers to a people whose customs have long died out but that were more foreign to you than say the culture of the Aborigines of New Guinea. Doing so even over contemporary languages and cultures is usually a catastrophic mistake. For example, even today there are cultures in Western civilization that do not consider a man who penetrates another man to be a homosexual so long as he never allows himself to be penetrated. And there are cultures that only consider passive pederasts to be homosexual. We have no idea from Paul’s writings what he in fact considered to be normal human sexual practices, and there is no evidence to suggest you can successfully project English speaking 21st Century practices on to a 1st Century Roman Jew speaking to Greeks.There is every evidence that what Paul considered central to the Gospel had nothing to do with sexuality, one way or the other. I think he would be appalled that we spend so much time judging each other merely on that basis. I think he would say that we have completely missed the point.Nevertheless we have questions.But our issues and questions are new. Our only option in trying to use biblical principles is to use the meta values and strategies in the scriptures. Acts 15 provides one of those strategies. I think Doug makes a very good case for how such a strategy plays out.


  3. This is a quite interesting use of the Acts 15 council, which has been attempted several times in debates on the issue. It has always failed for several very sound reasons.First, it does not have any bounds. By this I mean, could not the exact same argument be made about almost anything? Could not pedophilia (isn’t 16 or 18 just a culturally created # anyhow?) eventually be argued under the same grounds? In fact, there is greater “scientific evidence” and studies for people being born with this predilection than homosexuality. There is also another major problem with this analogy in that it invlves a series of category confusions. Ethnic identity is based on ancestry, which is an immutable objective condition that is 100% heritable. Homosexual self-definition, however, is based on a mutable subjective desire that is not directly heritable. Being a Gentile biblically is only incidentally linked to sinful behavior, while homosexual behavior is directly linked to sinful behavior. First-century Jews often spoke of God-fearing uncircumcised gentiles, yet would never have or did speak of those involved in homosexual behaviors in such ways. Homosexual behavior was by Biblical definition sinful, not in some cases but in all cases. The inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles involved the non-commission of a positive ritual act (circumcision) enjoined by Scripture on Jews. Homosexual acts on the other hand, involve the commission of a negative moral act proscribed to Jews and Gentiles alike.One has to do with welcoming people (Gentiles); the other has to do with accepting homosexual behavior(clearly biblically defined as sinful) . While it is popular to describe churches that reject the sinfulness of homosexual behavior as “welcoming” this is a non sequitor. I have personally been involved with a church that had a very large ministry to those trapped in the homosexual lifestyle, and was fully welcoming of them into the life of the church. I served with an elder who was a recovering homosexual and was a leader in the ministry. Gentiles were accepted into the church on the basis of faith in Christ without accepting sinful behaviors that made Gentiles sinful in the eyes of Scripture and in the eyes of first century Jews. When we add to these arguments the fact that Acts 15 specifically enjoined Gentiles not to engage in porneia “sexual immorality”, we discover a very strong case against the use of Acts 15 for the acceptance of homosexual acts as “good” or positive. Since this biblical decree is harmonious with the regulations imposed on Jews and resident aliens alike in Leviticus 17-18, it clearly includes the sin of homosexual behavior. Lastly, there are a great many books that lay out the case that the Old Testament foreshadowed the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles (I will not go into any detail at this stage), while nowhere in the Old Testament is there a any positive assessment of homosexual behavior.Ultimately the New Testament has complete approval of the inclusion of Gentiles (nowhere is it argued otherwise), while there is not one New Testament author who who argues for the acceptance of homosexual practice.


  4. Adel:There are a number of historical misrepresentations and false dichotomies, incorrect definitions and so on in that post…and I just don’t have the time to deal with it. I also have no hope whatsoever that we will communicate with each other through this venue, as I think we’ve well demonstrated. Planet Adel Thalos is not my home, as we well know. And of course we agree I am totally incapable of reasoning or communicating.You do point out that there is an argument for the OT prefiguring the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant community. I can say I’m with you there. And that’s the limited of where I can bring myself to agree with you.


  5. Sadly Doug, you have once again made a proposition that you are clearly unable or unwilling to defend. When the weakness of your view is exposed you make statements like, “there are a number of historical misrepresentations and false dichotomies, incorrect definitions and so on in that post…and I just don’t have the time to deal with it.” If this is an example of acceptable argumentation in your school, then this is truly a sad state of affairs. I have made no historical misrepresentations, it is you that has done so in your loose exegesis of Acts 15, especially as you have clearly not considered these objections to your thesis. I have made no false dichotomies, but in fact, have pointed out the weakness of your analogy. And I have been as clear with my definitions as possible in a short blog response. I would be happy to define things further if you like. I take my biblical exegesis and historical and literary research very seriously and I do not appreciate dismissive comments like yours. I took your posting seriously and therefore posted a serious response. Why bother throwing out old indefensible arguments that do not further discussion, if you are unwilling or unable to defend it or further it? Even liberal NT scholars do not defend this old line in debates or scholarly letters because they know the weakness of it. These are very serious issues that should not be taken lightly. Having worked many years with ministries like Where Grace Abounds…knowing the trials and struggles of many dear friends, I take these issues very seriously. I believe that I made several very sound arguments, which you have in no way refuted.


  6. Adel: I don’t know how to be more clear. I don’t want to converse with you on this matter because I have no reason to believe it will ever be fruitful for either of us.In the past, when I’ve refuted what you’ve said, you’ve proven to be totally impenetrable. I’ve tried to explain to you why this likely is, but again, I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere. When I ask you questions, you don’t answer them more often than not. Reading my blog clearly makes you sad and disappointed – so stop reading it.Or be sad if you want, Adel, and read on.Whatever you wish.But I don’t think addressing anything in the areas of theology, ethics, history, philosophy or biblical interpretation with you is likely to prove fruitful for either of us.So I’m not going to.Much as I find this situation frustrating, I do honestly wish you the best. I just don’t wish to try to discuss anything with you for the foreseeable future. We’ve never made even a single inch of headway, and I have a lot of other things that I’m responsible for.


  7. Stushie:That’s true about Peter and Paul – I left it out because I didn’t feel it was germane to the point. There’ll always be dissension in the ranks, on either side, right?No matter what I do with the Bible, I’m taking things out of context, because the Bible’s context is lost to time. We can only guess what it might be, though of course some guesses are better than others. But the context of the Bible is far removed from us, so when we do biblical interpretation, we do it out of context, at least in part. I think Jodie makes better points than I am as to the possible value of what I’m saying.And yeah, we seem to agree on the big point.So, to turn things back on you, what would your model be for this dialogue and walking together? Where in the Bible do you look for “meta values and strategies”? Or even something more specific?


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