So how did the first century church handle disagreements about who was allowed in?
For us, people of the book, that seems like a good question to ask in order to get a framework for how to handle the tricky questions around sexuality today. In fact, the book of Acts in the New Testament has a whole chapter dedicated to handling questions of inclusion (Acts 15). Our LGBTQ Team studied it, and I was shocked by what we discovered.
The disagreement in Acts 15 arose because all the people in the early church were Jewish, and a bunch of non-Jews (including people of European descent like me) wanted in on following Jesus. The nice church people weren’t having it, so those who wanted to open things up got mad and caused a ruckus. Thus the first church council. At this big powwow, they studied the bible for an answer and then gave a nice clear decision that resolved things. I mean, it was the Apostles after all, so bible study and binding decisions should be in their wheelhouse, right?
Nope. That’s not how they went about the decision at all. And, to make things worse, their decision didn’t resolve things. Darn, it would have been a lot easier if they had done what we’d expected.
The Process of Deciding
If the Jerusalem Council had wanted to start with what the bible has to say about including non-Jewish people, there are a zillion places in the Old Testament that they could have referenced on the front end of their conversation (e.g., Genesis 17:1-14, Deuteronomy 9:3-5, Joshua 23:6-8 on the non-inclusion side and Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 67, Isaiah 66:19-23 on the pro-inclusion side). But that’s not what they did.
Instead, the assembly heard from those on the pro-inclusion side of the debate “who reported everything God had done through them” to connect non-Jewish people to God (Acts 15:4). Then, they invited up the big dog, Peter, to tell his story of seeing non-Jewish people connect to God (Acts 15:6-11). In typical Peter fashion, he jumps in passionately, driving home his point that “God did not discriminate between us and them” (Acts 15:9). Then, just to make sure we don’t miss how this process worked, the council brought in the two ringleaders of the pro-inclusion party (Paul and Barnabas) to tell their stories “about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles [non-Jews]” (Acts 15:12).
So did you notice the process? It started with telling stories, then there was more telling of stories, and then they told more stories. Makes me wonder if, when discussing things like the place of LGBTQ people in the church, we should start with stories.
My point here is not that the pro-inclusion party won the day (in fact, they didn’t, at least not totally) or that inclusion for all is what we should do now. My point here is that their first priority was to listen to what God was up to. How much listening have you done around the place of LGBTQ persons in the church? For example, if we haven’t listened to Wesley Hill and Justin Lee, Julie Rogers and Eve Tushnet, and to the spectrum of stories of those in our own context – especially those who are LGBTQ themselves – then we’ve got work to do.
Interestingly, I had a friend and pastor counsel me at the beginning of this journey not to listen to people’s stories first or it might color how I saw the bible. I respect this leader, and I think he’s right about one thing – knowing people’s stories does change how you read the bible. I wish I had been insightful enough to share with him then what I now see in Acts 15, namely that listening to stories is a very biblical way to start the process of looking at the bible.
What happened on the heels of hearing those stories was a pronouncement from the head of the assembly:
When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon [Peter] has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…” Acts 15:13-14
James did the mental math and lined up the stories he’d heard with the words of scripture and essentially said, “Let’s do this inclusion thing!” It’s interesting to me that he said that the scriptures agreed with the stories, not that the stories agreed with the scriptures (side note: that’s not the way my college bible study taught that things should be).
Then, to seal the deal, James quoted from the Old Testament prophet Amos (see Acts 15:16-18). But when I read that quotation in it’s original context, what stands out is how this passage specifically did not answer the question that had been asked. The question to the Council wasn’t whether non-Jewish people were going to seek God (which is what the quoted passage addressed) but, rather, for the non-Jewish people who did seek God, to what extent would they need to become Jewish on their spiritual journey. Would they need to be circumcised? Would they need to obey the Law? Those questions were not answered by James’s reference to the bible – which is the only passage of the bible quoted in our entire record of the Jerusalem Council!
From the best that I can tell, the assembly worked hard at listening to stories and then connected them to some of the general trajectories of the scriptures, rendering a decision as best as they could. Ironically, here we have the bible laying out that the “bible study method of making decisions” was not the first or even dominant form of decision making in the early church.
That first church council then nailed down the four things that were going to be required for inclusion of non-Jewish people. “You are to abstain from:
- food sacrificed to idols,
- the meat of strangled animals
- sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29)
Maybe your church is more biblical than mine, but that’s not the list we use for our church membership class. I get #4, but those other three just don’t do it for me.
We can all agree that there is some cultural context going on with at least the first three on that list. But if we grant that the first three are culturally contextual, don’t we also have to ask if #4 is also culturally contextual?” (more to come in future blogs about various approaches to the tricky ‘when is a passage culturally conditioned?’ question).
What interests me most, however, is not the strangeness of the list but the lack of resolve that it gave the early church. This was the decision of the original apostles after extensive discussion; God was in on the decision (“it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” Acts 15:28); it was written down and delivered to churches everywhere as authoritative. But it was emphatically NOT the end of the debate.
Within a decade, the apostle Paul would write to the churches in Corinth and Rome claiming that it was fine to eat food sacrificed to idols (#1 on the no-no list). In dealing specifically with food sacrificed to idols he says “eat whatever is put before you” (1 Corinthians 10:27) and he writes extensively about how we are free in Christ to eat whatever we want (see 1 Corinthians 8, 10, & Romans 14). In fact, it’s not that Paul was reversing the decision of that first council (which he participated in), but it was more that he was going back to Jesus himself who “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). So what in the world do we do with that?
Then, to increase the level of crazy-making, we have the book of Revelation. In that book, which is at the end of the New Testament and written several decades after Paul died, the apostle John wrote to the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum that Jesus condemned those who “ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).
Here’s the Cliff Notes version (dates are approximate):
- Jesus declares all food clean (Galilean countryside, AD 32)
- Jerusalem Council declares some food unclean (Jerusalem, AD 49)
- Paul declares all food clean (Greece and Rome, AD 57)
- Jesus declares some food unclean (central Turkey, AD 90)
In case all of this talk of food is lost on you (since we’re talking about sex after all!), I want to point out that we see the same sort of shifts going on with moral issues related to sexuality in the bible. Whether it’s the place of eunuchs in the community or the permissibility of divorce or the role of procreation in marriage, the bible shifts over time and location in how it answers how those issues impact inclusion in the community of the people of God.
The way we manage the theological whiplash from these different perspectives within the bible is to look at the cultural context in each of those situations. Over the decades and distance, the church had to figure out what its boundaries were for inclusion – and that’s exactly what we’re up against.
On one hand it’s encouraging because we’re having to do the same work the early church had to do. On the other hand, it’s discouraging because the Bible doesn’t have a ready-made answer for us. It’s not like you can just dial up Acts 15, copy and paste the membership guidelines, and be done with the question of who is included or not in the church.
Acts 15 was such a great passage for our Study Team because it gave a template for how to talk about issues around inclusion.
First, do a lot of listening to stories.
Second, take scripture seriously, which includes understanding its cultural context.
Third, figure out which scripture applies, and in what way it applies, in our current cultural context.
What was most unnerving for me when studying Acts 15 was how it’s so clear that when it comes to disagreements about inclusion, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. In other words, it’s going to be a process and it’s not going to be easy.