This statement surfaced yesterday in response to the recent controversy surrounding Simon Peter and the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and dirty Gentile from Caesarea, whom Peter embraced despite the clear teachings of scripture. It’s a fascinating glimpse of how the early church defended the scriptures against Peter’s dangerous, unbiblical ideas.
From Evangelical Alliance general director Steve Clifford.
Simon Peter is a friend of mine. We go back many years. I am convinced that when the history of the Church in Jerusalem is written, Peter’s contribution over the last 25 years will be recognized as profoundly significant. So with this as a backdrop I am writing my response to Peter’s argument in Acts 11. While I understand and respect Peter’s pastoral motivations, I believe the conclusions he has come to on unclean Gentile converts are wrong.
It is with both sadness and disappointment that I reflect on how Peter has not only distanced himself from the vast majority of the Christian community here in Jerusalem, but indeed from the Church across the world and 2,000 years of scriptural interpretation that are sure to follow.
Peter has raised issues which touch on deep areas of human identity. At a Soul Survivor seminar last summer, a newly circumcised, ex-Gentile convert introduced his talk to a marquee full of young people by indicating that he would love to find a theology in the scripture which would allow him to remain uncircumcised and not to keep kashrut. But, he said: “I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not there and I don’t want to live in rebellion to the one that I love.”
This pastor is just one of tens of thousands of Christians who have come to the conclusion that the laws of clean and unclean were designed by God and that we must not dare to call anything clean that God has called unclean and who have therefore chosen to be circumcised and to never allow anything impure or unclean to enter their mouths.
Simon Peter’s challenge to historic scriptural interpretation is in danger of undermining such courageous lifestyle decisions. Last year, the Evangelical Alliance produced a resource for leaders entitled Scriptural and Pastoral Responses to Unclean Gentiles – put together by a commission of eight and peer reviewed by 40. I trust this resource reflects a considered, gracious and mature response. It follows on from the highly respected Faith, Hope and Unclean Gentiles book produced some 14 years ago, combining a clear and succinct statement of scriptural teaching on cleanliness and purity. It expressed regret for the Church’s past and present failure in relation to the unclean Gentile community. Realistically and honestly, it engages with real-life scenarios to help Christians, and especially apostles and others in Christian ministry, discern how we can speak and live the truth in love. Copies can be purchased for £7 via our website.
Generations of Christians will someday face the challenge of making the gospel relevant within their cultural settings. The danger we all face, and I fear Peter has succumbed to, is that we produce ‘a god’ in our own likeness or in the likeness of the culture in which we find ourselves.
Peter’s approach to scriptural interpretation allows for a god in the likeness of first-century Caesarean mindsets. His call for “Christ-like inclusion” is not radical enough in its inclusiveness. We all come to the gospel in our brokenness, with an attachment to things, self-centeredness, addictions, fears and pride. We all need a savior in every area of our lives, including our circumcision and our cleanliness according to the law. We all live with pain. The radical inclusiveness of the gospel means we are all welcomed. In a wonderful grace-filled process we find repentance and forgiveness and Christ commits himself through the work of the Holy Spirit to bring transformation to our lives – a life-long process.
This is the radical inclusiveness I believe the gospel offers to all of us. God doesn’t leave us on our own, He promises to work in us, to bring us into our ultimate goal which is His likeness, transforming even unclean Gentiles into law-abiding, circumcised believers.
Inevitably Peter’s article will open again the conversation on cleanliness and circumcision. But as we have this discussion let’s remember that Jesus requires us to disagree without being disagreeable. We must listen honestly and carefully to one another, being courteous and generous.