The greatest crisis of faithfulness the church has ever faced occurred during its infancy. We have a fairly full account of the controversy in the Acts of the Apostles (Ch. 10-11). It was a conflict over the issue of inclusivity.
Simon Peter, we are told, had a dream in which a heavenly voice entreated him to kill and eat “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” Being devout, Peter easily might have taken this dream as a temptation. Peter obeyed the Bible and the Levitical laws were explicit: he was forbidden to eat unclean animals. Doing so would mean either laying aside or radically re-thinking core biblical teachings. But even in the midst of Peter’s deep offense, his response acknowledges that the vision was from God. Peter did not say, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” to the heavenly voice; but instead, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
It is difficult for us as twenty-first-century Gentile Christians to comprehend the faithful revulsion prompted by Peter’s dream. To eat something unclean was a direct contradiction of God’s explicit commandments.
As Peter puzzled over the vision’s meaning, messengers came to him from Cornelius, an Italian: a Roman centurion and godly Gentile whom God had led to seek out Peter. He went with these men to Cornelius' home where Cornelius gathered his relatives and friends who were eager to hear the gospel. Peter said to them, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who heard the word.” Peter then inferred that he could not withhold baptism from people who had received the Holy Spirit. God was at work in ways Peter’s faith could not comprehend.
The meeting of the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem, which followed soon after Peter’s experience with Cornelius, only confirmed both the deep conflict and the inevitable conclusion (at least it appears inevitable some twenty centuries later): God was at work in ways that required Christ’s followers to fundamentally re-imagine their relationship to Torah.
The story ends with words that reflect as much puzzlement as praise. Peter says: “If then God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The author of Acts comments: “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
Paul’s missionary journeys and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world were only possible because these staunchly Jewish, deeply faithful apostles sensed that God was up to something. And that something called into question the continuing relevance for Christians of certain core convictions about what it means to live as faithful people. God apparently had determined a person could follow Jesus of Nazareth without first becoming a Jew, and hence, without obeying certain regulations of Torah. The implications of this insight would be an ongoing controversy for decades, and are reflected (for example) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the book of Revelation.
Christianity lives, as St. Irenaeus said, guided by God’s “two hands”: the Word and the Spirit. The Word and the Spirit have guided faithful Christians for centuries as they have sought to discern God’s direction for the church in the midst of shifting historical, social, and cultural realities. This process of discernment has not been easy, and the debate has often been contentious. It has been hard sometimes for the church to hold together while it works through the implications of the gospel in new and varied contexts.
Great controversies have sometimes erupted over how to interpret biblical texts in light of what the Spirit was saying to churches. Slavery was at long last denounced, after centuries, because Christians determined that Christ’s love demanded its abolition, even if the institution was preserved in many biblical texts. The great gift of ministry brought to our church by the leadership of women alongside men only became a reality because the church came to realize that the Spirit of God never stops leading the body of Christ into new and deeper forms of faithfulness. And Gentiles are only included in the church today because Peter was willing to allow Christ to lead him (and ultimately the church) beyond the literal pages of the ancient laws preserved in the Bible.
We are a pilgrim people following a living God. Perhaps awe, wonder and praise are the best responses to God’s leadership in such moments as the ones through which we are living. That's not always easy. But the challenges of following a living God should make us all a little more humble and generous to the struggles of others as they seek to do the same.
Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.