By Rev. Mason Dorsey
At the Bishop’s gathering of clergy this past November, Bishop Carter used the story of Cornelius and his household in Acts 11 as a basis to explore how the church can reached those who are unengaged with the church both missionally and pastorally. One of those unreached people groups Bishop Carter applied this story to is those who identify as homosexual. How does the church reach those some might consider unclean or profane?
In response, I would like to consider how the church responded to the Gentiles in both Acts 11 and 15. In both chapters, the early church did three things that are very helpful for the church today. The first two things, are open and obvious and may not need much explanation. Therefore, I will cover them quickly. The last item, takes some more understanding and thus will get the bulk of attention.
The first thing the church did when Cornelius and his household were seeking God was respond to the work and power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10, Cornelius was led by the Spirit to seek Peter. Peter, through the vision of the sheet was led by the Spirit, to go to the Gentiles rather than remaining separate and calling them unclean and profane. When Peter did so, and heard Cornelius’ story of the vision that commanded him to call for Peter, and Peter related to Cornelius what happened to him, Peter saw the Holy Spirit fall all over Cornelius and his household. Peter knew that salvation had come to the Gentiles. After hearing Peter’s story in Acts 11, the church (Act 11:18 NAU) quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
Acts 11 then tells of something else the early church did that the church today can do. On a subsequent mission by those scattered by the persecution, men came from Cyprus and Cyrene came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks, where the church had been speaking just to the Jews. A large number believed in the Lord and turned to Jesus. So the church sent Barnabas to investigate and Barnabas ended up rejoicing and glorifying the Lord because of this. This is the second point we can learn from the early church. So in addition to following the Spirit to the unreached people groups, we can repeat the same experiment and continue to glorify God for what happens.
Now to the third point. For this we forward to Acts 15. Some men came from Judea and began teaching the brethren that (Act 15:1 NAU) “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” In response, Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with those who came down from Judea. And thus it was decided that Paul, Barnabas and others would go to Jerusalem to talk about this.
At the discussion in Jerusalem, the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was necessary as well as observing the Law of Moses. To this insistence, Peter was the first to respond. Peter did so by recalling the events of Cornelius’ experience of the Holy Spirit. Peter charged back with (Act 15:8-9 NAU) 8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” Peter continued further by clarifying the means by which we are saved (Act 15:11 NAU) “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
What Peter argued was that it was not circumcision of the foreskin that was the basis for faith, but rather depending solely on the grace of the Lord Jesus for our salvation. It was the heart that mattered and the openness of one’s heart to the worship of the Holy Spirit to cleanse us by faith. In essence, Peter was calling the church to live the words of (Jer 4:4 NAU) “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds.” Because of Christ Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit we can live and practice real circumcision where our hearts are fully God’s. This was what the covenant of circumcision was always meant to signify, not an external mark, but the internal direction of the heart. (Deu 30:6 NAU) 6 “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.
However, the council of Jerusalem did not merely stop at the decision over whether to require circumcision of Gentiles or not. The Council went on to ask those who were formerly Gentiles to live out their faith in Christ in 3 specific ways. James stood and affirmed what Peter said and the works of the Holy Spirit that Paul and Barnabas related to the Council, and then suggested (Act 15:20 NAU) 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. Thus the circumcision of the heart had to be lived out daily.
One of the ways the church was called to live its faith was to abstain from fornication. This is the Greek word porneia, that gets translated as fornication or immorality. Searching in the original language for porneia, pulls up a whole host of verses that shed light on what it is. Starting with 1 Corinthians 7:2, Paul used porneia in stark contrast to a man having his own wife and a woman having her own husband. While Paul elevated celibacy as being above a “man touching a woman”, Paul also knew the allure of immoralities and called for man and wife, woman and husband as a help to avoid these immoralities. Thus porneia would be sexual arrangements outside of monogamous marriage. As Paul agreed to the provisos suggested by James which counseled the Gentiles to abstain from porneia and then used porneia as contrary to man and wife, woman and husband, it’s a safe assumption that this is not an off-base conclusion.
Furthermore, Paul connected porneia to a couple of other words in two different verses. The words are aselgeia (sensuality) and akatharsia (impurity) and both words are used with porneia in 2 Corinthians 12:21 and Galatians 5:19. Furthermore porneia and akatharsia appear together in Ephesians 5:3 and Colosians 3:5. In doing so, Paul used them to refer to sexual practices that are not to be found in the church just as there are other practices not to be found in the church like greed, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, lustful passion, transgressing and defrauding a brother.
The word akatharsia is even explicitly tied to homosexual behavior in Romans 1:24-27 as it is tied to many other impurities that should not be in the church. At this point, we can go back to that pause button we hit earlier with the word unclean from Peter in Acts 10. In Acts 10, Peter was told the animals on the sheet had been cleansed and he could eat them. They were no longer akathartos. But when it comes to sexual behaviors that have been declared akatharsia, these have not had the intervention of God in the life of the church to take this designation away from them. Thus applying Acts 10’s vision to these behaviors would be a mistake.
Asegleia is used heavily by Peter in his two letters to call people away from the Gentile living they once knew and Peter uses it with the sexual connotation the word carries in Paul’s writings.
Why are these three words important? Asegleia and akatharsia help us understand the sexual connotation of the word porneia. And by understanding the word porneia better we understand what the church called the Gentiles who came to Christ to abstain from in order to live the circumcision that was upon their hearts by the grace of Jesus which had saved them and the Holy Spirit which had been given to them.
What is the church to do here? One possible conclusion is that in reaching people who have not been reached by the church, we call them to live as Jesus would have them live. The church set an easy to remember standard for the Gentiles who came to faith. They did not need to be circumcised. But they did need to refrain from things contaminated by idols, from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality. Their lives had to look like Christ and this was a starting point.
This would be the third thing for today’s church to do. We guide people into the life Jesus calls those who follow Him to live. And granted there are more things to which people are called as evidenced by the early church and by today’s church. But we make no bones about what it means to follow Jesus. We also make it simple and applicable to people’s daily lives, while remaining true to how the Bible portrays Jesus’ call for His followers to live.
Thank you for taking the time to consider these thoughts and for caring for people pastorally and missionally to draw them into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.