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The Acts of the Apostles - sectarianism and relevance today
(a) Explore Peter’s contribution to the issue of prejudice and sectarianism.
Although many of us may think that the issues of prejudice and sectarianism are new, the Acts of the Apostles shows clearly religious intolerance over two thousand years ago. In this respect, it is comparable and instructive for moral life in the twenty-first century. One of the most influential characters in Acts, who is closely linked to the issues of bigotry, is Peter. However, before I look at his role, two key words must be defined. Firstly, prejudice is defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary (10th edition) as:
A pre-conceived idea held about someone or some group that is not based on reason, knowledge or actual experience 1; while Cecilia Clegg and Joseph Liechty define sectarianism as: a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures that is expressed in destructive patterns of relating 2
It is also important to realise that:
Sectarianism always involves religion. The involvement may be an historic one that has long been forgotten, but it is this origin that distinguishes it from purely political discrimination.3
It is impossible to argue that Peter was not involved in the issue of prejudice but what was his exact role? What persecution did he himself suffer, or even worse, what discrimination did he himself perpetrate? And most importantly, what sectarianism did Peter help the Church overcome?
Peter, we already know, had been given the “the keys to the gates of heaven” in Matthew 16v19 and in Acts 2 the reader sees him first use them to open the Gospel to his fellow Jews at Pentecost. In this passage, we see Peter’s first realisation that the Gospel is open, not only to Jews, but to all those who believe, repent and are baptised. In verse 38, this realisation is made apparent when he notes:
This promise is for you and your children and all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call. 4
As F. F. Bruce noted, God’s gift of grace had been extended “not only to the people of Jerusalem but to those of distant lands [i.e. Gentiles]” 5. This is the first sign that Peter’s prejudice is being broken down although, I believe that Peter is still not fully sure of the position of Gentiles in the church. Later, one can see much more definite evidence for this when, at the end of Acts 9, Peter stays with Simon the tanner. James D. G. Dunn notes that this is important because tanning made, “its practitioners unacceptable among those who regarded ritual purity as something to be maintained as far as possible” 6. This clearly shows that Peter “was already in a state of mind which would fit him for the further revelation of the next chapter” 7 (R.J. Knowling). For Acts 10 contains perhaps one of the most important turning points in Christian doctrine and also reveals something about how we should treat those outside our own religion.
In Acts 9, the reader sees the conversion of Saul as a result of divine intervention on the road to Damascus; Acts 10 sees the conversion of Cornelius by Peter. These two events are connected because they were the essential foundations on which the Gentile mission would be built. Yet why was the first Gentile conversion so important and what was Peter’s purpose? In order to find the answer to this, one must look at the history of Jewish-Gentile relations, for, as often is the case, this sectarianism has its roots in history.
In Genesis 12, God told Abraham that He would bless him and his descendants and that, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you [i.e. Abraham and his descendants].” 8 The Jews were therefore messengers, carrying the Word of God to other nations – this they did not do. Instead, as John Stott explains:
Israel twisted the doctrine of election into one of favouritism, became filled with moral pride and hatred and developed traditions that kept them [Jews and gentiles] apart. 9
Gentiles were seen as unclean, even ‘sub-human’ and were often referred to as dogs. Jews could not marry Gentiles, eat with them or even enter the home of a Gentile. Therefore, when Jesus gave the Great Commission in Acts 1v8:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 10
: they would have known, or perhaps guessed, that this would involve Gentiles. This was the barrier that had to be overcome before Gentiles could be admitted into the Christian community; in the beginning, any Gentile who wished to become a Christian had to first be circumcised as a Jew (a proselyte). This process was to end with Cornelius, as Peter’s own personal prejudices were knocked down, thus overcoming this major sectarianism.
The vision Peter receives from God was of a sheet, filled with clean and unclean animals being lowered from the heavens. Each of the three times it is lowered, God commanded, “Kill and eat”. This offends Peter’s innate belief unclean animals should not be eaten by law-abiding Jews. However, when he questions this instruction, God rebukes him, telling him, “Do not call impure anything that the Lord has made clean11”. It is important to realise here that Peter could not free himself from prejudice and move beyond sectarianism by his own power; he needed the support of the Lord.
When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home, a ‘worshipful’ Cornelius greets him but Peter scolds him for this. Clearly, Peter’s prejudices have been eliminated; he enters the home of a Gentile and then makes the profound statement, “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism.” 12 While Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit comes upon all the listeners, shocking the circumcised believers who were gathered there. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a sign that circumcision was no longer necessary for a Gentile wishing to become a Christian; after all, had not the same signs accompanied the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2? Indeed, many scholars point out that this was a Gentile Pentecost in Caesarea, corresponding to the Jewish ones in Jerusalem. After this, Cornelius and his household were baptised for “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” 13.
This change in Christian doctrine was revolutionary for the early Church and it shows the importance of overcoming sectarianism. Some have argued that it is “perhaps, the most powerful pointer to the inclusiveness of God’s saving activity” and that it contains “important clues for a Christian understanding of the status before God of those who are not Christians” 14. It is interesting to note however, that after the initiation of Cornelius into the Church, Peter’s colleagues in Jerusalem were (initially) quick to oppose Peter. In Acts 11, we see Peter having to explain his actions to the Jerusalem church i.e. entering the home of a Gentile, allowing him to come to faith without circumcision. Peter answers their criticisms and it appears the issue has been resolved. However, it was not long before sectarianism raised its head again and the Church was forced to act.
Peter’s last appearance in the book of Acts comes in Chapter 15, the Council of Jerusalem. Judaizers from the Jerusalem church come to Antioch and made claims that “unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved”. Ex-Presbyterian Moderator, Trevor Morrow, called this “a fundamental threat to the message of the Gospel” 15. Here we see the entire basis of the Christian faith being undermined – these men were saying that faith in Jesus is not enough for salvation but that circumcision and obedience to the Mosaaic Law were also needed, that “they must let Moses complete what Jesus had began, and let the law supplement the Gospel.” 16 A council is called to resolve this issue and Peter, being one of the key figures in the Gentile movement, speaks first. He stressed the importance of the universality of the Gospel message and emphasises that:
God…accepted them (the Gentiles), by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them. 17
Peter, as well as overcoming sectarianism, was also the centre of it. In Acts 4, and later in chapter 5, the reader sees two occasions on which Peter and some (or all) of the Apostles were persecuted by the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court system. This religious body was made up of the Pharisees and Sadducees and the latter especially would have taken offence at the Christian message; they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and therefore found it necessary to act when Peter began to preach about Chris being raised from the dead. It is interesting to note that here in chapter 4 even in these situations, Peter witnesses to the Jews, through the Holy Spirit.
Although sectarianism against the Church is not something desired, it is much worse when the Church itself houses prejudice and acts unjustly towards some people and in Acts this is the case. Even Peter is guilty of prejudice on some occasions and this cannot be overlooked. In Acts 6, the reader sees that the Hellenists complain against the Grecian Jews, “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food distribution.” 18 In Acts 8, it is also possible to see another occasion on which Peter’s actions could be interpreted as prejudiced. When Philip evangelises to the Samaritans and many are converted, Peter and John come from Jerusalem. Perhaps it could be conceived that the church in Judea did not wish the ‘treacherous’ Samaritans to come to faith?
However, the key example of Peter’s prejudice is found, not in Acts but in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 2v12, Paul writes that he had to oppose Peter because:
Before certain men came from James [Judaizers], he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 19
I find it encouraging discovering that Peter, an influential figure in the Gentile mission was capable of prejudice. Out of fear of what others might think of him, he went along with the crowd and refused to eat with Gentiles, even though he had received a vision to the contrary. Some of us might be better at hiding our views, but inside every person there is some prejudice. However, it is how the Church reacted to their own prejudice that is important; they could have accepted their own sectarian views and incorporated them into their theology. Instead, they worked to overcome prejudice, even when it involved admitting they had been wrong. In Acts 6, the early Church, under Peter’s command, chooses seven men to help ease the tensions between Hebrews and Hellenists. The Samaritans are accepted into the Church (whatever Peter’s own view had been) and Paul’s rebuke of Peter led him to return to the Council of Jerusalem to set down the Church’s view. We cannot hope to fully rid ourselves of sectarianism, but we can continually wok at overcoming it. And this reveals one of the most important things about sectarianism – as Cecilia Clegg and Joseph Liechty wrote in heir book:
We are all recovering sectarians. 20
(b) “The message of Acts is no longer relevant today.” Critically analyse this statement, with close reference to human experience.
Because Acts and the story it tells of dates from around two thousand years ago, it is very easy to ‘write off’ Acts as having no relevance today. After all, what do people living in the 21st century know about the Sanhedrin, Gentiles or Samaritans? These things appear to not be applicable in today’s society. However, it is important to realise that, while the actual groups involved in causing or confronting sectarianism may have changed, the basic Biblical message behind prejudice is still the same. As Trevor Morrow noted, “The context Jesus began his ministry is not dissimilar to the last thirty years of Northern Irish history.”21 It is easy to see that figures and groups around today could reflect the pious, political and paramilitary elements that existed when the early church was forming. So what lessons can people learn from Acts and how should Christians apply them in the world now?
It is interesting to note that from the outset the role of the Holy Spirit is key within the development of the church, fundamental to its functioning and vital to overcoming sectarianism. I would tend to agree with Stott that, “As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead”.22 Therefore, a spiritual need in the Church can only come about through spiritual means. It is the Holy Spirit who fills Peter with boldness to stand up to the Sanhedrin’s ‘bullying’ and it is the Holy Spirit who instructs Peter to follow the men who will take him to Cornelius and the first Gentile convert. Throughout Peter’s entire ministry, the Holy Spirit is there guiding him, filling him with God’s power – the same can also be seen of other figures involved in the Gentiles mission, including Philip and Paul.
I personally believe that the Church could have done very little without the Spirit. In their book, Moving Beyond Sectarianism, Clegg and Liechty both note that sectarianism cannot be overcome without the same spiritual renewal and guidance that characterised the early church. One Church of Ireland clergyman whom they interviewed on the troubles in Northern Ireland said:
I can preach the ministry of reconciliation until I’m blue in the face…but right now, they [his parish] are incapable of hearing it.23
It is in situations like these that the Holy Spirit must play a vital role. Acts could be seen as a warning perhaps to some of the liturgical churches; sometimes Christians confine the work of the Holy Spirit and openness to Him and a willingness to obey His will are needed.
We can also learn from the weaknesses in the early Church and one of these is the fact that, up until chapter 15, the Christians seemed to have no clear view of where they were going – they had no vision. In proverbs, it is written, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”24 and the church in Acts can be seen as a message to the Church today that structure is needed. Clegg and Liechty also note, “it is a fairly simple psychological truth that people will not change if they do not have a vision”25. After the Council of Jerusalem, the number of Gentile converts accelerated and this was because the church had clearly laid down the doctrine it wanted to see enforced. The church today therefore needs to develop a theology of reconciliation based on the experiences and needs of the churches and faith communities where there is prejudice and sectarianism.
Acts also shows that tolerance, and the lack of it, are often what contributes to the issue of sectarianism, whether it be overcoming it or strengthening it respectively. In Acts 4 and 5 it can be seen how the Sanhedrin’s intolerance led to them demonising the Apostles while in Acts 10, Peter’s willingness to understand and respect Cornelius led to his conversion. In a recent article in the Times, Education Secretary, Estelle Morris is recorded as saying to the Church of England General Synod that, “we must ensure inclusiveness is placed at the very heart of our faith school policy”26. To discourage isolationism, Ms Morris announced that new guidelines would be issued to the local authority school organisation communities and churches. The Church does need to be seen to act, to be seen to be doing something to help cultivate good relations between different denominations and faiths. Already some projects have been set up to educate young people. The Spirit of Enniskillen trust, Friends Forever and Corrymeela are some of the Christian organisations that are at work; they promote tolerance and understanding among teenagers of different denominations or religions (e.g. Protestants and Roman Catholics in East Belfast, Muslims and Jews in Palestine) and try to get them to learn more about other beliefs, with the hope that they will discover more to unite them that divide them.
One of the most important characteristics in the early church that made them successful in overcoming prejudice and sectarianism was that they acted – they were seen to be doing something to overcome bigotry. A key example of this is found enacts 15, when the Judaizers came to Antioch; Paul very easily could have allowed the men to continue preaching their heresy but instead he acted and resolved a controversial issue. Today many people fell safer thinking about prejudice rather than working to overcome it. As John Dunlop, Ex-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church wrote:
We need to walk our way into new ways of thinking, rather than think our way into new ways of acting. We cannot think our way out of sectarianism27.
The Church too can be guilty of taking a passive role instead of an active one. Often, even at the highest level, church leaders can be influenced by their congregations. While this position can be understood, it is to be neither admired nor accepted. Dunlop also wrote, “there remains a pronounced reluctance among many ministers to participate in leadership roles in ecumenical services of worship with priests”28. The Christian church must be seen to be united and some groups have accepted the challenge such as ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland). Their motto, “Thinking Biblically, building peace” again shows that it is not enough to mediate upon Scripture but to act it and live it.
The early church was successful in dealing with prejudice because spiritually it was prepared to be obedient to the Holy Spirit, and physically, it was prepared to take risks (e.g. Philip going to Samaria) and was seen to act. The Christian Church today still suffers from the issues of sectarianism and prejudice but it can learn from the early Christians. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago and is comparable to life in the 21st century and can be used as a moral guide.
- Oxford Concise Dictionary (10th edition)
- Cecilia Clegg, and Joseph Liechty, “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, Columba, P 22
- Cecilia Clegg, and Joseph Liechty, “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, Columba, P 23
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts2v39
- F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans
- James D.G. Dunn
- R.J. Knowling, “The Acts of he Apostles”
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Genesis12v2
- John Stott, “The Message of Acts”, IVP, P185
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts1v8
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts10v15
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts10v34
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts11v18
- Anglican Consultative Council, “Towards a Theology for Inter-faith Dialogue”, 1986, P24
- Speech given to Ploughshare
- John Stott, “The Message of Acts”, IVP, P243
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts15v8-9
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Acts6v1
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Galatians2v12
- Cecilia Clegg and Joseph Liechty, “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, Columba, P107
- Speech given to Ploughshare
- John Stott, “The Message of Acts”, IVP, P60
- Cecilia Clegg and Joseph Liechty, “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, Columba, P198
- Holy Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Proverbs29v18
- Cecilia Clegg and Joseph Liechty, “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”,
- Speech given by Estelle Morris MP to Church of England General Synod
- John Dunlop, “A Precarious Belonging”, The Black Staff Press, P46
- John Dunlop, “A Precarious Belonging”, The Black Staff Press, P113