Christ and Cornelius (8)

st_peter_preaching_in_the_presence_of_st_mark_big.jpgControversy in the Church

Peter’s Report to the Church (Acts 11:1-18)

For Peter and the Jewish Christians who accompanied him the evidence of God’s direction was both immediate and unmistakable.  But, for those Jewish Christians who were not privy to this compelling information the news must have hit like an earthquake.  There must have been extreme agitation and confusion throughout this small, vulnerable community of believers.

11 Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Note first that there is already at this extremely early time (i.e., the 30s A.D., or less than a decade after Christ’s resurrection) an identifiable “circumcision party” within the Church.  It’s natural to therefore assume that there was also something on the order of a party that did not cling so tightly to their Jewish heritage in existence.

The specific point of controversy was that Peter had violated Jewish ceremonial law by eating with Gentiles.  In fact, this was the only point of controversy.

But Peter began and explained to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven.

Peter responds by first recounting his vision from God concerning once forbidden sources of food.

11 At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesare′a. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’

Next Peter recounts the amazing sequence of events that brought him and the six brethren together with Cornelius and his household.  Here we find Peter including Cornelius’ vision and obedience as integral parts of the common experience of God’s leading among Jews and Gentiles.

Peter’s explanation may answer a mystery discussed previously, that being why Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him” (i.e., worshiped Peter, in Acts 10:25b).  As Peter recounted in Jerusalem, the angel who met with Cornelius said of Peter that “he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”  Thus, it is reasonable to conjecture that Cornelius’ expectation for salvation originally but erroneously were attached to the person of Peter rather than to Jesus Christ.  However, this initial confusion in no way prevented God from achieving His providential purpose.

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

Peter reaches the climax, where God’s purpose in all of this becomes so unmistakably apparent that the only faithful response is immediate and joyful obedience.  Note that Acts’ author, Luke, has chosen to recount virtually the entire story from Chapter 10 here in Chapter 11.  The fact of this complete repetition is strong evidence for the tremendous importance of this event to Church history.

18 When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”

I wonder if there were two distinct groups being here described, those who “were silenced” and those who “glorified God.”  For, in Paul’s letters and later in Chapter 15 of Acts, the “circumcision party” didn’t simply melt away.  Certainly some from the “circumcision party” could have been (and likely were) so convinced by Peter’s testimony that they completely and permanently changed their position.  However others certainly did not.

However, we must not lose sight of the primary point, that being that the Church in Jerusalem had overwhelmingly accepted the principle that Christianity is intended for all, Jew and Gentile alike.  In this they chose obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” over their Jewish heritage.  And, God’s providential promise to make Abraham’s offspring a blessing to all nations had, in His good time, come to pass in this fallen world.

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Christ and Cornelius (7)

Peter and Cornelius

clouds_from_GodGentiles Receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48)

Note that it is God who continues to drive this encounter to its predestined outcome.

44 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Peter and “the believers from among the circumcised” (i.e., the Jewish Christians) knew from direct, personal experience what were the true marks of “the gift of the Holy Spirit [being] poured out” upon the elect.  The ideas that Cornelius and his household could have demonstrated this gift by chance or that they were acting with dishonesty are beyond absurd.  No, God had acted with unmistakable clarity to ensure this outcome.

Baptism_of_corneliusThen Peter declared, 47 “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Peter responds with faithful acceptance and takes immediate action.  Everything that has occurred, from Peter’s and Cornelius’ visions, to the circumstances of their meeting, to the proclamation of the Gospel and, finally, to Cornelius’ and his household’s receiving of the Holy Spirit, has provided iron-clad evidence of God’s leading to this point.  And so, these Gentiles, this Roman Centurion and his household, these elect souls are “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is thus Peter, not Paul, who has welcomed Gentiles into the Christian Church.  Peter, as is his wont, will eventually vacillate on this certain decision from God.  It will be Paul who both acts to bring the full harvest of Gentile souls into knowledge of this saving grace and who demands that the Church consistently submit to God’s sovereign choice.

Nevertheless, Peter’s act of trust and faith here, against two-thousand years of Jewish religious and cultural separation, unmistakably confirms Christ’s statement:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)

Christ and Cornelius (6)

Peter and Cornelius

peter-corneliusPeter Delivers the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-43)

Some would argue Peter has reached that moment of truth in which he must decide if all that has previously transpired is the legitimate leading of God or something else.  However, from an orthodox Reformed theological perspective this moment had been ordained by God’s providential acts, which left no doubt as to the final outcome.  And yet, it is undeniable that both Peter and Cornelius (among others) have been exercising their own wills throughout.  Perhaps only an allegory can begin to square this circle.

34 And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Peter embraces all that has led to this moment as God’s sure purpose.  It remains unclear if Cornelius understood the meaning of Jesus Christ and His gospel prior to this encounter.  He certainly had embraced key aspects of the Jewish faith and culture that opened him to receiving the Gospel message.  There need not have been any pre-knowledge on Cornelius’ part, for “We love because He first loved us” (John 4:19).

36 You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Yes, Peter does here state that Cornelius knew of Jesus Christ and the things He had said and done.  However, it is one thing to know of something and sometimes quite another to understand the true meaning.  From the previous passage (see Acts 10:33, we are assembled “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord”), it appears that Cornelius was certain Peter was the person ordained by God to deliver the message while the content remained unknown.

39 And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.

Here we encounter the foundational explanation of Christ’s mission.  Although all of His teaching and miracles are of great importance, Peter focuses on the Passion and resurrection as of the greatest importance.  That is, the primary focus is on what Christ has accomplished for us.

43 To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Here in these twenty-one words we find the core of the Gospel.  This is a statement of that which is essential, though its fullness encompasses everything.  We sometimes make the essentials of Christianity far more complicated than they should be.

Finally, note the similarity between Peter’s statement here of the essential Gospel message and Paul’s from Romans.

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 | NIV84

Christ and Cornelius (5)

peter-enters-the-home-of-the-gentile-large-608x406Peter and Cornelius

The Providential Encounter (Acts 10:23b-33)

Peter brings a delegation of Christian brothers along with him.  Cornelius had brought together family and friends to participate.  Surely each had their own reasons to include others in this momentous meeting.

The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesare′a. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends.

What was going through the minds of these two men, one an occupying soldier from the centuries-old Roman Republic; the other a simple fisherman from the millennia-old Jewish nation?  Did they have any inkling of the stakes involved, of the implications and consequences of this meeting?  Certainly they understood that God was doing something monumental, but did the actually know what ahead of time?  These are unanswerable questions, though still worth pondering.

25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”

This first act by Cornelius seems to be inexplicable.  From a military and cultural perspective what could have been more demeaning than for a Roman officer to fall down in worship before one of the conquered nation’s peasants?  He certainly misunderstood Peter’s position in this encounter, somehow having assumed that he was more god than mere man.

Peter’s response indicates not the slightest reproach or disrespect, but rather is the simple truth plainly spoken.  However, Cornelius’ gesture could not but have made a powerful impression.  Perhaps the experience of utter humility by someone who wielded such power opened Peter’s heart to accept that what was soon to transpire was indeed God’s will.

27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Peter openly states the religious/cultural issue at play.  Yet, he also makes clear that God had opened a new door that he willingly walked through.  Peter is here placing his trust in God’s directing while setting aside centuries of Jewish law.  Surely this is one of Peter’s most faithful acts of obedience.

30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, 31 saying, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.’ 33 So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

And so, Cornelius, not yet knowing just what message Peter brings, also sets aside centuries of Roman power to walk through that same open door.  Praise be to God!es-vaxenum-em-mernel-u64347-1

 

Christ and Cornelius (4)

Peter and Cornelius

NGC2207+IC2163The Two Worlds Touch (Acts 10:17-23a)

God has providentially intervened in the Gentile and Jewish worlds, setting them on a collision course.  No human being could have possibly foreseen the implications of this act.  No human being was ready within context of their own experience to comprehend just what was occurring.  Only in hindsight can we prejudiced, faltering and foolish humans see a sliver of truth about what God has done.  However, without the revelation of Scripture even that tiny sliver would have been obliterated long ago.

17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

The wonder of this narrative is that it pulls back the curtain and allows us mortals to observe God’s providential engagement in human history.  What we see is both beautiful and disturbing.  It’s beauty arises from the Fatherly love that engages with both Cornelius and Peter at their points of human frailty, gently leading each towards their eventual world-changing encounter.  Its disturbance arises from the at first vague, but ultimately explicit, realization that both Peter’s and Cornelius’ destinies were being directly determined by God.  This intricate but ultimately mysterious interplay between our own wills and God’s providential purpose has been previously explored in “God’s Acts of Providence.”

That significance flowed from God to them, as opposed to being sourced within them.  This too is a reproach to our modern, self-centered mind-set. We too often view our end as beginning and ending with our own desires. The notion that our end is by design to be subordinate to anything else, even the L ORD God, flies into the teeth of the radical individualism that under girds so much of our culture’s life.

But lest we too strongly stress humanity’s subordinate status, the amazing extent to which God apparently bends to accommodate our wills must be accounted. Yes, God’s will is inexorable. But it’s as if it’s inexorable within the context of our free wills.

Isn’t this story precisely that of God’s inexorable providential will intersecting with our one free wills?  I say, yes, without doubt.

21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he called them in to be his guests.

Note how the people within this story exercise their own wills.  The men sent by Cornelius don’t say that Peter must engage with them because of God’s inexorable command.  No, they rather make the very human case that he who sent them is “an upright and God-fearing man,” that is, someone who Peter should consider to be trustworthy.  

Thus, on one level this is a story about human beings from two separate worlds working out the terms by which they might meet in true fellowship.  However, at the deepest level it is the story of God bringing to pass in time that which He had decreed from eternity.

“and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:18)

Once again, I return to “God’s Acts of Providence” for the commentary.

 In the end, we must understand along with Abraham that the human details are not the point. The point is that God in His infinite love, mercy and power has determined to bless all nations. He has also chosen to do so within the context of human will, with all of its frailty, foolishness and fickleness. But He chose to do so before the foundation of the world was laid, deep inside the mystery of His infinite mind. That is, though played out on the stage of history, this is the working out of a predestined plan. Though we may never fully understand we can, no, must worship such a wondrous God.

the-creation-of-man-by-michelangelo

 

Christ and Cornelius (3)

Peter and Cornelius

acts.10.PetersVision2_lgPeter’s Vision (Acts 10:9-16)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Jewish dietary laws as revealed by Scripture in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  Knowledge of and strict adherence to these laws was an absolutely central component of the Jewish identity in the first-century A.D.; as it continues to be for many Jews in the 21st century.

The spiritual/emotional power of these dietary and other laws was bound up within the concept of “cleanness.”  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible provides an explanation that may help us to appreciate the depth and power of this concept to a practicing Jew.

Old Testament laws of clean and unclean are applied to persons, foods, places, and objects.  Human beings become unclean principally by contact with the dead or with discharge of one of the body fluids, by the eating of tabooed foods, and by the disease of leprosy.  …

Hebrew priestly tradition regarded the laws of cleanness as a part of the Mosaic covenant, and essential to the survival of the nation, since violation of them was offensive to the holiness of God and estranged him from his people.

This discussion is a prelude to understanding how Peter, a practicing Jew and thus one who identified himself with the God of Israel, reacted when faced with the full implications of Christ’s words from Mark 7:18b,19: Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”.

Prior to reengagement with the text, we must note that it is God who is taking the initiative at both sides of the Jew/Gentile divide.  So, the the promise made two-thousand years earlier to Abraham (Genesis 22:18) was now, by God’s faithfulness, being made visible in this fallen world.

The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet contained all of the unclean animals that Peter had for his entire life avoided.  Here God is dealing with the central issue that would keep Jews and Gentiles in their separate worlds — the inability to come together in fellowship at a meal.

14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Peter’s revulsion and resistance is completely to be expected.  For, it is one thing to hear his Lord make the seemingly abstract statement that no food is unclean and quite another to put it into practice after a lifetime of carefully practicing the opposite!  But, God is here unmistakably decreeing that it is Peter’s Jewish heritage that must give way so that His promise to all nations may become a reality in the Christian Church.

Christ and Cornelius (2)

Peter and Cornelius

gods_son_centurion
Cornelius’ Vision (Acts 10:1-8)

This monumental event begins by God working within Cornelius.  We don’t know just how he ended up being assigned to the job of occupying and managing this small province of the vast Roman Empire.  Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea, which the Google Maps “Quick Facts” describes as follows.

Caesarea is a town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s known for Caesarea National Park, which includes a large Roman amphitheater and the historic port. On the site is an archaeological park with pillars and sculptures, and the remains of a hippodrome, with frescoes and stone seating. The ruins of the seafront Promontory Palace include the remains of a mosaic floor.

10 At Caesare′a there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.

These two introductory verses describe a pagan man who has come into contact with the ancient culture of Israel, and, finding there something far deeper and truer than anything he had previously experienced.  We know now that what he experienced was the eternal God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — through engagement with the Jewish faith as revealed in their Holy Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

Thus, though this devout man was serving as an occupier for the Empire, he yet found within this subjugated nation that which his heart had been yearning for but was previously unable to find.  He may not have even been aware of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus Christ knew him, and, had saved him from within the mystery of eternal grace to which all Christians give thanks.

About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

God now takes the initiative again to bring Cornelius into knowledge of Christ’s unmerited saving act upon his behalf.  Cornelius’ response of respect and generosity to his Jewish neighbors has been a precursor to a fuller understanding of the true source for his blessed newfound faith.

Cornelius’ initial response of terror is not uncommon in the annals of interaction with God’s messengers.  Being a battle-hardened Centurion, there was likely little in the realm of flesh and blood that could elicit such a response.  But, proximity of frail flesh and blood to that which conveys God’s eternal holiness is another matter entirely.

The angel now introduces Cornelius to this seemingly insignificant Jewish man, “Simon who is called Peter,” who is to be invited into his Gentile home.

When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

Cornelius obeys without hesitation or qualm.  Note that we are here told that Cornelius’ faith had spread beyond himself, with this “devout soldier” as the first of his household mentioned.

Christ and Cornelius (1)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout-Cornelius.

Vision of Cornelius the Centurion – Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1664)

Opening Thoughts

Background

Christ unambiguously decreed that His Church would include all nations in The Great Commission (Matthew 18:18b-20).

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

However we, looking back over two millennia of Gentile dominated Christianity, find it difficult to comprehend the height of the barrier that the original Jewish Christians were being asked to traverse.  For, people raised Jewish at that time had within themselves the religious and cultural heritage of two millennia of Jewish separatism.  Thus, the idea that Christ’s command could be easily obeyed in actual practice is deeply naive.

Given this background, the conversion of the first Gentile to Christianity must have been viewed by the primitive Church as a pivotal moment of the greatest importance.  We would therefore expect such a moment to be a major focus in the Book of Acts, which chronicles the rise of the Church from Christ’s ascension in circa A.D. 30 to Paul’s preaching in Rome, circa A.D.68.  And, this expectation is surely met.

The First Gentile Convert to Christianity

Although there is some debate regarding who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion points to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1 — 11:18).  The other possibility is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).  An excellent summary of the considerations involved in this conclusion is found in G. H. C. Macgregor’s exegesis on Acts 8:26-40 in the Interpreter’s Bible.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is most vividly told, very much in the style of a narrative from the books of Samuel and Kings.  Was the eunuch a Jew or a Gentile?  Eusebius refers to him as the first Gentile to embrace Christianity; so this Ethiopian has sometimes been regarded as an uncircumcised heathen, and his baptism as the first departure from the principle that Christianity was only for Jews, either native or proselyte.  But there is nothing in the story to suggest any such far-reaching innovation.  The fact that the Ethiopian was a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem, and that he was reading Isaiah, indicates that already he was at least a Jewish proselyte.  Luke evidently regards not his case, but that of Cornelius, as the first admission of an uncircumcised Gentile.  The stress laid on all the details of Cornelius’ case, on the scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome, and on the controversy that the incident precipitated at Jerusalem —  all this proves that Luke is describing what he considers to be the first case of the baptism of a heathen.

Additional evidence for Cornelius as the first Gentile convert is the fact that it is Peter, Christ’s “rock” who is led by God to take this decisive step.  If we look into the number of words used by Luke to describe important conversions in Acts we get the following results (counts from the NIV text):

  • Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: ~347 words
  • Saul on the road to Damascus: ~733 words
  • Peter and Cornelius: ~1456 words.

It is a striking result that Luke spends almost twice the number of words on Peter and Cornelius than he does on what many consider to be the most important conversion in Christianity, that being Saul’s!  Clearly Luke sees the conversion of Cornelius to be of the greatest importance to Christianity’s history.

Who was Cornelius?

Cornelius was “a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment” who had become “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  The Apostle Peter was called to seek out Cornelius by God’s direct intervention, through recurring and vivid visions.

A “centurion” in the Roman army is well described as:

centurionThe centurion, or centurio in Latin, has become the most famous officer in the Roman army, and his experience and valour were indeed a crucial factor in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring Rome‘s military successes spanned over centuries. Commanding a unit of around 100 legionaries, he was also responsible for assigning duties, dishing out punishments, and performing various administrative duties, which ranged from distributing camp passwords to the escort of prisoners. Centurions could also rise to higher administrative positions within the empire, but the name centurion would forever be associated with the grizzled veteran who, emblazoned with decorations, led by courageous example on the battlefield.

Thus, Cornelius was a seasoned warrior who had certainly proved himself in bloody battle on multiple occasions to have risen to such an important position in the Roman army.  Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” (see G. H. C. Macgregor’s above exegesis) must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.

This hypothesis will be tested by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.

Mainline Christianity and Progressive Politics (4)

ManinBubbleThe Consequences of Progressive Bubble-dom

Some may be wondering why I’m not being even-handed about the issue of bubble-dom.  In particular, why focus only on “progressive bubble-dom?”  The answer is that, although it is theoretically possible for a conservative, libertarian or other politically positioned person to live in a bubble, the fact that Progressives dominate our culture (mainstream media, Hollywood, etc.) and institutions (education, unions, high tech industry, professional organizations, etc.) means that non-Progressives have a much more difficult job of maintaining a bubble’s boundary.  Certainly many non-Progressives withdraw into groups that share their beliefs.  However, even within that group it is neigh impossible to avoid the onslaught of Progressive ideas and policies as they move through everyday life.

With regard to consequences, this has been a major theme of this Blog since it’s beginning.  Some of these consequences were introduced in the previous post, including moral contempt for, refusal to engage in discussion with and inability to utilize persuasive argumentation with non-Progressives.  These issues were examined in my recent posts on immigration policy, most directly in this concluding post (emphasis added).

There is, however, a general consideration that may be of use to explore as we exit this particular topic.  Although it has been indirectly referred to, it has not yet been specifically addressed.  That being Progressive Christianity’s all too common presumption of a moral, intellectual and theological superiority that excuses them from engaging as peers with those holding opposing perspectives.  I certainly am not claiming that this problem is uniformly the case as I personally know numerous members of this group who engage on the merits.

However, I believe the argument can be credibly made that, due to their undeniable success in occupying most key positions of social and organizational power, the Progressive movement has become far too dependent on intimidation at the expense of persuasion.

This strategy is pursued by never acknowledging opposition as being legitimate and by insisting that opposing points of view are motivated by moral defects.  Thus they are not seeking to persuade peers to see their point of view, but rather using social and/or organizational force to obtain submission.  Those who have been following this blog will have no trouble recalling cases where senior leaders in the PC(USA) have aggressively utilized these tactics.

It is the accumulation of these defects that has led to our current sorry state, in which any disagreement on policy degenerates into cruel name-calling.

“The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”

This irresponsible descent into character assassination over the slightest deviation from Progressive group-think has seriously torn our nation’s social fabric.  The recent tragic events in Charlottesville VA laid bare this damage.

There was a time in my (more distant) memory when the epithet “racist” was reserved for application to only those who identified themselves with or vocally aligned their opinions with groups that were openly racist in their ideology.  Yes, it was understood that all people develop stereotypes and preferences that are unfair to or stigmatize others, with the victims most often being black.  However, these moral failures didn’t rise to the level of “racist.”  That is, the assumption was that a person existed within acceptable moral bounds unless something that they said or did clearly proved the opposite.

Although there were steps along the way, the major break in this social assumption occurred with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency.  For, to our shock and dismay, those of us who opposed his administration’s policies found ourselves regularly accused of racism because the head of that administration happened to be black.

In fact, so out of control did this situation become that the accusation of racism didn’t even have to be connected to a racial issue.  I’ve already documented the use of this vile tactic in writing by a Presbytery of the PCUSA in the debate on the definition of Christian marriage.  I must add that I was personally accused of being a racist (by an Elder in the PCUSA no less) while arguing for the position that Christian marriage is defined by Christ Himself to be the union of one man and one woman.

So, when a few hundred KKK and other white-supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to publicly demonstrate for their evil, hateful beliefs, and, one of these people committed murder, there was great need to discuss the issue of racist ideology in numerous public settings.  Many honorable, well meaning leaders and people did just that.

However, the problem is that, with the epithet of “racist” having been applied so indiscriminately and carelessly to literally millions of people, and, current Progressive leaders explicitly using the tragedy in Charlottesville to do this very thing, when many people heard the word “racist” they reasonably wondered if it was being directed at them.  So, when this topic was discussed, it was done within context of a “poisoned well” situation.

Thus, our nation’s ability to reasonably discuss what is surely an important issue has been undermined by irresponsible use of the very term required to hold that discussion. This is one tragedy among many that have rendered our Republic incapable of making progress in so many areas.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around for this current political and cultural collapse.  Many others have made excellent critiques of conservative and other group’s failings.  They should be listened to and carefully considered.  However, until the Progressive Left, including the PCUSA’a leadership, exits its bubble and rejoins the rest of humanity on terms of mutual respect the healing process cannot begin.

Mainline Christianity and Progressive Politics (3)

pcusa-bubbleThe Mainline Progressive Bubble

A Revealing Incident

Let me share an experience from the floor of the Presbytery of Chicago.  A large committee had created a draft statement on evangelism that was under review.  At one point we were asked to split into small groups to discuss the draft.  A colleague from my local church and I asked two Commissioners, one younger and the other older, to join us.  They were more than happy to do so, and we started the discussion.

We pointed out that the draft as written seemed to be less about Christian evangelism than it was about multiculturalism.  For, as far as we could tell there were minimal claims to any truth or value for Christianity.  Rather, it appeared to be just about getting along with all other religions and cultures.

This observation elicited an immediate angry reaction from the older Commissioner.  Rather than engaging in debate on this point they walked away while audibly speaking into the air about haters and racists.

The younger Commissioner remained engaged.  However, their response was that dozens of PCUSA elders and clergy of all races, sexual orientations, genders and cultures had come together to generate this text, so, it had to be correct because the creating group was so diverse.  We pointed out that there was also the dimension of philosophical / theological  diversity, which we didn’t see represented in the document.  They responded with the blank stare of one who is hearing something incomprehensible.

The Two Bubbles

Thinking back on this incident years later I realize that the responses of these two Commissioners are representative of the two types of bubbles within which our leadership live.  These bubbles need not be separate, but can be, in effect, two layers that create hermetic isolation.

The Social Bubble

The younger Commissioner was more than happy to continue our discussion to the end of the allowed time.  They showed not the slightest anger about or disapproval of our position.  Rather, they seemed amazed to be speaking with two such strange humans.  We elicited not anger, but rather curiosity.

Surely, even living in Progressive Chicago they must have been aware of people who hold strange, inexplicable beliefs.  However, here were two actual people, on the floor of the Presbytery of Chicago (!?), who were stating these beliefs.  What an unexpected and unique cultural experience!

Thus, we find here the bubble of social isolation, in which a person simply doesn’t interact with anyone who challenges their beliefs.  Everyone, of all races, cultures, sexual orientations and genders, in their wondrous diversity, agrees on the same thing!  It’s not that they aren’t aware that there are strange people who somehow have tragically not been brought into the Progressive fold, it’s that they simply don’t engage with any actual people like that.

The Ideological Bubble

The older Commissioner knew full well that people like us exist.  And, within the hearing of only a few of our words they walked away in utter disgust.  For, in their world, people who were stupid enough to say such things out loud could only be motivated by vile evil motives.  There existed zero intention to engage with such moral and ideological deviants.  So, away they walked, speaking our condemnation into the air as the haters and racists that we surely had to be.

Our Current Sorry State

There may have been a time in our country’s history in which the social Progressive bubble predominated.  I think of that, by current standards, innocent statement by Pauline Kael after the 1972 Presidential election.

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

But, after eight years of being accused of voting for someone who was likely the new Hitler (George W. Bush) into the Presidency and then eight more years of being called a racist, homophobe, Islamophobe, totalitarian, etc. for opposing Progressive policies, be they political or theological, the ideological bubble clearly now dominates.

There are so many examples from which to choose, but one that I consider telling fell from the lips of no other than Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader of the House of Representatives (emphasis added).

“And I say, this will be a little not in keeping with the spirit of the day of unity, but I say they pray in church on Sunday and prey on people the rest of the week, and while we’re doing the Lord’s work by ministering to the needs of God’s creation they are ignoring those needs which is to dishonor the God who made them.”

You see, it takes the rhetorical skills of the highest ranking elected Democratic politican to so seamlessly combine their political and religious bigotry into a single steaming statement of contemptuous hatred.

Of course, former Democratic senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold (a Progressive favorite!) has made perhaps the most disgusting and definitive statement in this regard (emphasis added).

“The lesson from Charlottesville is not how dangerous the neo-Nazis are, … It is the unmasking of the Republican party leadership. In the wake of last weekend’s horror and tragedy, let us finally, finally rip off the veneer that Trump’s affinity for white supremacy is distinct from the Republican agenda of voter suppression, renewed mass incarceration and the expulsion of immigrants.”

Yes, indeed, “finally, finally” the vile evil motives of all Republicans, hidden for generations, have been revealed for all to see!

Finally, lest you imagine that our PCUSA leadership is not within this same ideological bubble, consider the actions and statements of our current Co-moderators  and the Senior Pastor from one of our largest churches.  I should also point out that most of the cruel name calling referred to above was done in person by members of the PCUSA (see here for one written example).

The consequences of this ideological dominance in Progressive thought have been a major factor that has led to our current sorry state.