The Recipe for a Good, Biblical Argument (Acts 15)
Acts 15:2 states, “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.”
Can we take a moment and pause for a collective sigh of relief? We are not the first denomination, local church, or group of Jesus followers that has experienced dissent, division, and disagreement. The earliest Christians didn’t even have a chance to stain the new sanctuary carpet with spilled communion juice before their first controversy.
That’s where we find Peter, Paul, Barnabas and others in Acts 15. They are engaged in a conversation so important and significant, they paused their missionary work and traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Jerusalem Council (imagine District and General Superintendents). The main question they debated was this: “Can Gentiles be saved without being circumcised?” (Acts 15:1, 5). This was no small question. Their question cannot be compared to arguments we’ve had in the our denomination over the last few decades, such as hymns verses praise and worship songs or whether or not you must include “Nazarene” in the official name of your church. For the early Christians, the debate about circumcision was absolutely critical because it had everything to do with adherence to the law, identity, interpretation of the law, and how Jews and Gentiles were going to worship together as one community, the body of Christ. It wasn’t a debate about an issue; it was a debate about people.
Though there are no perfect analogies, the debate about circumcision in Acts 15 is similar to our debate about inclusion of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) in the Church of the Nazarene. Like the debate about the Gentile circumcision, our conversation is infused with identity, interpretation of Scripture, and how Nazarenes on all sides of the debate are going to worship together as one community, the body of Christ. It’s not a debate about an issue; it’s a debate about people.
Here’s the good news: The Jerusalem Council, through God’s immeasurable grace, listened to one another, heard testimonies, deliberated, and eventually, came to some conclusions about their question at hand. How did they arrive at a consensus? The how is precisely where their debate helps us.
In his commentary on the book of Acts, William Willimon argues, “The method of debate in [Acts] 15:7-21 is a useful guide for how the church ought to argue.” He draws three criteria from the deliberation at the Jerusalem Council, which are,
- New revelation
- Confirmation by experience
- Testing by Scripture
These criteria provide a framework or recipe for how to think through our Nazarene debate about the inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in our churches. To put it another way, these three criteria teach us how to argue.
1. New Revelation
Again, the question at stake in Acts 15 is, “Can Gentiles be saved without being circumcised?” In response to the statement by some believers, who argued, “No, Gentiles cannot be saved without circumcision,” Peter appealed to his new revelation from God, saying, “he has made no distinction between us and them” (15:9).
Peter alludes to his vision and the entirety of the events with Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18). Remember hungry Peter on the rooftop? He’s praying on the rooftop when a sheet comes down from heaven by its four corners. The sheet was covered in unclean animals that Peter, a Jew, is not allowed to eat. A voice instructs him to kill and eat. Peter refuses to eat the animals, because they are unclean and his track record with tests isn’t so great (think: “the rooster crows”). Then, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15). After the vision, three men from Caesarea arrive and invite Peter to the house of Cornelius. The Spirit instructs Peter, “Go with them and don’t distinguish between them and us” (11:12).
God reveals something quite revolutionary to Peter in his vision and the events that follow. Whereas previously, God forbid Peter, and all Torah following Jews for that matter, to eat unclean animals, God revealed something new to Peter. God’s work in the world is dynamic, meeting us where we are. God is doing something different.
Peter clearly understands his vision and the subsequent events at the house of Cornelius to be directly linked to this debate about circumcision. Yes, his vision was about barbecue and not about circumcision. But God’s message is clear: We Gentiles who God has made clean, Peter, is not to consider unclean.
The question comes now to our debate: What is God revealing about the inclusion of LGBTQ sisters and brothers in our church?
By asking questions of others, and ourselves, we create space to consider what God is revealing. Asking good questions and being good listeners provides a great starting point for a Jerusalem Council type argument. Subsequent questions might include the following:
How have we experienced God’s spirit in our gay brother or lesbian sister?
What do we lose by not having this person in our church community?
What does it mean to worship Jesus, who spent his life with people on the margins of society?
Who has shown us God’s expansive love and acceptance?
The first criteria for a good argument in the form of a question: What is God revealing?
2. Confirmation by experience
Revelation from God to one individual isn’t quite sturdy enough to stand on it’s own accord. We, the church, have to test people’s revelations from God with and against our experiences of the Holy Spirit’s activity in our midst and with one another. (Think of the person who saw the face of Jesus on their burnt piece of toast. There are really good reasons we have the faith community for discernment.)
Even Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, had to have his revelation from God confirmed by experience. He was invited to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, who Peter had been taught to view as unclean. Peter shared the gospel and wasn’t even finished preaching when the Holy Spirit came upon these uncircumcised, barbecue-eating Gentiles. His revelation from God, that he should show no partiality, that there was no longer clean and unclean, was confirmed by his experience in Cornelius’ house.
At this point in the council discussion, Paul and Barnabas recall their own experiences where they witnessed, “all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). Two instances of confirmation of God’s work among uncircumcised Gentiles bolster the new revelations from God.
Moving again to our debate in the Nazarene church: Can God’s revelations be confirmed through experience?
Nazarenes frequently speak about God’s revelation as it relates to vocation or calling. God called my friend Jeanne to minister to victims of sex-trafficking. I vividly remember hearing some of her stories at the end of last summer, after she’d worked for eight weeks in the Philippines. Jeanne is, without a doubt, the most courageous person I know. She described an array of experiences, from giving lectures on anti-trafficking to college students and church members to initiating a raid with police officers to rescue three girls who had been trafficked into Filipino brothels.
On this particular trip, Jeanne would regularly visit brothels with Jim, a health care worker. The purpose of their visits was to meet with new adolescents and women that just arrived to ensure that they had not been trafficked. Jeanne asked Jim if he would allow her to share about Jesus with the young women they were meeting. He was reluctant at first, fearing that speaking about God with women exploited through prostitution would only further their guilt and shame, but he decided to give her a chance.
I struggle to wrap my mind around the scene that repeated day after day. Jeanne, a young blond woman with an Alabama accent, speaks with a prostitute and a health care worker inside a Filipino brothel. After Jim finishes his official business, Jeanne begins telling the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Jeanne describes the woman at the well as “an entertainer,” an outcast in her own town, filled with shame and fearful of others. Jesus looks this entertainer in the eye, speaks to her with dignity, and asks her for a drink of water. He knows about all the men that she has been with, but does not judge her. Rather, Jesus offers this woman “living water.” Then, Jeanne asks the woman she’s speaking with, “What do you think living water is?” She responds to whatever answer is given and shares about the living water found in Christ that quenches all thirst.
God’s revelation to Jeanne was specific, like Peter’s. Her community confirmed God’s revelation because they saw Jeanne’s passion for this work, they saw her ministering to those exploited through sex-trafficking, and they heard her share about Jesus’ living water. They knew God was at work in her life; there was no doubt about it!
Here’s the reality for Jeanne. Despite God’s revelation and the fact that her church community has confirmed her call through experience, she struggles to find a missions organization with which she can work long-term because she is gay. Though she’s committed to practicing celibacy in singleness and monogamy in partnership, policies and regulations prevent Jeanne from doing the work that God has called her to do. Rules about who can and cannot be a missionary squander all of the obvious signs that point to what God is doing both in and through Jeanne’s life and ministry. I pray that she finds an organization that will take her revelation and experience as seriously as the Jerusalem Council did with Peter.
The second criteria for a good argument in the form of a question: Is God’s new revelation confirmed by experience, particularly in the faith community?
3. Testing of Scripture
After hearing all the different opinions in the debate and the testimonies of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, James rose to address the council. He affirmed their accounts of God’s favor upon the Gentiles and then tested their stories against Scripture. James argues,
This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return and I will rebuild the dwelling of David which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other people may seek the Lord–even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago’ (Acts 15:15-17).
James quotes Amos 9:11-12, which speaks of the inclusion of Gentiles without any stipulations for what laws they must follow in order to participate in the covenant community.
Ultimately, the Jerusalem Council made the choice that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised in order to participate fully in the covenant community. This choice, however, goes against instructions from the law. Though there are some accommodations for Gentiles or sojourners that do not require circumcision (Leviticus 17-18), there are clearly requirements that Gentiles be circumcised in other instances.
Take, for example, Genesis 34:15-24, which requires that aliens be circumcised in order to be one people with Israel. Exodus 12:44-48 similarly requires that strangers (Gentiles) who wanted to participate in Passover must be circumcised.
The Jerusalem Council, then, appears to disregard Scriptural demands for circumcision because of the previous two criteria–God’s revelation and confirmation by experience. The council must have had some conception of a God that is continually active and revelatory, constantly expanding God’s kingdom through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How does our Nazarene church test scripture in our debate about the inclusion of LGBTQ church members?
We could get into a whole discussion about Scripture, but that would take up another entire post or several posts. Instead, I’d like to make two points about the “testing of Scripture” as it relates to Acts 15 and the makings of a Jerusalem Council kind of argument.
First, we must remember that within Acts 15, the church makes a decision that seems to contradict Scripture. This is not unheard of for Nazarenes. In addition to the countless Torah commandments that we Gentiles do not keep, there are also New Testament instructions that we’ve decided to do without because God’s revelation has been confirmed through experience.
I am a Licensed Minister in the Church of the Nazarene. As a senior pastor, I teach and preach at my church every Sunday. Nazarenes have had this one right from the beginning. Yet, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 prohibit me, a female, from speaking in church.
I remember when we talked about women’s ordination in one of my classes at Southern Nazarene University. My professor, who passionately supported women in ministry, explained the prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 as culturally conditioned statements, which must be interpreted in light of the culture and time within which they were written. This is a question we must explore further regarding same sex sexual intimacy.
Second, when we are testing Scripture in our arguments, it’s important to keep Jesus in mind. Specifically, what happened to allow the inclusion of us as Gentiles through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? What was accomplished? How does Scripture understand the significance of Jesus? There’s not one answer to these questions, but many answers. What Jesus did on the cross was so monumental that the New Testament writers employ a plethora of images and descriptions in an attempt to capture all that Christ has done.
That said, instead of only citing particular verses that address our topic of debate, we should also consider the Scriptural interpretations of Christ’s work. For example, in our Nazarene debate about the inclusion of LGBTQ members in the life and work of the church, let us think carefully about Galatians 3-4. Paul gets at one of the many works of Christ is these chapters. In Christ, Paul argues, we are adopted, all children of God. Now that we are baptized, clothed with Christ, children of God, he states, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
In Christ, all social barriers are broken down. Since we are baptized and have put on Christ, Christian becomes our primary identity marker, a kind of identity trump card. It’s not that our other identity markers disappear, but their importance is relativized. Fred Edie explains, “The usual markers of identity…neither procure me high status in the church…nor do they retain the power to hold me down or keep me in the margins of community life as they may have in my old life.” Our identity markers of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation no longer have the power to keep us on the margins because our primary identity marker is Christian. Christ, in his death and resurrection, broke down social barriers so that we all might be one in Christ–now that has a lot to say about the inclusion of our LGBTQ friends in our church.
If we are one in Christ, how can we exclude our LGBTQ brothers and sisters on the basis of a social category? Would we believe it acceptable to exclude Christians from the Church of the Nazarene based on other social categories? What about a Christian who is poor, or single, or someone of a different ethnicity? Of course such exclusions are unacceptable! Why, then, do we make an exception for the social category of sexual orientation? Galatians 3:28 calls out our exclusive manual statements and behaviors and begs us to acknowledge our LGBTQ brothers and sisters by their primary identity marker: Christian.
The third criteria for a good argument: the testing of Scripture. The “testing of Scripture” does not mean a Google or concordance search for “homosexual” or “homosexuality” to figure out what the Bible says. Rather, it means that we test Scripture’s expansive understanding of what Christ’s work accomplished (i.e. What does Scripture say about what Christ did on the cross and what does that say about our debate?) James tests Scripture in this way at the Jerusalem Council. He did not look up “circumcision” and argue from there. Instead, he references a glimpse of the nature and character of God from the prophet Amos, a God who desires that all people seek the Lord.
Even Willimon, who suggests these three criteria as the framework for arguments, admits that these do not settle the church’s inner differences. He’s been around the block enough to know that it’s not that easy. They do, however, give us the recipe for a good, Biblical argument. They provide a starting point, a way to frame the conversation, and an example of how a group of Christians wrestled with a debate that risked their unity.
I love our church. I love being Nazarene. I love that we place such great emphasis on Scripture, which allows us to read Acts 15 and take seriously its suggestions. It’s time to speak openly, to argue, and to put the conversation on the table. Acts 15 teaches us how to argue. May we do so with patience and grace.