Mission After Christendom by David Smith is a fantastic book that highlights some key challenges facing the modern missionary movement in an ever increasing globalised world.  He seeks to address each challenge using astutely discerned biblical passages as a model to motivate the Church to engage missionally with its surrounding culture effectively.

Looking at the challenge of pluralisation, he uses the narrative found in Acts 10-11 of Peter and Cornelius.   The following is an abstract from his book.

The literary structure of the first two scenes is similar; in both the prayer of the central character leads on to a vision, which is then followed by a special divine revelation.  However, there is also a contrast between Cornelius, who is open, responsive and obedient to the divine word, and Peter, whose reaction is characterised by confusion, resistance and rebellion.  The contrast is striking and disturbing; the man without the Bible is humbly obedient to the light given to him, while the one with all the privileges, who in this case has actually walked with the incarnate Word of God, resists further light and will not budge from an inherited theological position.

It is important to consider carefully the nature of the obstacles that initially prevented Peter from following the call of the missionary Christ.  He has a vision in which a sheet comes down from heaven containing both clean and unclean animals, which he is then commanded to ‘Kill and eat’.  His reaction is a very strong one, something like the ringing statement: ‘Never Lord! For not once in my life have I ever eaten anything unclean’ (10:14). Peter has always understood dietary behaviour to reflect the divine will since it was based on what seemed to be special revelation.  The dietary laws were not a merely human construction designed to provide ethnic distinctiveness to the Jewish people, but were an expression of holiness.  It is this perspective which explains the strength of Peter’s reaction and his seeming irreverence in resisting the voice from heaven.  He is, we might say, arguing for God against God.  Peter’s resistance to the divine command is long and vigorous, so that even after the instruction has been issued and declined three times he is still left ‘wondering about the meaning of the vision’ (10:17).

What is in fact happening here is that the apostle is making the painful discovery that things he has always regarded as unchanging absolutes were in fact, in the light of Jesus Christ, culturally relative. In a missionary context the church will always find itself involved in the struggle to distinguish biblical absolutes from culturally conditioned beliefs as practices.  The great Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes once accused his contemporaries of ‘making more sins than God has made’ and long-established theological traditions are always in danger of limiting Christian freedom by an unwarranted expansion of beliefs and practices classified as absolutes.  Put another way, mission involves the discovery that our faith and theology have been conditioned by culture to a far greater extent that we had ever realised.  Cultural conditioning is not something that happens only to other people, we too carry cultural baggage which needs to be declared ‘excess’ and left behind when we seek to share Christ with others.

It is incredibly difficult to perceive our own cultural baggage, especially as we are immersed within our own culture.  How can we take a step back and survey what are timeless unchanging truths and what is culturally relative baggage and in need of being left behind?

2 thoughts on “A Re-reading of Acts 10-11

  1. I think learning about other cultures and how they express their Christianity is helpful as we can step outside our own culture and see what is different, however that does assume both churches have the gospel at their heart too which is probably not always the case.

    You may have read this article by Phillip Jenson (http://phillipjensen.com/articles/preaching-in-the-australian-context/), where he ends with:

    “to preach the gospel accurately, we have to free ourselves from cultural baggage… On the other hand, to preach the gospel accurately, we shouldn’t be overly distracted by detailed cultural analysis, because the Bible is our trustworthy guide to human nature. By dedicating ourselves to pursuing God’s mind in Scripture, we come to a profound understanding of the true nature of humanity. We will always learn most about our audience by listening carefully to their Maker.”

    It sounds like he’s being a bit negative about contextualisation, but I do feel rebuked particularly by this part of his analysis:

    “Psalms 14 and 53 tell us that atheism is not an intellectual position, but a moral one. People reject God because of their immorality…However, despite knowing this from the Bible, we are still tempted to feel that everybody is an atheist and that we must use clever arguments for God’s existence. But the Bible tells us to assume that they all know that God is there and not to waste time at that end of the apologetic spectrum. Rather, speak about what God requires of us and trust that those who are denying him are doing so to avoid the moral implications.”

    What do others think?

  2. I just heard the head of The Church of Pentecost, the largest evangelical church in Ghana, describe how it became self-supporting and grew so fast. One of the factors, according to him was that the founder, a Scottish missionary named McKeown, gave to some people who came to the Lord that he mentored, to decide what forms to use in Worship and he allowed them to theologize including choosing what local forms to use and which to reject. So the Church of Pentecost took on forms that most churches rejected at the time. Could it be, then, that the secret is not in what the missionary knows and decides, but in how quickly he can develop local believers who know how to rely on the Spirit to make decisions about local forms and theologize about them?

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