Uniform 11.08.2015: A Fence around the Kingdom

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Acts 15:1-12

More than a decade ago, my mother ran for the position of deacon at her church. Women deacons weren’t widespread at the time, but the church she attended had made the change to their constitution, ruling that the office of deacon was open to qualified “people” rather than just “men.” In spite of that change, her bid for the position caused confusion and outright anger in some of the members. One man decided to run against her not because he disliked her but because he simply couldn’t fathom a woman in that kind of leadership position. She lost, but only by a few votes. And when it was time for elections again, she became a deacon with no problem. She has served faithfully for many years.

The issue of women in church leadership positions isn’t as divisive as it once was, but there are still plenty of congregations who aren’t sure if God’s okay with it—and plenty of women who are discouraged and heartbroken by churches who try to put a fence around God’s kingdom.

Are you okay with a deacon—or even a pastor—who is a woman? If so, chances are good that there are other issues or people you’re not okay with. There’s no question that Scripture is sometimes unclear or even contradictory when it comes to the conflicts we face today. It’s not surprising that we disagree, argue, and wonder what is the best choice in many circumstances. One of our problems is thinking that such disagreements are new to us. People have been building a fence around God’s kingdom for centuries.

In the years following Jesus’ time on earth, the fence was intended to keep out Gentiles. Only Jews, who underwent special rituals and learned particular teachings, were allowed into God’s family. But then came Jesus, who knocked down the fence. He wanted to draw people in. The religious leaders were okay with this—but with stipulations. Sure, Gentiles could be part of the kingdom…if they completed a list of requirements to make them right with the Lord. The fence was still there after all, and it had a locked gate one could open only with the key of rituals and prescribed behaviors.

Paul, Peter, and the other apostles agreed, but God revealed a bigger plan. Jesus came for all, and all are invited to follow him. All are welcome into God’s kingdom. There are no fences. The question of who was in and who was out grew so contentious that the early leaders were called to a Jerusalem council to discuss it. Some were excited about the new Gentile followers; others (like the Pharisees) were not. So Peter took a stand and proclaimed, “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them [in this case, the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:8-9).

There are no fences around the kingdom of God. Why are we still trying to build them?

Discussion

1. Have you ever been in a situation when believers were trying to exclude certain people from God’s kingdom based on behaviors, gender, or other factors? If so, what was that like, and what was the outcome?
2. Why do you think humans tend to form exclusive groups? Are we trying to “protect” God, or are we fearful for ourselves?
3. Do you question someone’s place in God’s kingdom? If so, name that person (or groups of people) to yourself and consider why you think they should be kept out.
4. Do you think the Pharisees’ argument against including the Gentiles was valid in any way? If so, how? In what ways does their argument hold sway in faith communities today?
5. What do you believe is the overall message of the gospel? How far do you think Peter’s statement in verses 8-9 reaches? Whom does it cover? Commit to spending time in conversation with God. Ask that you might be someone who welcomes people into the kingdom instead of building fences to keep them out.

Reference Shelf

The Controversy: “They Must Keep the Law of Moses,” 15:1-5

An indeterminate length of time has passed (see 14:28). Men from Judea visit the church at Antioch and are less than pleased that God “had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (14:27). The text does not identify these Judeans precisely, but readers may recall certain “circumcised believers” who criticized Peter after the Cornelius episode (11:2). Peter’s response seemed to assuage the critics and resolve the issue (11:18). The controversy of Acts 15 over Gentile inclusion indicates either that the issue was not fully resolved or enough time has lapsed that the important issue needs revisitation.

The precise demand of the Judeans is that Gentiles be circumcised. Given that this demand echoes the demand of certain Pharisaic believers back in Jerusalem, who say that the Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (v. 5), it is reasonable to conclude that there is an explicit connection between the Judeans of v. 1 and the Pharisees of v. 5. Further, one may infer that the voices of dissent come not from the Jerusalem church as a whole, but only a segment from within the church.

The matter needs clear resolution. The Pharisaic believers’ demand does not seem unreasonable. Genesis 17:9-14 is emphatic that Abraham’s descendants are the blessed people and circumcision is the mark of such descent. Texts such as Deuteronomy 5:28-33 demand that God’s people “follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you” (v. 33). If Gentiles, as Gentiles and not as proselytes, were to be incorporated into the sphere of God’s salvation, important theological implications will ensue; therefore, the issue needs clear discussion and resolution.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 247-248.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.

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