By Rev Dr Jennifer Turner OAM
There are three fundamental divisions between people that, because of sin, cause hostility and hurt: race, status, and gender (cf. Galatians 3:28). Jesus came to break down these barriers, not to make all people alike, but to remove enmity and fear and so create the relationships that God intended us to have from the beginning (Genesis 1:26).
The book of Acts documents the breaking down of the first of these dividing walls: that between Jew and Gentile. The New Testament gives great importance to the theological truth that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek’ and shows how it became a practical reality in the life of the early church. There are parallels between this process of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile and the breaking down of barriers between free people and slaves, and between men and women.
The second barrier, that between slave and free, was overcome in western society in the nineteenth century through Christians such as William Wilberforce but there are many parts of the world where it is still an open sore. However, we are now in the time when we must apply the New Testament experience of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile to the relationship between men and women, particularly in the church.
The importance of breaking down barriers
The importance that Paul attached to the role of the Gospel in breaking down barriers, specifically the barrier between Jew and Gentile, can be seen in at least three ways.
First, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. The primary reconciliation is with God but should result in reconciliation with others (John 13:34-45; 1 John 3:17-18). The love and forgiveness we experience from God are intended to produce, by the Holy Spirit’s work, similar love and forgiveness in our relationships with others. Such reconciliation demonstrates the power of the Gospel. Or as someone has said, the test of orthodoxy in the New Testament is not doctrine, but love. In Ephesians 2 Paul contends that the Gospel not only reconciles individual Jews and Gentiles to God but also changes fundamentally the relationship between them. Jesus ‘destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . in one body to reconcile both of them [Jew and Gentile] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14-16).
Second, in Paul’s account of his opposition to Peter in Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff.), he indicates it was no small matter for Peter to withdraw from eating with Gentiles: it challenged the basic tenet that justification is by faith and not by observing the law (2:16). Peter needed to be prepared by a dream to take the Gospel to the Gentiles in the first instance. He was now backtracking from this fundamental insight. In other words, the social demonstration of reconciliation, in this case, table fellowship, was necessary for the full expression of the Gospel.
Third, the need to demonstrate the reconciling power of the Gospel lies behind the extraordinary importance Pau gave to the collection from the Gentiles for the impoverished Jews in Jerusalem. (Acts 19:21; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9; Romans 15:25-27.) This could have been a case of Paul simply carrying out the Jerusalem Council’s injunction to ‘remember the poor’ (Galatians 2:10), but it is his standard practice to link fellowship to sharing money (10 out of his 14 uses of the word koinonia refer to sharing money with other Christians). For Paul, giving was a clear expression of oneness in Christ, a demonstration that the Good News has the power to reconcile Gentile and Jew. Jews had taken the Gospel to the Gentiles, now Gentiles could express their solidarity in return by this monetary gift.
In summary, the social implications of reconciliation to God were revolutionary in the early church. It broke down social barriers so that all could participate in the life of the church.
The process of breaking down barriers
Jesus’ teaching had been clear. The great commission was explicit. Pentecost demonstrated the Holy Spirit’s power to overcome barriers. There could be no mistaking that God now intended to call all people to himself and so undo the alienating effect of the Fall. But the book of Acts shows that this process of reconciliation neither happened automatically nor all at once, because there were great cultural prejudices to overcome. The Jews had maintained their identity by a heightened sense of their unique relationship to God. Though there is in the Old Testament a note of God’s concern for all peoples, the Jews expected their covenant God Yahweh would be worshipped by nations coming to Zion. The Gentiles were, they thought, to become ‘honorary Jews’. The book of Acts recounts the story of God opening their culturally conditioned eyes.
It is part of human nature that what is accepted in principle (eg that in Jesus Christ, God welcomes all people equally, irrespective of their social standing) takes time and discipline to be applied in everyday life. Reading the New Testament, it seems that there were several steps to the practical application of the full reconciliation of Jew and Gentile.
First, God controlled the timing of these changes by preparing the key players. He prepared Peter for his mission to Cornelius through a dream. Paul was prepared by his background and wide social, as well as religious, qualifications before being commissioned specifically as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’. He did not see this simply as a job description. He lobbied for the Gentiles’ full recognition in the church, both socially and in leadership roles.
Second, Acts 10:44 states explicitly that the Holy Spirit came on all those Gentiles who heard the message in the home of Cornelius and it was this that confirmed their acceptance by God and verified their baptism (Acts 10:47). It was this that Peter emphasised in his report to the church leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 11:15-18). The spread of the church from Jerusalem also confirmed that God was behind this movement.
Third, demonstrating the full implications of the Gospel sometimes took concerted effort. Paul took up the challenge on behalf of the Gentiles by confronting Peter in Galatia, before church leaders more widely, and in his writings. He was a privileged Jew giving up personal and racial self-interest to demonstrate the reconciling power of the Good News.
Fourth, Council action did not precede but followed God’s demonstration of his intentions. The decision of the Council in Acts 15 regarding the position of the Gentiles followed its discernment of God’s plan for total inclusion of all non-Jews. If the Council had been held before it was obvious that the Holy Spirit was creating a world-wide church, the decision might have been more narrow.
Applying these principles to the issue of women as church leaders
The power of the Gospel to bring about reconciliation needs to be demonstrated in the church in all areas, but particularly in relationships between men and women. It is not enough to say that women have equal access to God when we forbid public use of the gifts God has given them. As with the Gentiles, this relegates women to be second-class members whose ‘deficiencies’ have not been overcome by the cross.
The relationship between men and women is the issue of our day. The time-table may be set by society but Christians should have been there first. I am convinced that the underlying problem is a deep-seated fear between men and women that only the Cross can heal. If we are not actively involved in this healing process, we are denying the power of the Gospel.
This is not a question of a woman’s right to ministry. In the Kingdom of God, servants can claim no rights, only responsibility to perform faithful service (Luke 22:24-27; 17:7-10). Nor is it about titles or status (Matthew 23:1-12). We have a mandate to show that the Gospel opens access to God, gives everyone a Holy Spirit-endowed responsibility in the church, and especially breaks down barriers between fellow believers.
The process of reconciliation needs men as well as women committed to demonstrating the power of the Good News in this area, people prepared to go out on a limb. Formal decisions by churches to recognise women’s leadership are certainly not running ahead of God. Rather they are acknowledging that the Holy Spirit has already given many gifts to women, including that of servant leadership. To oppose their ministry is to run the danger of standing in God’s way (Acts 11:17) by not being in step with the Spirit.
The primary objective must be to break down the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ by healing the deep-seated fear. This will include experiencing the public ministry of women and receiving God’s restoration of cross-gender relationships in our lives.
Bu following the pattern of making theological truth real in everyday life in relationships between men and women, we will demonstrate that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. We will also be realising our heritage that the priesthood of all believers really is for all, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for all, and that the Christ-like way of servant authority is for all.
From an article first published in Faith ad Freedom, 1.1, 1992, 21-23.