Last week, this blog published Jean Meade’s helpful reflection on the conversion of Cornelius the centurion and its significance in the boundary-breaking ministry of Peter and that of the early Church — past the fences of Judaism to the uncircumcised masses of the Roman Empire. I would like to look further at the challenges around Gentile mission in the early Church and the implications this may have for the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion as we struggle with similar issues in our own day.
The early mission to the Gentiles expanded the Church from the boundaries of the synagogue into the pagan multitudes of the broader Roman Empire. This expansion led to challenges of self-definition, redefinition of boundaries in the broader Christian community, and conflict between leaders representing different approaches and solutions to the “Gentile problem.” Yet ultimately, engagement with this issue provided an opportunity for the Church not only to find a solution for its own day, but also to discover and employ enduring theological and liturgical gifts that continue into our own day.
Antioch on the Orontes serves as the locus for much of the earliest tension surrounding Gentile inclusion. Peter and Paul both had significant ministries in this cosmopolitan city. Acts 11 records that Antioch was the place where followers of The Way of Jesus first became known as Christians, an indication that the multi-cultural church, composed of Gentiles and Jews, had already pushed beyond the synagogue and were in the process of defining the boundaries of their community separately.
However, boundary redefinition creates tension, which often leads to conflict, and this was no different in Antioch. Galatians 2 and Acts 15 record conflict between Paul, Peter, and “certain followers of James,” all of whom had different approaches to Gentile mission and inclusion.
These three approaches reflect the various socio-religious strata of the developing Christian ecclesia.
- Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles, advocated an ecclesiology in which the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised were rendered insignificant in the Church of Jesus Christ.
- Peter too had embraced the Gentile mission, but mostly within the familiar realm of God-fearers — Gentiles at some level of engagement with the life of the synagogue, like Cornelius in Acts 10.
- The “certain people from James” came from Jerusalem — even if not sanctioned by James — and represent an ecclesiology centered on Christian Jews, continuing in the worship and community life of the Temple and synagogue, observing the Mosaic Law, including the kosher prohibitions.
The initial conflict had to do with questions of entrance rites. Did Gentile believers need to be circumcised in order to be full members of the Church? They all gathered in Jerusalem for the leaders to adjudicate an appropriate way to include Gentiles without violating the conscience of the Law-observers. The Jerusalem Council sent this letter to the church in Antioch, recorded in Acts 15:22–29. The compromise?
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28–29)
But the story doesn’t end there. Theological rulings from an authority on high do not an ecclesial agreement make. This is where things get interesting. The Antiochene church, according to Acts 15, received the letter with joy. But there was still a problem: How could the kosher Jewish Christians, now essentially forced to share table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles, be sure that they could avoid pollution by proxy when they were eating with these Gentiles?
Paul depicts the tension well in 1 Corinthians 10:23–33. A gentile believer may have eaten meat sacrificed to idols for lunch, and may gather around the Eucharistic table with kosher Jewish Christians later that day. In the mind of the Law observer, this would defile not just the Gentiles, but also everyone sharing fellowship with them around the table. For a kosher Jewish Christian, that would be a bridge too far.
Things come to a head in Antioch. Galatians 2 tells the story from Paul’s perspective: Peter ate with the Gentiles in Antioch, in keeping with the freedom he exercised following his vision in Acts 10. When the Law-observant “people from James” arrived, Peter returned to his typical practice, perhaps out of a desire to avoid scandalizing the Law observers and jeopardizing his status amongst the more Law-observant Jerusalem church.
Clearly, the problem of how to accommodate the conscience of all around the table without sacrificing the freedom of the Gentiles on the one hand, or the unity of the Church on the other hand, was more intractable than the Jerusalem Council’s declaration foresaw. For Paul, the issue was about the very message of the Gospel itself, as he says in Galatians 2. But Galatians never tells us the conclusion. Paul gets his point in, and moves on. How does the problem come to a solution?
I believe the answer is in the Gospel of Matthew and the early Christian prayer book and catechism known as the Didache. While the provenance and date of both of these documents are debatable, most believe they originate from Antioch during a period of time after the conflict between Peter and Paul.
Their solution? Baptism.
Matthew and the Didache are unique in their presenting baptism “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” generations before any other Christian documents (Matthew 28:19, Didache 7:1). A few items to note: both Matthew and the Didache are documents of a Jewish character, written with the scope of Gentile mission in mind: In Matthew, Jesus commands the disciples to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Didache begins with instruction to Gentile converts in basic Christian morality, based in the Two Ways tradition of Deuteronomy via Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Neither document shows direct dependence on the other. Why would they both include a form of baptism which, though normative in the later centuries, seems unknown in the Pauline epistles, the other Gospels, or the Acts of the Apostles?
Willy Rordorf proposes a simple explanation for the inclusion of this formula:
In contrast to the Jews who, at their conversion to Jesus, received his Spirit with baptism, the Gentiles first had to confess the unique God, Father of Jesus Christ, to be able to be baptized. The situation is already given in the time of the Pauline mission (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9–10), it emerges again in the letter which is addressed to Gentile converts.
By the Gentiles’ baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they could demonstrate to their Jewish sisters and brothers their clean break with paganism, while avoiding the already unnecessary step of circumcision. In other words, the Antiochene church, by revisiting the words of Jesus’ Great Commission to the disciples, discovers in the tradition of Jesus’ teaching a way to initiate Gentiles fully into the Jewish Christian community without sacrificing either the conscience of the Jews or the freedom of the Gentiles.
Eventually, as the Church expanded further in Gentile mission, and the numbers of Gentile converts eclipsed the numbers of observant Jews converting to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the form of baptism for Gentile converts became the norm, giving shape to the later baptismal confessions and creeds, and perhaps even the Trinitarian shape of the Church’s Nicene faith. As the Church engaged faithfully with her inherited traditions, and leaders with different visions for the Church’s forward mission engaged patiently, honestly, and lovingly with each other, the synthesis they arrived at from ecclesial conflict bore ecclesial fruits from which we still are nourished today.
So what does this have to do with anything today? The struggle over Gentile inclusion has become a totem in Church conflicts for anyone wishing to claim historical precedent for their side of the argument. I believe it better to learn principles from the modes of engagement, and find reasons to hope that as we return to our inherited tradition, engage patiently, honestly, and lovingly with those with whom we disagree, we as a Church may discover and produce in the synthesis of our solution Spirit-given fruits that draw the Church to greater unity and nourish future generations with truth and life, which they can receive with a hearty “Amen!”
The featured image is from Francesco Trevisani’s “Peter baptizing the centurion Cornelius” (1709). It is in the public domain.
 E.g. Jonathan A. Draper, “Torah and Troublesome Apostles in the Didache Community,” in The Didache in Modern Research, Jonathan A. Draper, ed., (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 342; Clayton Jefford, “The Milieu of Matthew, the Didache, and Ignatius of Antioch: Agreements and Differences” in Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu?, ed. Huub van de Sandt, (Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2005), pp. 35-36; Michelle Slee, The Church in Antioch in the First Century CE, (New York: Sheffield Academic, 2003), pp. 55–56.
 Willy Rordorf, “Baptism According to the Didache,” in Jonathan Draper, The Didache in Modern Research (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 217–218.