In seminary we were encouraged—well, required—to read outside our own theological perspective. A few students recoiled a bit. They had been living in a bubble, and those outside it had been mostly ignored, sometimes caricatured, but never directly listened to with the goal of accurate understanding.
Most students relished the wider reading. They’d already learned that curiosity, personal connection, and questioning assumptions can result in life-changing bursts of discovery and personal growth.
… which is why effective educational institutions do that sort of thing.
This personal growth strategy makes sense, but is it biblical? And is this sort of growth Christian growth?
I’ve always loved the biblical record of Peter’s awakening to Gentile ministry, for lots of reasons. Near the top of the list is what it reveals about groupthink, questioning assumptions, and connecting with people outside our bubble.
Being taken outside our bubble is a gift.
Peter’s life-changing journey outside his exclusively-Jewish ministry bubble began at God’s initiative—probably because Peter would never have done it himself. We read in Acts 10:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius … . About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended … . now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. (Acts 10:1–5)*
Later, while Peter is still mostly stuck in his old way of thinking, God instructs him bluntly to “accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them” (10:20).
God’s direct involvement in Peter’s bubble-escaping experience continues through Acts 10, and by the end it’s clear that God has greatly blessed Peter by dragging him out of his personal, theological, and intellectual comfort zone.
Getting outside our bubble is disruptive and disturbing.
With perfect timing, as usual (“the next day” 10:9), God begins to lead Peter out of his bubble. Peter’s discomfort with it all is conspicuous. He has a series of visions and pushes back, in true Petrine style (Mark 8:32, 14:31; John 13:8).
… he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Acts 10:10–16, emphasis mine.)
Note also that “Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean” (10:11).
Peter seems both intellectually and emotionally unsettled. Groupthink and exercises in confirmation bias can lead us to take confident, “righteous” stands on a ragged, dirty rug. Having the rug pulled out from under us might not be much fun, but the disorientation is perfectly normal—and a blessing.
If Christian living doesn’t lead to being confused and conflicted once in a while, we’re not doing it right.
We need the discoveries that come from getting outside our bubble.
Peter clearly needed this uncomfortable confrontation with a new way of thinking. He was encumbered by assumptions that weren’t from God—at a cost to himself, but also to people God intended him to understand and reach: “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Ac 10:15).
As the sequence of events unfolds in Acts 10, Peter becomes increasingly aware that his wrong thinking has been corrected. Arriving at Cornelius’ home, he says,
You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. (Acts 10:28-29)
Later, he delivers these beautiful words to gathered Gentiles:
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)… (Acts 10:34–36)
Personal connection is a vital way to get outside our bubble.
Had God chosen to stop there, Peter’s vision might have been vivid enough to awaken him to God’s love for the Gentiles. Or God could have confronted Peter using Paul’s brand of compelling reasoning (Acts 17:2), making a logical appeal based on abundant biblical evidence (e.g., Isaiah 42:6, 60:3; Luke 2:32).
But the process God actually used combined direct, confrontational revelation with personal connection. Part of what made Peter’s paradigm shift so quick and deep (though still imperfect, Gal. 2:11-16) was personal, face to face connection—conversation—with the Gentile messengers. It’s easy to overlook this small but pivotal statement:
So he invited them in to be his guests. The next day he rose and went away with them…(Ac 10:23)
They spent the day and evening talking, listening, and getting to know each other.
Late in 2019, I purposed to work a lot more out-of-bubble conversation into my life. Several hours of conversation with a self-identifying “very Liberal” Jew turned Roman Catholic at a museum went by very quickly. A field trip to a Reform Jewish Shabbat service with a former work friend was all sorts of wonderful and weird at the same time. Both occasions were highlights of the year for me.
COVID stalled my ambitions in 2020, but I’m not done. Good conversations outside our bubble can be hard to arrange, but it’s worth it.
What we discover when we truly converse with people (not debate—mostly listen to with interest) outside our bubbles is that humans are much the same everywhere, and we ourselves are, first and foremost, the same thing they are: both weak and wicked, both finite and fallen, and all struggling to understand things we don’t.
It changes how we think because people are real in a way concepts aren’t.
Going outside our bubble is a gateway to greater joy and ministry.
Who wouldn’t be thrilled to have had the ministry moment Peter did at the end of Acts 10?
“…God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles … ..48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Ac 10:40–48)
For most of us, going outside our bubble will take some planning and strategizing—and there are risks. People and ideas are powerful things. What’s foolish, though, is thinking that staying inside our comfortable intellectual and personal bubble is safe. The truth is that everyone inside our safe space is, at best, a faltering and only partially sanctified human being—and while we often edify one another inside the bubble, we also reinforce errors and prejudices and unexamined assumptions. There’s every bit as much risk inside the bubble as there is outside it, as well as wasted opportunities to better understand who we are as human beings and who we are in Christ.
Photo: Joshua Reddekopp.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.