Acts 10 is a bit of a puzzle, because God gives us a beautiful missionary story … and a missionary who isn’t very enthusiastic! Peter does not want to be at Cornelius’ home―he makes that clear in the rudest way possible. What’s the deal? We can begin to understand if we begin a little closer to home, in a galaxy not so far away, where we have a similar problem but a different date.
At mid-century, Brown v. Board of Education was the lightening rod that oriented most Christian responses to racial integration. There have always been crude fighters like, say, Billy James Hargis―loud, racist braggarts who courted controversy. But, there have also always been more “sophisticated” versions of the same―polished sweetness camouflaging a “kinder, gentler” form of racism.
At mid-century, the “freedom of association” plea was the argument de jour among the more cosmopolitan racists.1 Briefly, this argument claimed the Supreme Court could not force individuals to associate (i.e. integrate) against their will. Nelson Bell gives us a good example of this “freedom of association” pitch. Bell was a Virginia-born medical missionary to China, along with his wife, for 35 years. He was Billy Graham’s father-in-law. For years, he had a regular column in Christianity Today, that bastion of sophisticated, northern evangelicalism.
In 1955, Bell published an article in his denomination’s periodical, Southern Presbyterian Journal, titled “Christian Race Relations Must be Natural, Not Forced.” He declared “… it is un-Christian, unrealistic and utterly foolish to force those barriers of race which have been established by God and which when destroyed by man are destroyed to his own loss.”2 He said race distinctions were “God ordained,” no matter what Brown v. Board of Education said,3 and integration has “nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.”4 Indeed, Bell proclaimed that by way of unnatural, forced integration, “the right of the individual is violated.”5
What on earth is happening, here? How could a conservative, God-fearing man who gave the best years of his life to serving Christ in China write these words? How could he think them? Believe them? How could Bell’s denomination (also R.L. Dabney’s denomination, arch-racist that he was6) advertise a segregated “negro” ladies synod meeting in 1954,7 and just below it include a poem that gushed:8
O, Word of God! Oh, blessed Book! Into that store of wealth I look, To seek, with awe and fearful care, To learn of Wisdom written there
How could a local pastor, in the same periodical, pen an article on Amos that same month and declare “[o]ur economic and social life must be permeated by the principles of Christ …”?9 In short, why do we do things like this, which people “removed” from the time can see is totally opposed to the Gospel of Christ?
Our look at Peter and Cornelius will tell us the answer, because while we have different dates, we have the same problem.
The Two Visions
God presents us with two complementary visions, each intended to force a meeting between two very different men. First, we meet Cornelius. He’s the archetype of a Gentile convert. He’s a Roman soldier. From Italy. He gives alms. He prays continuously. He’s devout. God sends an angel to speak to him, who explains God has noted his prayer and good works. Cornelius must send men to Joppa, south along the coast, fetch Peter and ask him return with them.
Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision of his own. As he waits for lunch, he falls into a trance. God opens the heavens. A white sheet descends slowly, held as it were from the four corners so Peter cannot see what it contains. It touches the ground and, behold!―unclean animals! Lunch is served! God commands him to eat. Peter, perhaps suspecting a divine test, demurs. The voice from above responds forcefully, “what God has cleansed, don’t ever call unclean!”10 The sheet returns and lowers twice more, then God takes the whole kaboodle back into heaven. Clearly, He doesn’t have any ritual purity issues with the animals!
Peter is confused. What does this mean? Let me ask you―is this really just about Old Covenant food laws? Jesus already declared dietary laws obsolete,11 and while Peter may be a bit thick (just like the rest of us!), is this dramatic vision really necessary to get that point across? Why is this the divine revelation God gives to Peter, just as Cornelius’ messengers arrive? Or, does it really stand for something else?
At that moment, Cornelius’ messengers obey their GPS and pull to the curb outside. God speaks to Peter, ordering him to go with the men “without hesitation, for I have sent them.” He lumbers down the outside stairway to hail the men at the gate, and they all agree to hit the road for Caesarea on the morrow.
When morning comes, Peter does something unusual. He takes some believers from Joppa with him. Peter has traveled alone, until now. He’s gone to Samaria to inaugurate the Samaritan Pentecost after Phillip evangelized the area. He’s gone hither and thon throughout Judea and Galilee, visiting established congregations. But, he’s not yet gone to see an arch Gentile like Cornelius. He didn’t care about traveling alone before, but now he feels compelled to drag witnesses along. Strange …
After a stop at the Wendy’s drive thru for a tasty breakfast, they hit the road and arrive at Cornelius’ home late the same day. The soldier is waiting. Not only that, he’s gathered his relatives and close friends. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.
He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”
Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.12 You wanted them OUT.
And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, tells this eager audience, “I can’t talk to you. It’s against God’s law. But, you already knew that. Still, God told me I could talk to you now. So, here I am. What do you want from me?”
Horrifying. He doesn’t like Gentiles. Nor does the hardline faction in Jerusalem―they’ll call him on the carpet as soon as he returns. What made Peter respond this way?
It’s the same reason Nelson Bell penned his little essay. Peter’s problem was that he lived in an interpretive echo-chamber and, like Nelson Bell, he used scripture as a blackjack to reinforce cultural prejudices. He didn’t see it, of course. God had to confront Peter, as forcefully and emphatically as possible short of a direct order. Instead, he dropped very obvious breadcrumbs and left Peter to follow the trail to the obvious conclusion.
You see, we’re all catechized into some degree of conformity based on our “social bubble.” There’s a reluctance to use language like “systemic” or “structural” today, because we fear appropriating culture war rhetoric. But, people believe in all sorts of systemic “injustices” that go beyond the level of the individual to the “system” itself. You might believe “the system is rigged” in the media world to suppress conservative political ideology. You might believe “the fix is in” on college campuses to coddle students who cower at the realities of real life. You may believe America is a “Christian nation” which “they” (whoever they are) are trying to destroy. And so it goes. We don’t have a problem with the concept of “systemic” or “structural” forces. We acknowledge them all the time, but rarely recognize when we’re the one’s caught up in the echo-chamber.
Peter didn’t. It’s why God arranged this meeting. It’s the same with Nelson Bell. What God is doing in this passage is showing us that anyone who fears him and obeys Gospel is accepted. There is no partiality. There is no elite caste in the Christian world. The Gospel is for everybody.
And, of course, God demonstrated that in the most vivid way imaginable by orchestrating a Gentile Pentecost that evening in Caesarea. The witnesses Peter dragged along are shocked―the Holy Spirit is for Gentiles, too? Mind. Blown.
Here are three red flags to spot echo-chambers in your spiritual community. They don’t stand on their own but, together, they form a grid that is pretty reliable.
The more removed it is from the plain meaning of scripture it is, the worse it is. If the teaching is not explicit or implicit in the text, be very careful. Can you read the scriptures and really walk away with the idea that Israelites could never speak to someone who wasn’t a Jew? Absurd!
If most Christians throughout history have never heard of it, it’s bad. The Spirit guides the Church into all truth. A broader historical sweep helps us spot interpretive weirdness in our own age.
If a scripture passage’s original audience wouldn’t have understood what you’re doing with the text, it’s probably bad. Moses married a black woman from Cush (Num 12:1). Do you think he agreed with Peter about Gentile defilement? Would Ruth? Would Isaiah (Isa 56:1-8) agree with Peter? Would Ebed-Melech (Jer 39:16-18)?
Nelson Bell’s article produced an avalanche of positive responses.13 Two months after it ran, the editor proclaimed that it had nearly exhausted two separate print runs of 10,000 copies. He summed up readers comments as saying “it is the nearest to a truly Christian statement of what race relations should be than anything which has appeared anywhere in print.”
Yet, two years after Brown, 90% of the white population in South Carolina still opposed desegregation in schools. Most Baptist pastors in the state tried to keep quiet on the issue rather than risk alienating their congregations14―just like Peter in Galatians 2.
One South Carolina pastor, angry about pro-integration SBC literature, wrote that his congregation was asking: “Are the leaders of our denomination intimating, suggesting, or projecting the idea that we as Baptist Churches should open our doors to our colored brother and invite him to come and worship with us?”15 We naturally respond with, “yes, what color is the sky in your world?” Yet, this is akin to Peter’s companion’s stunned reaction to the Gentile Pentecost in our passage!
What’s so evil about Nelson Bell’s editorial is that it puts culture into the driver’s seat of interpreting scripture. It uses the bible to banish people to the segregated margins of God’s coming kingdom community, which is exactly what Peter was pressured to do in Antioch, and what he wanted to do here. God orchestrated this entire encounter to show Peter how wrong he was … and to show us, too!
Peter realized this when Cornelius ignored his insulting greeting and explained his own vision. I wonder if Nelson Bell ever did.
1 See especially “Here’s Text of Majority Report by Sibley Committee,” Atlanta Constitution, 29 April 1960, pp. 12-13. See also Barry Goldwater’s comments along this line in the context of criticizing forced busing in “Right ‘Not to Associate,’” New York Times, 27 October 1964, p. 30. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2ZCmLmH.
For historical context, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 380-406. See also Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. 6.
2 Nelson Bell, “Christian Race Relations Must Be Natural, Not Forced,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 17 August 1955, p. 3. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte14dend/page/n280/mode/1up?view=theater.
3 Bell, “Christian Race Relations,” p. 4.
4 Bell, “Christian Race Relations,” p. 4.
5 Bell, “Christian Race Relations,” pp. 4-5.
6 See R. L. Dabney, “Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes,” (Richmond, 1868). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_Relation_of_Negroes.
7 Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte13dend/page/n20/mode/1up?view=theater
8 Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15.
9 Rev. J. Kenton Parker, “Amos Condemns Social Injustice,” § “The Terrible Social Sins of Israel: 8:4-7,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 26 May 1954, p. 13.
10 v.15 is my own translation. The strong, emphatic negation is missing from the ESV.
11 See Mark 7:19 and consider the broader implications of the New Covenant for moral and ritual impurity.
12 On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.
13 Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 October 1955, p. 21. See also Ibid, 16 November 1955, p. 3.
14 J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (New York: OUP, 2021), p. 22.
15 Hawkins, Bible Told Them, p. 23.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?