Image Credit:

Removing the Barriers

“And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19).

The biggest issue that Jews had with Gentiles in the early church was that Gentiles were uncircumcised. They thought that to be a real Jew, you HAD to be circumcised. As you may imagine, asking an adult male to be circumcised is an evangelistic hard sale. Requiring circumcision was making it difficult for the Gentiles to turn to God. Yet, for Jewish believers, this was a nonnegotiable requirement. It was part of their very identity.

Circumcision traced back to the story of Abraham. He was promised by God that he would be the father of many people. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars. But there was a problem, Abraham and his wife Sarah were old and unable to get pregnant. They thought they could help God out. Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her servant Hagar. Sarah reasoned that if Hagar became pregnant, that child would fulfill the promise. But the promise was that Sarah was the one who would become pregnant.

God reminded Abraham of this and, as a sign that God is the one who fulfills promises, Abraham was instructed to be circumcised. The promised child came from God, not human genitalia. Circumcision symbolized the promised inheritance. Abraham was told that circumcision was to be an “everlasting covenant” and that any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people” (Genesis 17:13-14).

For the early church to go against circumcision would seem like it was going against a direct command of God. However, God transcends signs and symbols. He is after our heart. Our heavenly inheritance comes from our identity as His children, not through outward signs and symbols. Present truth transcends traditional understanding. Present truth breaks down barriers that make it difficult for those who are turning to God.

The early church slowly understood this. It took a vision to Peter where he was told not to call unclean what God has made clean (Acts 11:9). It took a direct message to a Gentile man named Cornelius, and it took the Jewish believers witnessing that God worked miracles among the uncircumcised Gentiles, just as with the Jews. They began to see that ethnicity, gender, and cultural systems of hierarchy did not matter to God. What God wanted and continues to want is meaningful relationships. Being a true Jew wasn't about what happened to your genitalia, it was about what was happened to your heart.

The early church leaders officially recognized that the everlasting covenant transcended literal thinking. They observed how God was working even with uncircumcised people, they noted the miracles and the way God was leading, and declared that circumcision was no longer required. James spoke for the group and said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19).

Do you see the implications of this? The Bible gives an example of established practice (in this case an everlasting covenant) being adapted for the sake of mission and true worship.

We are on dangerous ground if we establish tradition above the present truth and movement of God. Is it possible that religious rulers today could speak against the movement of God in the name of misunderstood tradition?

In her book, Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr says:

"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly. That God ordained some people, simply because of their sex or skin color (or both), as belonging under the power of other people. That women’s subordination is central to the gospel of Christ."

Some of the best colleagues I have as a pastor are female. They have been called by God. The evidence is in the miracles God has done and is doing through female pastors around the world. The largest church in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is overseen by a female pastor named Hao Ya Jie. More than half of the Adventist pastors in China are women, and a large majority of the members are also female. God is working in mighty ways to spread the Gospel through their willing efforts.[1]

Many of my female colleagues went through seminary at the same time I did, but they are unable to pastor in most locations because they are female. Gender profiling is no more acceptable than racial profiling. It is unethical to take tuition funds while simultaneously denying opportunities for a job.

However, I am encouraged. Barriers are being broken. Churches across the denomination are seeing that God works through women just as he does men. Being a male isn't what makes somebody a great leader. Real leadership is exemplified by our character, not our genitalia.

[1] C. (2015, August 9). Woman Pastors Largest SDA Church - Equal Ordination.