The UK has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. The postmodern cultural melting pot that we live in, with its array of worldviews, religions, skin colour and cultures, may be fairly new for Britain, but these things are not new for Christendom. In the book of Acts we see that the early Church was in a remarkably similar environment. The gospel broke down barriers and injustices more effectively than any politically correct ‘equality and diversity’ policy.
Perhaps Acts has never been so relevant to life in Britain. When it was written, there were a large number of people who were living pagan lifestyles, worshipping different gods, and who held very different worldviews and philosophies. We too have enormous variety; from Buddhists, Muslims and New Age believers to postmodern relativists, militant atheists and scientific dogmatists.
The first-century Jews had a fear of foreigners and immigrants; there was ethnic prejudice and a deeply ingrained sexism. There are some indications that these are issues today. UKIP has seen a big upsurge in popularity in the polls and, according to YouGov, 76% of those who vote for them do so because they want to reduce immigration. In Acts we see how the early believers responded to these challenges, and find a source of inspiration for our own response.
When we hear the word Samaritan today, we might think of kindly people on the end of a phone line, or the good man in Jesus’ parable. But in Jewish culture in the time of Jesus, the Samaritans were hated and distrusted. It is remarkable that in Acts 8:5-6 we read that Philip went to Samaria personally and spoke to great crowds about Jesus. To understand the relevance of this today, we have to think of the people who are hated or reviled, and the no-go areas of our time.
We might think of the cultural divisions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. But there are many more examples in the UK of places that might be ignored, their inhabitants shunned and reviled for different reasons. These no-go areas vary depending on your culture and politics. They might be betting shops, strip clubs and red-light districts; high-class restaurants, racecourses, gay clubs or ‘sink’ estates. The places deemed off-limits might be the meetings of radical Islamists or of the nationalistic English Defence League, the local Conservative Association or a working men’s club.
"You have to get to know different communities, and then minister into their situation"
But there isn’t a community in Britain that shouldn’t be exposed to the gospel. Of course if there is a danger that someone will fall into sin, then wisdom should be exercised, and counsel sought from church elders. If you are a recovering alcoholic, there may be wisdom in not sharing the gospel in a pub. If sexual sin is an issue for you, going to a red-light district is clearly not a good idea.
There are many inspiring stories of Christians who have followed in the example of the early believers by taking the gospel into difficult places. In the UK, the Eden Network sends Christians into difficult council estates to love and live in community with the people there. Evangelist Chris Duffett goes into pubs with the message of love. Churches open their doors to clubbers in the middle of the night. There are many examples of Christian outreach to prostitutes and to the victims of sex trafficking and abuse. In America, Treasures Ministries sends Christians into strip clubs to talk to the dancers and to share the gospel with them.
We need to think critically about our own prejudices. It might not be a cultural minority that we’re biased against. If we examine ourselves, we might find that our animosity is directed against people we perceive to be majorities ? there can be much hatred towards the ‘upper classes’ or Daily Mail readers, for example. Like Philip going into Samaria, we can tackle this and seek to truly love our neighbour, whoever that neighbour might be. It’s also about experiencing different cultures. Even if we don’t see segregation like that between Samaria and Israel in a multicultural community, it may be there in practice. Last year the annual review of international education standards published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 80% of migrants’ children are clustered in disadvantaged schools with fellow migrant pupils ? one of the highest levels in the world. A study by Bristol University found that ‘segregation’ exists for many school children in areas with ethnic minorities, such as Bradford and Oldham. A study of the recent census data by political thinktank Demos found that white Britons are increasingly moving out of areas where they are a minority.
Breaking dividing walls
The Church can break these dividing walls in society. We don’t need to have monocultural churches that are individually tailored for a particular subculture. The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York is a well-known example of a genuinely mixed, multicultural church, but there are plenty closer to home.
Barking International Pentecostal Church in east London counts 42 different nationalities in its ranks, from Nepalese to Angolan, Canadian to Lithuanian. But it was only 20 years ago that an African person first stepped into the church. At the time, the church reflected the population of the area: white working class. Since then, immigration has transformed both the area and the church. Pastor John Waller was well prepared for this changing demographic, having worked in Ghana before he came to lead this church. ‘It helps that my wife and I worked abroad, so we understood different cultures and traditions,’ he says. ‘You need to get to know the people and the different cultures very well, and try to involve yourself in their social events and their different meetings, engagements and naming ceremonies.
"How could our churches be more welcoming to the local cultures and worldviews?"
‘The Spirit is inclusive; [he] wants to bring everyone in. Paul adapted his ministry approach wherever he was, without compromising his faith. He was “all things to all men”. We have to do this to be effective ministers of the gospel in a multicultural society. You have to get to know [different communities], and then minister into their situation.’
Segregation in the Jewish culture of Acts wasn’t just about prejudice, but about following Mosaic law. Gentiles were avoided as unclean, and touching them was taboo. Following the example of Jesus, the early Church found a new way under the New Covenant. The Ethiopian eunuch to whom Philip explained the scriptures in Acts 8 is an obvious example of cross-racial barriers being broken down. He was instantly baptised ? a personal act involving touch. For a Jew that was a radical step.
The early Church didn’t just go out into different communities; they invited others into their own. We know from Galatians 2:11-12 that Peter sometimes struggled with living in an inclusive community ? but the difficulties lead to these great words being written in 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (NLT). In Acts 10:28, Peter is confronted with a God-fearing Roman centurion. ‘God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean’ (NLT). And in verse 26 he says, ‘I’m a human being just like you!’ In verse 34-35 Peter says, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favouritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.’ (NLT) Later in Acts, the gentiles receive the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews had.
The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 shows the Jewish believers thinking hard about how to include the gentiles in the Church. Verses 9 and 11 say: ‘He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith…We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus’ (NLT).
This is most relevant, but most difficult, when applied to our own churches. Does the Church population reflect our local community? If not, how can we reach out to them with the gospel? How could our churches be more welcoming to the local cultures and worldviews?
Acts isn’t soft. It also gives examples of challenging those who are lying or whose motives and intentions are wrong, as we see with Simon the sorcerer in chapter 8, or Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5. Acts can inspire us to love people who are different from us, share the gospel with them, include them, and yet set boundaries for their behaviour.
Acceptance vs inclusion
It is often described as intolerance when we hold to our religion as truth, or question the values and behaviour of others. But in Acts we can see a way forward that involves neither judgement and condemnation nor just saying ‘anything goes’
In Acts 19 Paul causes a disturbance in Ephesus by preaching the gospel, which leads some people to turn from idols to the true God. Riots erupt as those with vested interests become enraged. It is clear that Paul didn’t accept the values of the Roman culture ? or the ‘god’, Artemis of the Ephesians. Paul doesn’t say ‘it’s all the same’ ? there’s no compromise in that sense. But still, he was present in the culture, and reaching out ? in verse 37 we see that public figures noted Paul’s good example. This balance between truth and love and keeping hold of values is not always achieved in the Church today. But Acts reminds us that it is possible.
Inclusivity and acceptance are very different ? we can include and love everyone without compromising our understanding of biblical truth. The radical claims of the gospel are to be proclaimed and shared with absolutely everybody, including those who are considered beyond contempt, and with those who seem to hate us.
Bible-believing conservatives can engage with the socially liberal in a constructive way, and we can learn more from each other about how to love. We can hold to our beliefs and present them to others with kindness and respect. In Acts we see that women are also becoming part of the story like never before, and their faith and their mission is deemed worth writing about ? utterly radical for the conservative Jewish culture of the time. In Acts 16:13-15, Lydia is specifically mentioned for responding to the gospel. In Acts 9 we read about Tabitha, who had found Christ and was well known for her work for the poor ? so much so that when she died, the destitute people she had helped wept and showed the clothes that she had made for them. Peter raised her from the dead through the healing power he had received from Christ.
"Nowhere is beyond the scope of the gospel"
But it wasn’t just practical ministry that women were involved in. Priscilla takes part in the missionary activity of Acts 18 alongside her husband. She takes part in personal evangelism in verse 26, by explaining the gospel to an interested Jew. And it’s not only married women who are considered important enough to mention. In Acts 21:9 we see that Philip had four unmarried daughters, all known for their gift of prophecy.
There are different views on the role of women in the Church today ? nevertheless, it’s clear that the whole Church is to be involved in the missionary task and we mustn’t prevent women from sharing the gospel. The early Church was a liberator of women; it valued and respected them. We can do the same, too, whatever our beliefs about other aspects of biblical teaching.
The power of the gospel
In Acts it’s as if the fragrance of the gospel fills the room, going everywhere, even to places that seem frightening or different. The gospel is not afraid. Acts tells the story of the early mission of the Church and the power of the gospel. It didn’t just break ethnic, lingustic and cultural barriers; the gospel burst its banks. Nowhere is beyond the scope of the gospel.
Genuine love despite different values
How can we keep our biblical values and reach out with the truth of the gospel in love and grace, as the early Church did in Acts?
Last year the American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A hit the headlines when founder Dan Cathy publicly spoke out against gay marriage, following the publicising of his financial support for conservative Christian organisations. There was an outcry from liberals in the US, and many people demonstrated for and against the firm. It became a vicious public example of the culture wars in the States ? the conservative, family-focused Christians versus the liberal, pro-gay activists.
But a curious thing emerged from the chaos. Without changing his stance about gay marriage, Cathy started to reach out to people on the other side. Some of his restaurants offered free coupons to gay marriage supporters. Shane Windmeyer, a prominent gay activist, publicly blogged about his growing friendship with Cathy. This had begun when the Christian had wanted to meet with Windmeyer and listen to his ‘side’ of the story. Gradually an understanding was built. ‘I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian”,’ wrote Shane on his blog. ‘Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chickfil- A ? but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.’ His blog spoke warmly about Cathy and had respect for his opinions. Through the anger and the animosity, a follower of Christ was able to share the gospel, with love and grace ? even if they have not found agreement.