“I am not a racist, but…!” (Acts 11)
Perhaps you have said these words, or heard someone else say them. Racism remains a prickly issue for many today, even in the church. We don’t like to talk about it because it can be contentious, so we avoid the topic. However, our text, Acts 11, raises the issue, and so if we are to be faithful to God’s Word, we need to reflect on what the Scriptures have to say on the matter.
In the historical context, God has exposed the Apostle Peter’s prejudice towards the Gentiles as a group. He prejudged them to be ‘unclean’ and, therefore, unacceptable to God and outside of His saving purposes (cf. Acts 10). Peter was not unique in this regard; he was simply reflecting the sentiments of his culture. You may recall the incident in the Gospels involving Jesus and a Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter (cf. Matt.15:21-28). Jesus’ disciples respond by asking him to “Send her away”. Jesus’ disciples were prejudiced (= she is not one of ‘us’; she is undeserving of your help). In this context, Jesus refers to the Gentiles as “dogs”, not because he shared those sentiments, but probably to expose the ugliness of prejudice. Jesus delivers the Canaanite’s daughter to reveal that the Gospel is also for the (Gentile) “dogs”.
This truth is the burden of Peter’s testimony in Acts 11, where the Apostle is back in Jerusalem and is confronted by a group of circumcised (Jewish) believers who criticise him for entering the house of uncircumcised (Gentile) men and eating with them (11:1-3). Once again prejudice rears its ugly head. Peter’s response? He testifies that as he was preaching to the Gentile Cornelius and his household, God gave the Holy Spirit to these Gentiles, just as He had done for the Jews who believed the Gospel at Pentecost, signifying their acceptance before God (cf. Acts 2)! When Peter’s critics realised that God had granted repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles, their opposition subsided; they had no further objections (11:15-18).
Here is a key to reversing prejudice in the church: If God accepts people from every nation who fear Him (cf. Acts 10:34-5), who am I to reject them or prejudge them as inferior in any way?