Frameworks for Mission: Vertical or Horizontal Conversion

In my last post (Frameworks for Mission: Direction or Dogma) we looked at the experience of Cornelius as described by Luke in Acts chapter 10. I asked the question, Are we saved by cognitive acceptance of certain doctrines or by the direction of our lives?   stained-glass-image.jpg

I suggested that

Many of us think we are “made human again” by correct doctrine or teaching. Others of us believe that we are saved by leading humane lives. Before our dogma (doctrine) or our direction (humanity), there is the prior initiative and work of God among us. There is (before we comprehend true doctrine and before we embrace true humanity) a prior act of love on our behalf.

The issue here is that before we cognitively grasp anything, before we move in any direction, before we even breath, God is at work among us (the Cornelius’ of the world) whether we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or secularist.

The conversion of Cornelius required that Peter have a conversion of his own. Peter now realized that God accepted the gentiles as he accepted the Jews. The Jews kept themselves away from the Gentiles. God had a different practice. He actively engaged with both Jews and Gentiles, the “clean” and “unclean”.

The way Luke tells the story we see that God was at work in the life of Cornelius, the gentile, as he was in the life of the Christ following Jew named Peter. It’s important to remember that Peter was not a Christian. He was a Jew. Cornelius was not a Christian either. He was a God fearing Gentile. Peter knew the gospel and Cornelius did not, but God was at work in both of their lives.

After listening to Cornelius explain how a “man in shining clothes” instructed him to send for the Apostle, Peter says a remarkable thing:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”  Acts 10. 34

Peter explains the gospel to Cornelius and Cornelius and his whole family become Christ followers too. The question arises, as it did in the comments from the last post, What does a convert to Jesus Christ become? (See comment #8 from OneBadPig).

This kind of question was an issue for the early church that was made up of Jews. It intensified as the Christ following faith began to spread among the Gentiles. The particular case of Cornelius and Peter was debated in Jerusalem (Acts 11) and things finally come to a head in Acts 15, the heart and soul of the book of Acts.

Gentiles must become Jews, argued some. Unless you are circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, you cannot be saved.

If this argument had prevailed, the early church would only have recognized the “salvation” of Christ following Gentiles who became Jews. But this view — which would have contradicted the gospel itself (See Galatians 3.8) — did not prevail.

Peter argues that “…it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” and the council at Jerusalem  decides that Gentiles who turn to Christ need not become Jews.

Ok, what then do these converts become? What did the God fearing Gentile named Cornelius become? There was no world religion called Christianity in which to enroll. There were no Christians as we know them. The question, what do converts to Christ become may betray our need to “name” things, to give things labels. I suffer from this need and so I suggest the label of “Christ following Gentile”. The shift in Cornelius’ life was not a horizontal move from one religion to another. The shift in his life was of a vertical nature. In embracing the gospel, Cornelius realigned his life with God’s work in the world.

In time, others would add labels for these Christ following Gentiles. Christ followers would be known as “disciples”, or as those who “belonged to the Way” (Acts 9.2), and/or  (eventually) as “Christians” (Acts 11.26).

Today, because Christianity is for so many a synonym for “West”,  it is important to remember that long before Christianity became a religion and an institution, converts did not turn to it, they turned to Jesus. Converts were Christ following Jews or Christ following Gentiles. Even today, for example, a Muslim that turns to Christ does not necessarily turn to Christianity. They become Christ following Muslims.

The fundamental turning in Cornelius’ life was towards Jesus not Judaism or Christianity. Because I like to name things too, I like to say that at the deepest level, he became human again. The natural result of God in our lives is not that we become an adherent to a particular religion (even Christianity). The natural result is that we become human again. Becoming human again does not require a horizontal move in terms of religion, but it does require a vertical realignment of the heart with the God who whispers our names.

What do you think?

Next “Frameworks for Mission”:  What in the world can be meant by the term “Christ following Muslim” and the such? Also, how can becoming “human again” be the goal? Isn’t being human the problem?


Mike Harris has now joined the faculty for the Human Event in Orlando, Fl on Feb 5-6. His topic will make some of your mouths water: Men, Cigars, and the Gospel: A Combo For Missional Community. There’s still time to join Mike, me, Eric Bryant (Mosaic),  and Eric Sweiven (Voxtropolis) in Orlando on Feb 5-6.
For a complete list of presenters and topics, Click here.
There’s still time for you to register. Hope to see you there. Here’s the Registration link:



14 responses to “Frameworks for Mission: Vertical or Horizontal Conversion”

  1. jennihohuan Avatar

    yes alex, spot on! Jesus’ own life cam to show us what true humanity is about. how we need to read our bibles carefully and slowly and take time to know GOd and His ways in it. too often we read what we’ve been told or taught and think we know…
    a pastor, Singapore

  2. patrick Avatar

    i tend to agree that we have a real disposition toward ‘labelling’ – and maybe in the same brushstroke ‘categorizing’. there is certainly a noticeable effort on the part of many people that i swing with to use the phrase ‘Christ-followers’ or ‘followers of jesus’.

    i also think that your observation about ‘Christianity’ and the west is an interesting one. i’ll have to find out more (and maybe try to find out first-hand) how well the term ‘Christ-following Muslim’ is accepted. if there is no lateral conversion (and i’m more than willing to agree to that), does the phrase ‘Christ-following Muslim’ really have integrity as a label? does it similarly work for ‘Christ-following Buddhist’ or ‘Christ-following Hindu’? the movement toward becoming human again i think probably causes us to rethink how quickly we want to identify ourselves using any religious membership tags.

  3. Alex Avatar

    OneBadPig, I think you’re making my point. Some of the disciples were called Christians by some observers. That’s a label not an identity. Making a reference to the Greek doesn’t change that fact, nor is it impressive. The English is close enough to the Greek for our purposes. First century Christ followers were also called “followers of the way”…another label not an identity. If you want more of an identity…how about “follower of Christ” or “Friends of Christ” or “sons and daughters of God”? I like “human” too.

    No, they did not become Jews. They did become sons and daughters.

    The problem you have with the concept of “Christ following Muslim” is the same problem some 1st century Jews had with the idea of a Christ following Gentile. You are confusing label and identity.

    About the six fingered man…yes, I’m familiar with the OT story. So what? I think our designer chose the six fingered man as an allusion to the show about fringe science called Fringe.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. OneBadPig Avatar

    Alex, I beg to differ on this blog. I think you are confusing labels (description) with who followers of Christ truly become (identity). Just because the term “Christian” didn’t come about until Acts 11 does not mean the concept of what a “Christian” is did not exist. Quite the contrary. It is because these Christ-followers’ behavior that eventually the name “Christian,” meaning follower of Christ in Greek and was originally a derogatory term, came about. So, what do Christ-followers become? By definition of original Greek, Christians.

    Furthermore, they become righteous, righteous in position where Christ’s sacrifice has satisfied the demand for sin. These righteous ones do indeed become Jews… not in terms of nationality or genealogy, but in terms of adoption. In the Book of Romans, Paul says in Romans 9:6 that not all Israel (i.e., by birth) are of Israel (i.e., children of one true God). So who are the legitimate Jews? He explains that in Chapter 11 through the illustration of the cultivated olive tree (true Israel) and wild olive tree (gentiles). Those who are gentiles once respond to the working of the Holy Spirit are ingrafted to the cultivated olive tree and thus become a part of true Israel.

    One cannot follow Christ and be something that is contrary to His nature, i.e., Christ-following Muslim, who denies the deity of Christ, or Christ-following Hindu, who denies the One True God. It’s like saying I am a steak-loving vegetarian. The two are mutually exclusive.

  5. OneBadPig Avatar

    By the way, interesting logo with the Human Event. Six fingers… you do know that the six-fingered man in 2 Samuel 21:20 was the Philistine descendant of Goliath, right?

  6. Alex Avatar

    Patrick, Yes, I would say it follows for Hindus, Buddhists and Secularists and Christians. For example, I sometimes use the self descriptor of “Christ following secular humanist”.

    The desire to use Christ follower instead of Christian among some is a desire, I think, to distinguish between the Christ following faith and the culturally accomodated faith of Christendom…be it right wing or left wing.

    The term Christ following Muslim is a decriptor used by observers to speak of converts to Christ within the Islamic faith and culture. In the west, a Muslim who converts to Christ may also become a Christian because of proximity to the religion. But a Muslim embedded within a muslim culture who has, say, for example, a vision of Jesus and thus believes becomes a Muslim who has converted to Christ (vs a Muslim who has converted to Christianity). Of course, this is the essence: Conversion to Christ, verses any particular religious and cultural expression.

    Thanks, Patrick.

  7. Alex Avatar

    OneBadPig, It seems to you that “Christ follower” and “Christian” are synonyms. But alas, how many Christians are in fact NOT Christ followers? Plenty. And…how many Christ followers are not Christians? Again, plenty.

    Gentile certainly has a religious implication to the Jew…it means “non-Jew” or those outside the covenant. That’s not a racial or ethnic thing. It is a religious thing.

    I think Paul is right. There is no distinction. That’s why the first Christ following Jews did not require the Gentiles who turned to Christ to convert to Judaism. They remained Gentiles but were Christ following Gentiles.

    This must have been as blasphemous to the ears of Jews as it must be to your ears. The idea that God could accept a Gentile who did not become a Jew is as scandalous as the idea that a Muslim could become a Christ follower without becoming a Christian.

    A Christ-follower is one who hears Jesus Christ’s call and turns to follow him.

    Good stuff, OneBadPig. Very helpful to me to engage in this conversation. Thanks.

  8. OneBadPig Avatar

    Alex, I wasn’t trying to use Greek to impress anyone. It is necessary to get back to the original language at times to understand where the writer was coming from, in this case, Luke. Actually anyone can easily look up the Strong’s number and reference the Greek these days. I was merely making the case that “Christian” and “Christ-follower” are synonymous. Where I disagree with you is in the fact that Cornelius can be referred to as “Christ-following Gentile” as you eluded since Gentile is a racial distinction not a religious one. However, both Muslim and Hindu are religious and thus a Christ-following Muslim or Christ-following Hindu are in conflict because the Christ of the Bible is different than the “Christ” understood by Muslims and Hindus. Now if you used “Christ-following Arab” then it would be a better description. However, in my referencing of the Roman passage is to point out that it was Paul who wrote that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (e.g. Gentiles), male or female, and free or slave. We are all clothed in the righteousness of Christ because that righteousness is foreign to our human nature, only available through the finishing work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

    It all goes back to the definition. So based on your opinion, what does “Christ-follower” mean to you?

  9. OneBadPig Avatar

    … but what does follow him (Jesus) truly mean? There are many professed Christians who do not live up to the name worthy of “CHRISTian,” but that does not invalidate the Christianity as a whole. Actually the first Jewish Christians (primarily the converted Jewish priests) did want the new Gentiles to adopt their ritualistic belief system. It was at the first Jerusalem Council that James, Peter, John, and Paul decided that they did not. Besides, they didn’t have hyphenated labels such as Christian-Gentile, Christian-Jews, Christian-slaves, etc. Because in Christ we are all equal, they were simply known by their love for one another… they were called Christians, as in “imitators of Christ.”

  10. Alex Avatar

    Yes, some Christ following Jews did want the Gentiles who turned to Christ to become Jews. I mentioned that earlier. Right again, the gathering of disciples (all Jews) in Jerusalem determined that Gentiles who turned towards God in Christ did not need to become Jews. I mentioned that earlier too. However, we don’t know that they were called Christians or that they called each other Christians. The followers of the way (presumably both Jew and Gentile) were called Christians first in Antioch. That designation was not necessarily found on the lips of the believers but was coined perhaps by non believers. What someone like Cornelius was called by the gathering in Jerusalem may have varied– Gentile, Gentile believers, God-fearing Gentile, Christ-following gentile, Disciple, follower of the way, etc. The term Christian emerges and eventually becomes the popular designation. And that is what it is– a designation, another label. Christian was one way to speak of those who followed Christ before it became a designation for a religion and a culture.

    Again, this is my point. One can turn to Christ without becoming a Christian. The designation used in Acts 15 to speak of the new Christ following Gentiles was “Gentile believers”, or “Gentiles” followed by a description of their turn to faith. In other words, they were Gentiles who believed. In parallel, the Jerusalem council was comprised of Jews who believed. Their unity was in the object of their belief, namely Jesus, and not in their religious affiliation.

  11. pi Avatar

    With the facts laid bare, it’s a no-brainer that the proponents of such teachings are fundamentally flawed and are out, intent on deceiving period. For example, to be a Muslim, it is a basic prerequisite to reject the very teachings of Jesus as the ONLY way to the father (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). This is because the Koran (and the Hadith) state emphatically state otherwise. To embrace and equate two diametrically opposed statements or concepts is to fall flat on the very first principles of basic philosophy, logic and reason. It is like saying ‘Jesus is right’ and ‘Jesus is wrong’ at the same time, in the same context and in the same relationship. It is simply intellectual hogwash – it makes no sense whatsoever. In fact, I have at several times asked Muslims and ex-Muslims whether or not it was possible to be a Muslim and a non-Muslim (say a Christian) at the same time – to which the unsurprising answer was an emphatic no! That would mean for example, to have been saved by grace according to the Scriptures but yet to be unsaved and hope to be saved by enough good deeds done on earth. It’s a daft position to be in, less teach. What seems obvious is that this chaps know neither Christianity nor Islam. Alex/Erwin McManus and their cohorts may have accepted an assignment to attempt the perversion of Christianity. The question is knowing the truth, should we waste time exposing the evil in their teachings or not? I guess the resounding answer is to ‘…keep holding out the word with its life giving power’ – Philippians 2:16.
    grace and peace!

  12. Scott Avatar

    God orchestrated the meeting of Peter and Cornelius in which the doctrines of Christianity, the full contextual implications of what Jesus has accomplished, were comunicated to Cornelius. Although the lable “Christian” hadn’t yet arrived, that is exaclt what followers of Christ were called. We still are, by the way. Now there are a lot of people who use the lable but don’t meet the criteria. They simply aren’t Christians. No need to reivent the wheel. Call us whatever you want, complete faith in Christ alone equals salvation. The life that flows from a relationship with Him, which has come to be known as Christianity, is one of sanctification to Him. It isn’t compatible with Islam, Hinduism, Budhism, or Humanism except as a superior replacement for the deception of the enemy. They are mutually exclusive belief systems. That’s why Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me.” There is no middle ground. You are mistaken.

  13. Silas Avatar

    Dear Alex,

    I absolutely love the stained glass image on this page and would be interested to know who created it. Could you let me know?



  14. Alex McManus Avatar

    Silas, I can’t remember. I went back and checked the code for you to see if there was a hint there but came up blank. It must be a jpg i picked up along the way. Glad you like it, though.

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