Theology and Mission…Both Matter
During the first few decades of the Christian movement there arose a controversy as to how the Old Covenant laws should relate to New Covenant faith. As the gospel of Jesus was proclaimed in the world, both Jews and non Jews began to place their faith and trust in him as their Savior. As God created a new community of the faithful out of groups of people that had been separated in the past, many questions come to the forefront. Since Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel fulfilling the Old Covenant promises did the new Christians need to become Jewish first and then become “real Christians?” What of the Old Testament commands regarding circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant promise? What of the dietary laws designed to set God’s people apart as distinct from the nations? These questions had to be answered.
Paul was very clear in his letter to the Galatians that to go back to the law when salvation has been accomplished by Jesus on the cross would to be a foolish thing to do. He spoke against the necessity for circumcision in the strongest, most forceful of terms. Paul quite literally went off on the Galatians concerning this subject. Paul’s theology was clear; circumcision is not what saves you or makes you a part of the new covenant community. What makes a sinful person, justified by God? Paul’s answer throughout his writings is that faith in Christ alone as a gift of God’s grace is what rescues and declares sinners forgiven by a holy and just God. As such, Paul refused to have Titus, a gentile, circumcised because it would have betrayed the gospel (Galatians 2:1-6). When the church convened some meetings in Jerusalem they were unified and clear about this point (See Acts 15). Gentiles were not required to keep the practice of circumcision and other aspects of the ceremonial law. Yet in the very next chapter in the book of Acts we see Paul take Timothy, whose Mom was Jewish but whose Dad was a Gentile, and circumcise him. “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” So what gives? Why did Paul vigorously oppose Titus’ circumcision but not Timothy’s? In Titus’ case something theological was at stake, the very message as to what saves people! In Timothy’s case Paul’s concern was of a different sort. He was concerned with their mission among certain people.
In the context Timothy and Paul were to minister some may have considered Timothy, half Jewish, half Gentile, as someone who would not be speaking for God because he was obviously not following in his traditions as a Jewish man. So rather than hindering the hearing of the gospel, Paul circumcised Timothy so it would not be an issue of distraction from their message. After all, Paul wrote to the Galatians “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Gal 5:6. The point being is that the heart aligned to Jesus in faith is what matters, not the external reality of circumcision. So Paul circumcising Timothy didn’t hurt anything (well maybe it hurt something) as Timothy was not counting on this and the law to save him. Yet Timothy being uncircumcised apparently would have hindered their mission and the reception of their message so why not just do it for the sake of the gospel? This echoes Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
Paul would not give an inch in compromising the gospel and clearly shows us this in penning the strong warnings of Galatians. He also would not let things hinder a hearing of the gospel among people when those things were secondary issues of lesser importance. He proclaimed the good news in truth but with cultural wisdom and shrewdness. May we have both the courage to defend the truth and to proclaim it without hindrance to others in our own day.