Written by Dr. Jeremy Barrier
In the Spring of 2013, I had the opportunity to travel along with several other coworkers to Bangalore, India, where, from April 3–5, we participated in an international seminar that dealt with the topic ‘Building up the Church (Body of Christ) into a Potent Force.’ Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to speak several times, and this topic (covered in this editorial) was the first topic that I was given.
This article is a continuation of the previous article, where we began by noting that readers of the New Testament are often impressed with how quickly the early church grew from a small, insignificant group in the hills of Palestine to a thriving and growing group with deep and extensive human and financial resources extending to many places in the Mediterranean world. In this second article, and following, I will continue to address some of the challenges that the early church encountered and overcame to be able to grow and grow abundantly. To summarize the contents of these challenges, I will assert that the early church: 1) lacked vision, 2) struggled with local/religious customs, and 3) struggled with administration. In this article, I will discuss the second problem: the early church struggled with local/religious customs and this restricted their growth in the early years.
They Struggled with Local Religious Customs
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
In Acts 15, we read about a “disagreement” that arose between some of the Christians from Judea and those who were from Antioch, a city on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In essence, this was a disagreement that emerged between people living in very different cultural worlds. While they were both ‘Christian’ groups, they had very different religious customs. In this case, the specific custom that was under dispute had to do with whether or not Christians must fulfill the Jewish custom of circumcision. Circumcision means to “cut around” and referred to the Jewish male ritual of cutting off the foreskin to demonstrate a covenant agreement with God. During the first century, Palestinian Jews customarily circumcised their newborn children, and even circumcised adult converts to Judaism. However, Jews living outside of Palestine, often did not require converts to be circumcised, thus causing tension amongst their religious and social ranks. As many people, especially Jews, began to convert to Christianity, they carried over their religious customs. Thus they struggled with whether or not people who were in covenant with God through Jesus, should also circumcise their males to provide a boundary marker. As we see in Acts 15, the early Christians continued to discuss this issue in Antioch, and even Jerusalem; Jerusalem being a center for both Judaism and the emerging group of Christians. In this case, it was decided by both parties to compromise. Some of the Jewish customs were maintained, but circumcision was not part of this compromise.
However, this lasted only so long. As soon as Christianity began to arise in other places with new and different local customs, circumcision showed up again as a dividing issue. Such was the case in Galatia, where we read in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that a group of infiltrators were pressuring the Galatians to circumcise their new converts to Christ. Paul adamantly resisted such a decision. He encouraged the Galatians to maintain their liberty from such ritual actions, and thus resist these overtures. Paul states in Galatians 5:1-2, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”
Paul, for various reasons, felt that he must resist circumcision because it was infringing upon the integrity of the Gospel. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, he warns them to reject any Gospel that is not true to what was first preached to them. The important detail to remember here is that Paul was not opposed to the ritual practice of circumcision in and of itself. He was opposed to circumcision if it was intended to somehow foreshadow the Gospel. In Acts 16:1–4, we read about Paul asking a young travel companion named Timothy to be circumcised. Timothy was the son of a Greek father with a Jewish mother. Due to his Greek father, he was not circumcised. However, Paul, upon asking Timothy to travel with him, had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those places” where they were about to travel.
Another difficult issue for the early Christians was deciding which calendar to use. There were two main calendars they were familiar with. First, there was the Roman calendar. It was based on the movements of the Sun, with most days of the week being named in honor of Greek and Roman gods. The four seasons of the year were based on Greek mythology. The year was filled with numerous religious festivals derived from Pagan beliefs.
The other important calendar was the Jewish calendar. It was based on the movements of the Moon, with days referenced by their proximity to the Sabbath (1 Corinthians 16:1–2, Acts 20:7). The calendar was filled with events, new moon festivals, and other time-keeping seasonal elements. We see the Roman and Jewish calendars discussed in at least two places within the New Testament, Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16. The later verse states, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” while Galatians 4:10 states “You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years.”
In Colossae, Paul encourages the believers to not allow others to condemn them because they are using time-keeping schemes that are based in Jewish or Pagan backgrounds. In essence, while Paul is not recommending that the Colossians acknowledge or honor a Pagan faith, he is saying that Christianity is much bigger than this. After all, Paul is aware that the Pagan calendars are based on a faith that is not real, but merely idols (1 Corinthians 8:4).
In Galatians, quite the opposite is the case. The Galatians have apparently adopted a religious (in particular, Pagan) calendar, and it has come between them and their God! Here we are able to see how it is possible for a local custom, a time-keeping scheme, to separate one from God. We must be careful to not confuse the two or make judgments too quickly.
In conclusion, I leave you with a few thoughts. First, the Gospel of Christ is unchanging, and the Truth is to be maintained in whatever we do. Second, we can learn from the early Christians the danger of not distinguishing the difference between religious customs and the Gospel. Last, we see that Paul did not have a problem with local customs unless they were compromising to the Gospel. If we want the Gospel to be a potent force today, we can learn from Paul’s example. When his life came to an end, it was the Gospel that he bore that won the world. With Paul’s patience and wisdom, he was able to keep it free from the entanglement of local and religious customs.