Acts 15 is like a scene right out of “A Few Good Men”, complete with Tom Cruise demanding, “I want the truth” and Jack Nicholson shouting his famous response, “You can’t handle the truth!” Except that the Biblical account isn’t centred around the secret military disciplinary measure known as a Code Red. No, this debate is deeper, darker, and more volatile.
Many leaders in the early church felt that Gentile believers should be circumcised in order to be acceptable to God. The people who opposed that view sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to settle the debate. Some Pharisees got their nose out of joint over it, then Peter took the witness stand and gave them what for. Paul and Barnabas finally got a chance to get a word in, but they’d barely finished speaking when James piped up. I don’t imagine this was a calm, diplomatic, pass-the-conch-shell kind of discussion. This was hot. Both sides of the debate were 100% sure that they were 100% right.
Circumcision may not be such a hot topic today, but I think we have our own current issues that get us all hot under the clerical collar. Same sex marriage and abortion spring to mind as two such powder kegs. So what can we learn from the Acts 15 circumcision debate and how can we apply it to today’s issues?
Let’s look at verses 8-9 and 11. “He [God] knows what is in everyone’s heart. And he showed that he had chosen the Gentiles, when he gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had given his Spirit to us. God treated them in the same way that he treated us. They put their faith in him, and he made their hearts pure… But our Lord Jesus was kind to us, and we are saved by faith in him, just as the Gentiles are.” (CEV)
The message that Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James preached so fervently to the early church was this: We have no right to judge what is in someone else’s heart. God is the one who knows their heart and he is the one who gives the Holy Spirit and offers salvation. It is not up to us to demand that near believers, or even new believers, succumb to the burden of our rules and stipulations. We are saved by faith and they are saved by faith, so let’s get off our high horse.
When we are sharing our faith, the onus is on us to be the flexible ones. We do not have to be 100% right in every tradition we hold dear. God doesn’t need our dogma to speak to the hearts of people who are drawing near to him. Our job is to be gracious in how we relate to those people.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Flipping to the next chapter, we find Paul and Silas on a little mission trip where they meet up with a believer named Timothy. Tim’s mom was Jewish, but his dad was Greek, and according to Greek tradition, Tim was not circumcised. Yet.
I can well imagine Timothy’s reaction when he hears Paul’s stipulation for joining their missionary journey. “Hold on there, Paul. Just last week you were preaching against circumcision and now you come at me with a scalpel? That is uncool, dude.”
So, what gives? Why is Paul flip-flopping on such a major issue? Well, if we look a bit closer, we discover that his stance is unwavering. He is still firmly on the side of grace.
In this case, Timothy is already a believer and because of the audience that he is going to be reaching out to, he needs to give himself some more credibility and acceptability. Paul was asking him to give up something that he held dear (um, yes, it was his foreskin) in order to be more relatable to the people they were trying to share the Gospel with.
That same position is applicable to today’s hot issues. Does that mean that I should suddenly start being gay somehow so I can reach out to the LGBT community? Or have an abortion simply so I can speak more personally with pro-choice friends? No, of course not.
What it means is this: we have to be willing to bend our “100% right” stance. We have to be gracious in the way we approach our conversations and our relationships. We might still have black and white opinions on some things, but we have to enter into the grey areas with humility and honour for the dear ones who are coming from their own black and white opinions.
When Paul preached against circumcising the Gentiles, it was from a position of graciousness. When Paul had Timothy circumcised, it was from a position of graciousness. No matter the issue at hand, our role in it is to be the voice of grace. Not criticism. Not cynicism.
Sometimes that’s not easy. Sometimes it is brutally painful. Sometimes the sacrifice is permanent. But I believe that kind of grace transcends religious and political conflict better than anything else.
And I just can’t resist being an absolute dork about how I pose my final, challenging question to you.
What “foreskin” do you need to cut out of your doctrine in order to forge deeper relationships with the people around you?