Let’s have a deep and meaningful talk for a minute about circumcision! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about what Paul was really getting at when he filled up pages of the book of Galatians with talk about circumcision—church conflict and how to live a meaningful life of faith.
You see, circumcision became the central issue in a much bigger cultural fight between to wings of the early church. On the one side were the leaders of the Jerusalem church, James and Peter, who felt that what they were called to be as disciples of Christ was a continuation of the Israelite religion that came before, but a reformed version of that religion. This meant that people who wanted to be Disciples of Christ still needed to carry out the basic tenets of the law of Israel if they were to become a part of the Christian community. On the other side were Paul and many of his evangelists. Their contention was that Christ was doing something completely new, and it wasn’t about carrying out the law, it was about living by the Spirit.
In a very real way, Paul was advocating for a new ethical system. The old Israelite system was a system of Nominal ethics, which basically meant you lived by the law, because it was the law. It was the law because God said so, so stop asking questions. The problem with this ethical system was that it was ripe for abuse—just think of all the gotcha moments between the Pharisees and Jesus. This kind of legal system also meant that people didn’t really think about what they were doing and why they were doing it, they just did it, because you don’t ask questions.
However, Paul saw the problems with this system, and saw how Jesus exemplified another way of living. In Galatians, Paul proposes another way to live—by the Spirit. What he means by this is a kind of hybrid ethical system that has its roots in a Nominal ethical system, but also suggests we actually have to think about the law and its outcomes—a kind of utilitarian ethical system. When there are times that the law would lead us to set up divisions, exclude people, etc. we are to instead think about what would lead to the greatest good—i.e. The Fruits of the Spirit. Instead of just acting out the law because it is the law, Paul says we ought to look at our actions and ask ourselves, “If I do this or don’t do this will it lead to peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?” In this case, if following the law led to fornication, licentiousness, strife, division, impurity, idolatry, etc. then we should not live out that part of the law.
For instance, you might be wondering how the law could lead to fornication. Well, given that Biblical marriage was really about a property exchange between a man and the father of the woman he wanted to marry, many men engaged in a kind of serial monogamy that allowed them to accrue wealth from a woman’s family for marrying her, use her up, and then cast her aside. This is one of the reasons Jesus spoke so vehemently against divorce—it was a great injustice to women. Even though it was technically legal for a man to do this, in the eyes of most, it was a kind of fornication—“repetitive, loveless, cheap sex” as The Message puts it. In this way, living by the letter of the law, still led to brokenness. Whereas, Paul advocates for a different way of living—trying to maximize love and kindness.
Paul thinks it is time to move on from that kind of law, and for him, circumcision is the perfect representation of doing something that lacked true meaning just because it is the law. Peter and James, on the other hand, saw the value in the tradition and advocated for a continuation in the old system. One thing to know here, is that this was a big and nasty church conflict. This was about doing away with long standing traditions because they had become dividing lines within the community, but others felt that these traditions were a huge part of their identity. In the end, Paul wins out, and certain Israelite law requirements go by the wayside.
All this is to say, that their fight back then is no different from our church fights now. Sure, there was value to the actual argument about circumcision, but at the end of the day, there was a lot more behind that fight—doing away with traditions and instituting an entirely new ethical system. Frankly, we are in the same place now. So many of the church fights about homosexuality, are not just about homosexuality—they are about tradition, identity, and a new way to live out our faith. That is part of the reason these fights can be so nasty! The feeling is that there is a lot more at stake than just the church’s position on homosexuality.
As we turn this Sunday, our final Sunday of the Stewardship season, to Galatians; it is important for us to keep this backdrop of Paul’s world in mind. We are in a day and age where things are changing at a frenetic pace, and there is certainly great value to holding on to tradition. However, we also must have the courage to follow the Spirit and look for the fruits of peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control instead of mindlessly following tradition.
Last week, I preached about the concept of tithing—giving 10% of your income to the church. I told you that I don’t tithe, but instead, our family gives at a rate that means we have to make careful decisions about how we live. I really do think that is what careful reflection on the fruit of the Spirit—generosity— means. We give in ways that change ourselves, how we live, and hopefully, the world around us as well. I want to encourage you to really prayerfully think about your pledge this year—don’t just look at the checking account and decide what is left over at the end of the month and that will go to the church. Think about how this is an opportunity for your giving to shape your faith.