"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5.1
Almost as soon as it began, the Christian movement was faced with a crisis. Peter and Paul had been sent as apostles to the Gentiles, and they had taken their jobs very seriously. They were traveling all around the Empire, telling Gentiles the good news about Jesus Christ. They were proclaiming to the nations the promise that God has set us free for Jesus’ sake. The old life of bondage to sin is over, and the new life of freedom in Christ has begun.
Then the problem erupted. The Christians in Judea, those Christians who lived under the law of Moses, had assumed that these new Christians, the Gentile Christians, would adopt the law of Moses along with their baptism. When they discovered that the Gentiles were not accepting the law, specifically, they were not submitting to circumcision, the Christians of Judea rose up in protest. If Jesus Christ was, indeed, God in the flesh, and if he was, in particular, the incarnation of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, then how could the Gentiles worship him if they did not accept the law he had given in generations past?
The Gentiles, of course, had no history with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, at least none that they knew of. They knew nothing of the covenant with Abraham, or the renewal of the covenant at Mount Sinai. Their first introduction to this God was in the person of Jesus Christ. And according to Peter and Paul, Jesus had come to fulfill, to end, the law. Why in the world would they submit to a law whose time was past?
The fledgling Christian movement was at an impasse. It threatened to destroy itself with internal bickering. A theological dispute seemed to be threatening God’s mission in the world. Until this matter was resolved, how would Peter and Paul know what to tell the Gentiles they encountered? They had to settle this dispute so that Peter and Paul could get on with their work, confident that they were not running and had not run in vain.
The acknowledged pillars of the church quickly realized that they couldn’t continue to hinder God’s work in the world by letting this theological debate paralyze them. They decided to hold a conference. They would get all the key players together and hammer out a settlement, once and for all. Only then could they get back to the real mission of the church – the proclamation of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ.
Paul and Barnabas headed up to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and leaders, converting Gentiles all along the way. When they arrived in Jerusalem they were greeted warmly by the church, but after the initial pleasantries an intense debate began. Some believers, who also happened to be Pharisees, stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) The leaders of the church had a lengthy debate on the matter, until finally, Peter rose up and addressed them:
“My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
After some consultation, the leaders in Jerusalem, with James leading the way, decided that circumcision and adoption of the law of Moses would not be required of the Gentile Christians. For reasons not entirely clear, they did, however, insist that the Gentiles refrain from eating that which had been sacrificed to idols or strangled. But the matter of circumcision was settled. Circumcision was not a necessary pre-condition for salvation.
So then, what prompted Paul’s fiery letter to the Galatians? It seems that “certain men from James” had come into Galatia and insisted that Peter stop eating with the Gentile Christians. If Peter wanted to continue to be counted among the people of the covenant he must abide by the covenant laws concerning table fellowship. Those who were clean could not eat with those who were unclean.
As presented to the Galatians it was not an issue of salvation at this point. No one was claiming that Peter needed to stop eating with the Gentiles if he wanted to be saved. But if Peter wanted to continue to have table fellowship with his comrades in Jerusalem he needed to stop his unseemly habit of eating with the unwashed masses. So Peter withdrew from the table of the Gentiles, “out of fear of the circumcision party.”
The Galatian Christians were then faced with a dilemma. There was now a rift within their own fellowship of believers. They could no longer share meals together. Their unity was broken. And this is where the circumcision party made their brilliant move. Even though the Gentiles, of course, were not required to be circumcised in order to be saved, they might consider voluntarily accepting circumcision in order for unity in the Christian movement to be re-established. So the circumcision party suggested that the Gentile Christian could have greater unity with their fellow Christians if they would simply agree to submit to this one small procedure.
The Galatian Christians, being good sports, and nice people, were somewhat persuaded by this line of reasoning. It seems that word got back to Paul that some of them were even consenting to circumcision. So Paul hastily, and somewhat angrily, dashed off a letter to the Galatian church, reminding them of what he had told them when he first proclaimed the gospel among them.
Paul spends the first four chapters of Galatians defending his calling as an apostle (he had been called by the risen Christ himself, not by some human authority), explaining his relationship to the leaders in Jerusalem (they added nothing to the gospel he already was preaching), and emphasizing the point that the Galatians were already heirs to the promises of Abraham because of Jesus. Paul is shocked that the Galatians have so quickly abandoned the gospel he first preached among them and are turning to a gospel of circumcision. It’s not at all clear that the Galatians, themselves, thought they were doing any such thing. Paul had declared a gospel of freedom to them and agreeing to circumcision. What harm could it do? But it’s clear that Paul thinks it can do some serious harm. Paul carefully explains that God’s promises were made to Abraham before circumcision was adopted as a sign of the covenant. Abraham was reckoned righteous because he had faith in God. Circumcision came later. It did not make Abraham righteous; it was simply a sign of the covenant relationship already existing between God and Abraham. The Gentile Christians had no need to accept circumcision in order to become children of Abraham because they were made children of Abraham through Abraham’s offspring, Jesus (3:15ff). Circumcision, indeed, the entire law, was added to the covenant because of transgressions. It did not make the covenant legitimate. It was simply a disciplinarian (3:24 also "custodian," "tutor," "schoolmaster," "put in charge") until Christ came. By accepting circumcision, the Galatian Christians were accepting the entire law, and Paul would have none of that.
After reminding the Galatians again and again why they did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved, Paul lays it all on the line in chapter five. Since it has already been established that circumcision isn’t necessary for salvation, and since everyone has agreed to this, it would seem that salvation issues were off the table. One might think this is an argument about how the Galatian Christians ought best exercise their newfound freedom. It would seem logical, then, that Paul would agree that circumcision could be adopted by the Gentiles for the sake of greater unity in the church. Or, that Paul would argue that circumcision is unwise and they should just skip it. As Paul will state later, ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.’ As long as they were careful not to fall into the trap of believing that it was, in any way, related to their salvation, it would seem the Galatians could make up their own mind on this matter, and Paul would simply offer his opinion.
But instead, in chapter five Paul drops a bomb. “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” This matter of indifference, this minor procedural change - that they had no obligation to actually believe - would actually put the Galatians’ salvation in jeopardy. Paul isn’t offering the Galatians his opinion on an ethical decision they have to make. Paul is telling them, in no uncertain terms, that in accepting circumcision the Galatians have turned away from Christ to another gospel. Paul’s conclusion doesn’t seem to fit with the argument he’s been making up to this point. A key component to his argument is that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything. Now he seems to say uncircumcision counts for everything. Is Paul here condemning his own people? Is he condemning circumcision, contrary to the argument he has made thus far? Is he putting restrictions on the freedom of the gospel?
Paul’s insistence that the Christians in Galatia must refuse to submit to circumcision has very little to do with circumcision itself. The ritual is of little consequence to Paul at this point. The heart of the issue is whether something other than Jesus is necessary to unify the church, whether something other than the work of God in Christ makes one just. Either the law is necessary or it is not. Either Christians are all one in Christ or they are not. There can be no greater unity than the unity that comes from being grafted on to the body of Christ. Circumcision only becomes a problem when it, or the lack of it, is used as a justification for dividing God’s people from one another. Circumcision cannot usurp the place of Jesus as the source of unity for the church. Observance of the law does not create and cannot unify believers.
The same basic argument applies to the historic episcopate. The thing itself is optional. It can be taken or left. But when the historic episcopate, or the lack thereof, is conceived of as a source, or sign, of unity in the church it has usurped the place of Christ. Either Christ has made us one, or he has not. Either we are free from the requirements of the law, or we are not. Either we are in communion with one another, or we are not. There can be no degrees of communion. There can be no distinction between the fellowship of believers and table fellowship. There is no basis for demanding that another Christian conform to your traditions in order for complete fellowship to exist. Either ecumenical partners agree that the other is Christian, or they do not. If they agree that the other is Christian then communion - full communion, communion in the body of Christ - exists already. If they do not agree that the other is Christian then only the proclamation of the gospel, only the work of God in Jesus Christ, not any human institution, can make them so.