March 03, 2005

Galatians III: The test case

In Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, the "trial of the century" - the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" - was held. A schoolteacher named John Scopes had been charged with violation of the Butler Act, a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. This famed court case brought a number of famous personalities into Dayton. Clarence Darrow, the most notorious criminal defense lawyer of the day, declared that it was civilization itself being put on trial. William Jennings Bryan, onetime presidential candidate and the greatest political orator of the day, saw his prosecution of Scopes as the duty of an evangelical Christian standing for orthodoxy against the forces of unbelief. H. L. Mencken, the greatest journalist of the time, was an atheist who thought the whole thing was a joke and the good people of Dayton and Tennessee were ignorant boobs. Between the grandstanding of the two attorneys, Mencken's mocking, and the descent of 200-odd reporters on the town, the whole event was a media circus.

The Scopes trial was a test case. John Scopes wasn't charged because he was caught teaching evolution. He volunteered to stand trial at the prompting of the American Civil Liberties Union and a local businessman who thought the law was unfair. It wasn't even important that Scopes won; in fact, he lost. The purpose of the case was to test the validity of the law. Eventually, the ACLU and other critics of the Butler Act were vindicated. It was repealed . . . in 1967.

Similarly, we see in Paul's letter to the Galatians that the Gospel he preaches has effectively been put on trial. "Judaizers," Jews professing Christianity, are agitating the church in Galatia, telling them that in order to be Christians it is first necessary to become Jews by being circumcised according to the Law of Moses. They seem to be attacking Paul himself as well, trying to cast doubt on his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Fourteen years after his conversion, Paul finally gets the chance to "talk shop" with the Apostles in Jerusalem. He brings a friend along with him, a man named Titus. Titus is Paul's test case to prove the validity of his doctrine. He writes:

Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: but contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (for he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. (Gal. 2:1-10)

When was Paul in Jerusalem?

When did this trip to Jerusalem take place? Most Bible scholars equate the "fourteen years after" trip with the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Since the accounts in Acts 15 and Galatians 2 have a number of surface similarities, including their subject matter, this argument is not without merit. The council of Jerusalem was convened to deal with the relationship between Law and Gospel.

There are difficulties with this harmonization, however. Paul says in Galatians that he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation. God told him to go. According to Acts 15:2, however, he and Barnabas were delegated to go by the church in Antioch. More significantly, however, if the council of Jerusalem has already taken place by the time Paul is writing this letter, why did he bother writing it at all? The issue of circumcision had already been debated at length, a conclusion reached, and an open letter issued. The resolution of the council had the approval of all the Apostles. If the letter copied by Luke into Acts 15:23-29 was already in circulation, then Paul's letter to the Galatians was redundant. The letter from Jerusalem should have settled the matter.

I hold a minority view. I personally believe that the Jerusalem trip Paul is speaking of is the one mentioned briefly in Acts 11:27:

And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

This harmonization fits the facts: the "revelation" Paul responded to could have been direct instructions from God; on the other hand, it could have been Agabus' prophecy. And since Luke is completely silent on what Paul and Barnabas did while in Jerusalem, there aren't any difficulties in harmonizing this passage with Galatians 2. Finally, Paul says that the Apostles had asked him to remember the poor, and the very reason he was in Jerusalem in the first place was to deliver relief money to the believers there. Of course, there are perfectly good Christians who disagree with me. It's a minor issue.

Paul meets the Twelve

Paul says, then, that he went up to Jerusalem and submitted his Gospel to the apostles, "lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.." My original thought when I read this verse was that Paul was showing some normal, human uncertainty about his teaching - a very understandable situation given the opposition he was obviously feeling. But I realized that this isn't consistent with Paul's argument up to this point, where he claims Christ revealed the Gospel to him directly, and he has been preaching it all over the place for 14 years. These are not the actions of a man with doubts about the correctness of his doctrine! Paul is not seeking reassurance, but unity - by seeking the endorsement of the Apostles in Jerusalem, he derails the attempt by the Judaizers to cause him to "run in vain" by discrediting his ministry.

He receives the endorsement he seeks. Verse 6 says that "they who seemed to be somewhat . . . added nothing to me." If Paul's detractors were right, and circumcision was necessary to salvation, then the Apostles would have told Paul to preach it. On the contrary, the Apostles had recognized God had been working through Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had worked through Peter to bring it to the Jews. They gave him the "right hands of fellowship" and sent him back out to preach to the Gentiles with their blessing.

The Apostles do attach one "rider" to their endorsement: they remind Paul to "remember the poor" (v. 10). Paul is quick to point out that this was "the same which I also was forward to do." In fact, caring for the poor Christians in Judæa formed a major part of Paul's ministry. If I am right in my harmonization of Galatians 2 and Acts 11, then the primary reason Paul was in Jerusalem in the first place was to deliver relief funds. His instructions on giving in 1 Cor. 16 and 2 Cor. 9 are given in the context of taking up a collection for the poor. Paul was finally arrested in Jerusalem after he insisted on being the courier for this offering, against the advice of the church members at Caesarea, including the same prophet Agabus who foretold the famine that took Paul there with his first offering! The welfare of the poor saints in Judea, and the unity of the Jewish and Gentile Church that this offering symbolized, were more important to Paul than his own freedom. Paul was eager to remember the poor because it proved that there was one Church, one people in Christ, all saved by one Gospel of grace.

Titus the Gentile

In the meantime, Paul had brought a friend with him: a young protégé named Titus. Though an important New Testament figure, the details of his life are actually pretty obscure. Luke doesn't even mention him in Acts. In Paul's later letters we find out that he was sent to Corinth to take up a collection (for the saints in Judea, naturally!). And later, when Paul is in prison for the first time, he writes a letter to Titus, who is church-planting in Crete. Finally, he is sent on an errand from Rome, where he is with Paul during his final imprisonment. As for the remainder of his life and missionary career, there is silence.

Titus, being a Gentile, was not circumcised unlike the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Those Jews in Jerusalem who had converted to Christianity still had a high regard for the Mosaic Law; they were Christians by faith, though Jews by culture. However, some of them were "false brethren." By all appearances, they were a part of the Body of Christ. However, they were agitating the Church, attempting to persuade them that, as Acts 15:1 says, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.." More than this, Paul accuses them of having "came in privily to spy out our liberty which is in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage."

Whenever I read this passage, I am struck with the mental image of robed and bearded Peeping Toms, skulking around people's houses, trying to catch a clandestine glimpse of Titus with his pants down so they can be appropriately scandalized and go off and tell everyone how outraged they are. There is still no shortage of busybodies and mudslingers in the world, after all. Realistically, however, I think Paul was saying that the false brethren were something like the Pharisees who tried to entrap Jesus, as Luke 20:20 says: "And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words." The Judaizers were trying to set a trap for Paul and Titus, to discredit them. Maybe they wanted to catch Paul saying something outrageous: advocating antinomianism (since we are not under Law, but grace), repudiating Jewish tradition, or bringing Gentiles into the Temple. These are the sorts of accusations that Paul's enemies would make later in his ministry, anyway.

But it didn't work, and Paul did not give in; he says, "neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised; and, "we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour." Thus the Judaizers were unsuccessful in adding works to the Gospel. They were unsuccessful in having Titus circumcised. And they were unsuccessful in driving a wedge between Paul and the other apostles that would discredit the Gospel of grace. On the contrary, as we have already seen, Paul walked away from that meeting with the endorsement and full support of the Twelve. Nonetheless, the "circumcision party" was to be a thorn in Paul's side on more than one occasion in the future. We will see another one of these encounters in the next installment.

But what about Timothy?

There is nothing so plainly stated that someone won't try to find fault with it. There have been those who have tried to argue that Paul did, in fact, have Titus circumcised. Some of these have latched on to Paul's statement that he wasn compelled, and asserted that it meant he must have done so voluntarily. Others have exploited the reading of a few corrupt Latin Bibles, that read that Paul and Titus did give in to the false brethren, suggesting that they at least made a concession for the moment. (I have seen this line of reasoning or something similar used enough times that I have started calling it the "it might be true, therefore it must be true" proof.)

The motivating force behind this questionable interpretation appears to be an attempt to "harmonize" Galatians 2 with another passage dealing with Paul and another of his protégés, Timothy. Look at the first few verses of Acts 16:

Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:1-3)

Paul had Timothy circumcised, so why not Titus? The simple answer is that Timothy was not Titus, and the situation was not the same.

First, Timothy was Jewish on his mother's side; that meant he was effectively Jewish, too. Paul's argument was that Gentiles need not be circumcised to be accepted by God; he was not arguing that Christian Jews were to give up their Jewish identity as well. On the other hand, Titus was not Jewish at all, but a Greek. He had no Jewish identity.

Second, Paul had Timothy circumcised for the sake of the Jews in the area. They knew Timothy's family, and they also knew that he was half Greek. Paul had Timothy circumcised to identify him with the Jewish side of his heritage rather than the Gentile. In effect, Paul was carrying out his policy of "unto the Jews" becoming "as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews" (1 Cor. 9:20). Timothy's circumcision had nothing to do with the truth of the Gospel itself, but it did deflect an excuse that the Jews might have used to reject the Gospel: since the one preaching it was a Gentile, it was not for them.

In Titus' case, on the other hand, it was not just a matter of respecting a tradition. Paul flatly rejected Titus' circumcision because the very content of the Gospel was at stake. He admits as much to the Galatians, saying, "[t]o whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you." Paul would concede a point of tradition for the sake of the Jews, but he would not concede a point of truth for the sake of false Christians. It defies all logic for Paul to submit to the very concession he was opposing, then announce to the Galatians that, nonetheless, the integrity of his Gospel was intact!

My personal opinion is that Paul brought Titus along with him to Jerusalem to be deliberately provocative. By this I don't mean that he was a rabble-rouser, just trying to stir up controversy. Instead, I mean that he did it to force the issue. He wanted to provoke the Church authorities in Jerusalem to settle the matter. In essence, he brought Titus along with him as a test case. Paul stood him up in front of the Apostles and those false so-called brethren, and said, "Behold the man!" Titus was Paul's trump card. He wasn't circumcised, but his life and his testimony made a lie out of the false assertion of those Judaizers that God only favoured the circumcised. God accepts people not because of their lack of foreskin, but because they have put their faith in the finished work of Christ as sufficient to atone for their sins and make them right with God. There the evidence stands, in the person of Titus. And if the Judaizers or anyone else say differently, then they are under God's curse.

Circumcision and the contemporary Church

These days, however, the Church is mostly Gentile, and so circumcision per se isn't what we'd call a hot issue any more. Nonetheless, I think we can draw two general principles from Paul's defense of the Gospel.

First, it is OK to compromise on your personal policies for the sake of the Gospel. This is what Paul did with Timothy. As he said in 1 Corinthians:

[U]nto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9:20-22)

Arguably the best modern example of this philosophy is the ministry of Hudson Taylor in China in the 19th century. At the time, overseas missions in China were having little success, and part of the reason for this was that when British missionaries brought the Gospel overseas, they brought Western civilization as part of the package. Taylor decided instead to leave Western civilization behind. He grew his hair long and braided it into a queue, as was mandatory for Chinese men at the time, and dressed as a mandarin. Taylor wasn't interested in making English Christians out of the Chinese. Hudson Taylor's approach to evangelism allowed him to travel almost anywhere in China and be respected. He removed the unnecessary stumblingblock of Western culture; to the Chinese he became a Chinese, so that he might win Chinese.

On the other hand, however, it is not OK to compromise the truth of the Gospel to make it more acceptable. This is why Paul refused to have Titus circumcised. Maybe if he had capitulated, he might have won more Jews that way. Who knows? The principle of liberty says that it is OK to remove unnecessary stumblingblocks from in the way of the Gospel. The problem is, the Gospel is itself a stumblingblock. Paul writes that his fellow Jews were perishing

[b]ecause they sought [righteousness] not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. (Rom. 9:32-33)

By all means, remove any unnecessary barriers to hearing the Gospel, but do not compromise on the Gospel itself. If unbelievers take offense at the truth itself, so be it.

In 1997, the Promise Keepers organization made an important revision to its statement of faith. It originally read:

We believe that man was created in the image of God, but because of sin, was alienated from God. That alienation can be removed only by accepting, through faith alone, God's gift of salvation, which was made possible by Christ's death.

The revision read:

Only through faith, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, which was made possible by His death and resurrection, can that alienation be removed.

A few words can make all the difference. The word alone was moved from qualifying faith to qualifying Christ. The change was made specifically to accommodate Roman Catholic men who were interested in getting involved. Catholic doctrine rejects sola fide, because the Roman church claims Christians must continually do something to remain in a state of justifying grace. But the Romanists have no problem at all with "Christ alone." It affirms the exclusivity of Christ but allows for human merit to be added to faith. I don't want to seem too down on the Promise Keepers. I think the aims of the organization are worthwhile, and I'm sure that their intentions were good. But they have compromised the true Gospel to make the organization more acceptable. This is the very opposite of the right approach.

If you've ever been involved with some sort of non-denominational parachurch organization or campus club or activity, then you know that inevitably the "Catholic question" comes up. To what extent may we go to accommodate those from other traditions who want to get involved? Paul's example is clear: the facts of the Gospel are non-negotiable. If we are part of an organization whose doctrinal statement is deficient when it comes to the facts of the Gospel; if we are part of an evangelistic effort but we are constrained in the way we may present the Gospel because of the different groups involved; if we are restricted in how we can speak in public because the organization wants to put forth an appearance of unity; then unfortunately, it might be necessary to rethink our involvement. We don't like to do that. It makes us uncomfortable to be even a little divisive, because disagreement is nearly taboo in today's society. But that kind of "unity" is only a façade. There is no true unity outside the truth. Stand firm for the truth, and do not subjugate yourselves to those who would compromise it. Then you can say with Paul that the truth of the Gospel remains intact.


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink