Issue #125 -------
May 16, 2004
His preaching much, but more his practice
wrought; A living sermon of the truths he taught.
John Dryden (1631-1700)
"The Character of a Good Parson"
A reader from the great state of Texas recently sent me an email in which he asked a brief, but extremely important, question regarding an aspect of the apostle Paul's teaching, and more specifically the application of that teaching. This reader is not the first person over the years to raise the issue of consistency when examining the relationship of one's professed theology to the daily demonstration of the same. Consider the following quick question:
There are indeed times when it appears, at least on the surface, that Paul is inconsistent in the application of his theology. He was the consummate champion of God's matchless grace, the "scourge" of sectarianism and legalism. With regard to the rite of circumcision, for example, he declared emphatically, "Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole law" (Galatians 5:2-3). "But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised" (Galatians 2:3). Very powerful teaching; very bold and firm. And yet, what are we to make of Acts 16:3? -- "Paul wanted Timothy to go with him, so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek." Inconsistent? It certainly seems to be, doesn't it?!
Consider another example: Paul told the Galatian brethren, "You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain" (Galatians 4:10). And yet, he tells the brethren in Colossae, "Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day" (Colossians 2:16). The saints in Rome are cautioned not to pass judgment on the convictions of others. "One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it to the Lord" (Romans 14:5-6). Inconsistent? Once again, it certainly seems to be, and this has led some disciples to scratch their heads in confusion with regard to what Paul is actually seeking to convey in his teaching and example.
The solution -- and yes, there is one! -- lies in properly perceiving the multi-faceted concerns in each individual circumstance, and the way God's grace responds to each. Getting to the heart of this apparent inconsistency of teaching and application really lies in knowing the hearts of those involved. How Paul responds in certain situations is determined largely by the attitudes and actions of those to whom he must respond. Those who are genuine seekers of Truth, but who may be unsettled in their convictions, will receive a response much different from those whose hearts are hardened, whose minds are closed, and who are determined to bind their preferences upon others. Paul will yield to one, but will "not yield in subjection" to the other "for even an hour" (Galatians 2:5).
Take the apparent inconsistency with regard to circumcision. Paul compelled Timothy to be circumcised (Acts 16:3). This was not because militant legalists were demanding it, nor was it in order to merit God's favor or earn some blessing. It was an act of consideration for those to whom Paul would be sharing the good news of God's grace. His audience would be Jews, many of whom would not be able to get beyond the fact that an uncircumcised man was among those speaking to them of holy matters. Just look at the chaos that ensued when some Jews thought Paul had brought Trophimus the Ephesian into the temple (Acts 21:27ff). To prevent Timothy's uncircumcised state from becoming a major stumbling block to the preaching of grace, Paul removed the obstacle by circumcising him. His philosophy on this is clearly declared in his following statement to the saints in Corinth:
On the other hand, Paul refused to compel Titus to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). Why? Well, if one examines the historical context, one will see that the theological conflict then being waged was as a result of the teaching of certain Judaizers who insisted, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). "Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them" over this false, legalistic teaching (vs. 2). It eventually led to the Jerusalem Conference in 50 A.D. (Acts 15:6ff). The "Circumcision Party" in the church had become a force to be reckoned with, and not all were willing to stand up against these legalists on behalf of the gospel of God's grace. Paul stood up against them, in part, by refusing to allow Titus to be circumcised in accordance with their demands. Peter, however, fell under the spell of their sectarian deception in Antioch.
Peter's sin, for which Paul condemned him to his face, was in being party to division in the Body of Christ over such legalistic dogma. He had separated from his Gentile brethren. In reality, there was absolutely nothing wrong with a person being circumcised, if they so desired, nor with a person refraining from being circumcised, if they so desired. After all, "circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing" (1 Corinthians 7:19). "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6). Since we are not justified by works of law, there is no real benefit to circumcision under the new covenant. On the other hand there is nothing wrong with one being circumcised if that is their personal preference. It is just not an issue any longer.
The problem was: there was no love in Peter's actions. He was shunning his brethren in Christ because of some legalistic dogma promoted by "false brethren" who had sneaked into the congregation of believers; sly sectarians who were determined to bind their own convictions upon the rest of the church at any cost. Such legalism must always be opposed in no uncertain terms! One must never yield to such promoters of LAW, not even for a moment (Galatians 2:5). Had Peter's actions not been opposed by Paul, the factionists would have prevailed and the One Body of Christ would have remained dismembered. The gospel of grace was too vital to allow such a diabolical disease to spread through the Body of Christ.
On the other hand, Paul urges the brethren in Rome not to let their relationships deteriorate to that point. It is okay for disciples to differ with one another over convictions strongly held; what is not acceptable is for them to divide over them. With regard to the matter of the observance of various special days, such as feast days or Sabbaths, each person was to come to their own conviction in the matter. The issue was not so much the observance or non-observance of these days or events, the issue was the heart of these persons involved, and their relationship with the Lord and each other. "He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord" (Romans 14:6). God accepts those on either side of the matter. The challenge is for disciples to accept one another, and cease the feuding which leads to severing of fellowship.
Where Paul draws the line on the observance of days, or circumcision, or any other such practice, however, is when those engaging in such practices do so with the misguided conviction that such observance is a condition of salvation in the sight of God. It is when the legalists declare, "You can't be saved unless you .......!" that Paul takes exception to their teaching. To make such matters legal requirements of justification and salvation, or terms of fellowship, is a return to LAW, and a return to LAW is to be severed from JESUS and fallen from GRACE (Galatians 5:1ff). This was what Peter had become guilty of, and it brought a swift rebuke from Paul. The brethren in Rome were rapidly headed in that direction and Paul sought to redirect them into a greater appreciation of the marvelous grace of their heavenly Father, even in the face of their own diversity. With that appreciation would come greater acceptance of one another, and in its wake there would be increased unity and harmony ... unlike the separation that had occurred in Antioch when the "false brethren" intimidated Peter and others with their sectarian spirit and led them into godless schisms.
We are free in Christ to follow our convictions; something Paul both preached and practiced. Such is the beauty of grace. What we are not free to do, however, is attempt to bind those personal or corporate convictions upon others, or to attach some legal merit to such practices, preferences, or prohibitions (so as to earn justification or salvation). An awareness of this critical distinction will perhaps help us better perceive and appreciate the actions and attitudes of Paul as he dealt with the various situational challenges enumerated above.
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Thank you, Al, for this article on God's IDEAL For Marriage. It is very much needed, especially now. Such perversions to God's ideal will continue, and get even worse, as the end draws near. The Church needs to stand firm on God's Word. Your article, your work, are very important, especially now. Stand tall and continue to let your light shine, brother!!
I also have to say that I agree with you that there has to be a better way than oral debates. It is important to stand for the Truth, and to contend for the faith, but I believe that doing so in such a debate format is a lose-lose situation. The enemy wins either way. I think you are doing things the correct way -- written dialogue, back and forth, using the Scriptures .... no spectacle, no show, just the Truth out there for all to read. You are doing the right thing by refusing a public debate. If your detractors will not engage in written dialogue, I think that in itself proves they only want a public spectacle, not an honest dialogue. I appreciate you standing fast and holding true. All the "laws" that the legalists proclaim are really preferences, and you are very skilled at using the Bible to punch holes in their "biblical principles." Much like a speaker, who was at our church this weekend, used science to show what a farce the theory of evolution and the "big bang" is, you use the Bible to show what a farce those principles of legalism are. I hope and pray that people's eyes will be opened to the truth!
From a Reader in Tennessee:
This time of the year, while working in my garage at night, hard-shell bugs fly around the lights and crawl around the floor. If I do not watch the floor, I will step on these bugs and hear the crunching sound of a rigid exoskeleton blowing apart. Al, with your latest Reflections ("Psalm 74:8 and Synagogues") you crushed the rigid exoskeleton of your Alabama critic!!
From a Well-Known Leader/Author in Texas:
Al Maxey, dear brother, the piece on the synagogue was exceptionally well done, and it serves as a devastating rebuke to patternism. We need to make more use of this example. Not only did Christ and the apostles make use of the synagogue, but it appears that the God of heaven used it as a stepping-stone between the temple and the church.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Humans like law as it gives us external rules; externals that can be checked off, or, even worse, used as a basis for making favorable comparisons between ourselves and other religious folk, puffing us up. The NT Scriptures, providing no basis for this, is then perverted via CENI into a system wherein law has to be "discovered," or found by reading between the lines, making a "pattern," etc. You have written some excellent stuff along these lines!
From a Reader in South Carolina:
Al, Are you aware of the Christian Bible Society which has printed a translation of the Bible called The Christian Bible? Their website has a page where they conduct what they call A Literalness Test comparing several translations. Since you have done such a wonderful job analyzing the versions and reporting your analysis on your website, I was wondering if you would be adding this new translation to that analysis. Thanks so much for your wonderful Reflections -- I treasure them and use them as a resource frequently.
From a Reader in Texas:
I have just reread your book on MDR -- Down, But Not Out. I must say it is a light in a world of darkness. I mean, I have read them all, and yours is by far the most logical, scriptural, and philosophically correct I have read. The traditional approach is consistently anti-biblical to the normal Christian, and even appears to be immoral. Something Jesus never was. Your explanation is both logical and complete, and, truthfully, it can not be refuted with any degree of competency. Jesus was doing as you said, telling people to stop doing what they were doing and to live correctly. He never told people they were still married, or to return to past relationships. Doing so causes more harm, and just makes more pain. I have often wondered how some churches can be so illogical about all of this. A good argument can be made that the old Catholic doctrine has caused more pain than good for Christian people than virtually any other. It is time for it to die once and for all, and for the light of the Lord to shine. You, brother Al, are one of the strongest lights. God bless you and your godly message; you are helping people, not hurting them. That is all the proof you need to know that your message is correct. Feel no need to reply. Time is short, and I just wanted to let you know your work is appreciated and helping many you have never met.
If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers. A CD
containing these articles may also be purchased. See
The Archives for details & past issues of Reflections: