by Matt Looloian
In the Apostles Creed, we affirm our belief in the holy, catholic Church. Which means, in line with Ephesians 4, we believe that there’s one church which belongs to Jesus.
So here’s the question: how do we pursue that unity in a sea of endless divisions? The early church’s experience has something to say about that.
In Galatians 2, the Apostle Paul recalls a visit to Jerusalem. The crucial topic of this visit is the amount of unity and alignment between the message Paul is preaching with the message preached by Peter and the other Apostles.
Because Peter and Paul didn’t receive their commissioning at the same moment, and because they hung out with different people in different places, there’s a ton they need to work out. Where are they on the same page? Where are they different? Perhaps more importantly, where is that harmful, helpful, or wrong?
Obviously, these are key questions. They were then. They are now.
Despite the message of Jesus making it to about two thirds of the world, the topic of Galatians 2 couldn’t be more relevant.
The interaction of Paul and the other Apostles in Galatians 2 gives us the framework we should use for answering those questions. The framework we should return to constantly when we’re confronted with discussions about unity and diversity in our beliefs and practices as Christians can be summed up by honoring two principles: preserving the Gospel and perceiving the grace of God.
Galatians 2:4-5: Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.
From just these two verses we learn that there is a true gospel, and many false gospels. Another perspective is that not everyone proclaims something right; some speak what is wrong.
The false gospel is slavery. The true gospel is freedom. Since the the freedom or slavery of human beings created in the image of God hinges on its message, it is worth fighting to preserve the true gospel.
Words like “true” and false” or “right” and “wrong” are painful to the sensibilities of many in our culture. But the notion that everyone’s right is not shared by those Jesus commissioned. One gospel was right. A lot of other messages posing as the gospel were wrong.
When Paul proclaims the message of Jesus – who he is, what he’s done, the impact and implications that has on our lives and on the entire world – there is a certain body of truth which must be preserved. Because to yield or submit in those places moves the message from one that is true to one that is false. From one that frees to one that enslaves.
What’s true and what’s false? The topic that comes up in Galatians over and over again is circumcision. It’s significant because circumcision was God’s idea. God commanded Abraham and all the men of his family to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant God made with him. Abraham’s descendants, the people of God, were circumcised to show they were part of the family.
Circumcision comes up again in this visit to Jerusalem. Paul brings Titus as a test case. Titus is Greek. He’s not Jewish, which means he isn’t circumcised. (It wasn’t a common medical practice for baby boys like it is today.) And Paul brings him to the Apostles in Jerusalem and says, “This man believes in Jesus. Does he need to be circumcised? Does he need to receive that visible sign of God’s covenant with Abraham?” The Apostles in Jerusalem – Peter, John, Jesus’ brother James – they all say “no.”
Is circumcision really the issue here?
It is and it isn’t. It is, but only because it’s asking a much deeper question: how does someone experience the salvation offered by God? In the moment that circumcision becomes a litmus test for if someone is part of God’s people or not, in that exact moment, it matters more than anything. It’s now a matter of preserving the truth of the gospel.
There are truths Paul will not compromise. There are, as I like to say, hills Paul is willing to die on. But the hill is not circumcision. The hill is that all people – regardless of age, gender, race, economic status, track record, personality, whatever – are saved only by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus to cleanse and free them from their sin. Any other view which claims that salvation happens another way is a false gospel proclaimed by false messengers. It is a message that enslaves instead of frees.
As people who believe in Jesus, there are hills we should die on to preserve the gospel’s beautiful truth. I don’t think there are tons of them, but this is one of them. And whenever we’re going to think about the questions of unity and diversity, what we believe and practice, one of two vital components is to preserve the gospel. That there really are lines that, when crossed, move the message we proclaim from the true gospel to a false one.
Matt Looloian serves as a pastor at Liberti Church in Harrisburg, PA. He and his wife, Shea, have three daughters.