The first major controversy in Christianity was whether or not non-Jews could become Christians. We read about this in Acts 15 and Paul wrote his letter to the Galatian churches in response to this. I haven’t felt that I completely grasped this controversy in the past. There is a focus on following the Mosaic Law, and it has typically been framed (in Protestantism at least) as “salvation by works”. In other words, Christian leaders have taught that some Jews were arguing that salvation came through action—doing “good” as spelled out in the Law. In this view, Paul contrasts their claims by arguing that salvation comes through faith alone. (Hmmmm… that sounds very Protestant.)
But if this is true, why is the major, almost interchangeable focus put on circumcision? This may be a “work”, but I can’t see most people considering it a specifically good work. It is basically just an outward sign of being Jewish. So if the argument here really was about keeping the Law and doing good works to be saved, why talk so much about circumcision?
I believe that both Paul and his antagonists believed that the Jews were the chosen people of God and that the chosen people of God are the ones who would be saved (see Romans 9-11). Up to the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole idea of a messiah was only really a Jewish concern. Yes, there was an understanding that this would lead to blessings for the rest of the world, but the Jews were always at the center, elevated to a privileged position. A natural result of this was that Christianity began as a Jewish sect. While they are often given a bad rap, even many Pharisees, Sadducees, and other Jewish religious leaders came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
In other words, the earliest belief was that Jesus came to save the Jews. So Paul message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone to non-Jews was completely out of their paradigm. Likely many of them had never thought of non-Jews participating in the blessings of the Jewish people. But the only way it would make sense for non-Jews to be able to do so was if they became Jewish. And one if not the most important sign of being Jewish was that of circumcision. So to recap, the Jews were the ones who were saved by Christ, and therefore non-Jews must become Jewish in order to be saved.
The argument here wasn’t about doing good works in order to be saved. As I understand it, Jews themselves didn’t believe they were saved by following the Law. (They saw the Law as insight into the mind and wisdom of God, not just as a set of rules to keep in order to gain God’s favor. They understood they needed God’s mercy.)
Paul’s argument is that faith in Christ alone was enough to bring non-Jews into the family of the chosen people of God. This was God’s great mystery of the ages in Paul’s mind. Again, I don’t think it was really a faith vs. works debate. All of the discussion about following the Law wasn’t an attempt to earn salvation, it was about becoming Jewish. This is why it focused more on external signs of being Jewish rather than on other parts of the Law.
Paul explains his view in detail in Romans chapters 9-11. In his mind, non-Jews are “grafted into” being a part of the Jews by faith in Christ, not by outward signs of Jewishness. Conversely, Jews could be cut off from their place among the chosen people if they didn’t put their faith in Christ.
Paul’s views on non-Jews (often referred to as Gentiles, Greeks, or uncircumcised in the Bible) was highly controversial. The Jews were in a difficult position because they often had to struggle to keep their identity. They were proud of their ancestry, and rightly so because they are the chosen people of God. However this combination of forces led them into thinking that they were better than everyone else. Paul effectively took away their privileged status, putting them on level with the rest of the people in the world. It was this—not his belief in Jesus—which caused a riot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-22:21).
The application is the same for us (most all of my readers I assume are not Jewish). We don’t have to become Jewish by following the Law. It is worth noting that in Acts 15, the church agrees to instruct non-Jews to not participate in idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality—the three most grievous categories of sins to Jews1. It is interesting and instructive to realize that these are all moral concerns and not about outward, cultural signs of Jewishness. If we love God we won’t participate in idolatry, and if we love others, we won’t engage in sexual immorality and murder.
- Read “Abortion: What the Early Church Said” by Lois Tverberg for more explanation of these prohibitions.