As I recently wrote about, it the earliest major controversy in Christianity was whether or not one had to become culturally Jewish in order to becoming a part of the community of Christ followers. I tried to come up with a metaphor which might better explain the situation they were in. The best I could think of is this: it would be like someone going around the world and telling people “You can become Americans with all of the benefits and protections that American citizens enjoy. This will be yours if you simply believe.” While this doesn’t have the same impact in our culture, you can still imagine the response from some people: “Well, they can become American citizens if they learn English, pledge allegiance to the flag, pass an overview of American history, pay their taxes, apply for citizenship, etc., and we have to limit the number of new citizens per year. We can’t let just anyone become an American!”
While being a Jew may not have had the same material benefits, they were (and are) the chosen people of God. They had special status as Jews. Not just anyone could become a Jew and share in this special status. At least not until Jesus’ death and resurrection. This seems to be a major part of “the offense of the cross” which Paul has in mind in Galatians 5:11. The unclean, non-Jews could now be chosen by God, just by having faith in Christ. Many respectable Jews were thinking, “We can’t let those people in with us, at least not unless they go through the proper process of becoming ritually clean and Jewish.”
There are similarities in our own culture. There is or was a saying among conservative Christians along the lines of “Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do.” In my own experience, Christianity was about not drinking, smoking, or having sex as much as anything. In other words, be a good, clean-cut citizen. People who do the previously mentioned things are “dirty”. Therefore the perception on both sides is that you have to clean yourself up in order to come to God. “I mean, we couldn’t just let those people in our churches—they might influence our kids to do those things too!”
This is what Paul is saying: these people, the dirty outsiders, are accepted right now, as they are. It’s shocking! The outwardly clean (those who follow the rules, whatever they may be) don’t have any special, more privileged status. Our acceptance by God is based on God’s choice, not on our merit.
Now understand, Paul doesn’t expect “the dirty outsiders” to stay the way they are. He expects they will be transformed by the work of the Spirit in their life. But this won’t look just like the old system of rules. They may actually continue to smoke or not follow the Sabbath. But their character changes so that they begin to think about others before themselves.