One of Satan’s tactics is to cause us to focus on non-essential, peripheral things.
Acts 20:25-38 – During Paul’s tearful farewell with the Ephesian elders, Paul warns them about keeping guard against those who distort the truth. In fact, some of the chief offenders who will end up distorting the truth will come from their own number and these charlatans will draw away disciples from the truth.
And one debate that arose in the early days of this community involved the issue of circumcision.
And the question being asked was “Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?”” The Jewish believers were saying of course Gentile converts ought to follow our traditions.
It became such a hot topic that a council was convened in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:6 – Paul and Barnabas went to mediate and Paul offers some closing advice on this practical issue in Acts 15:19-21.
Acts 15:19-21 – And Paul’s underlying premise is tradition is tradition – it helps some but if the tradition gets in the way, then do away with the tradition. And rather than focusing on tradition or who is right and wrong, let’s focus on the essentials, and that is, Jesus and salvation. Everything else that goes beyond what a person needs to be saved is non-essential.
Paul offers some reflection about this later in Gal 2 because the debate continued beyond Jerusalem and eventually reached the church of Galatia.
Galatians 2:3-4 – he says that we ought to be careful about any external behavioral things that we impose on one another. The important thing is freedom in Christ so the last thing we want to do as believers is to take new believers who were just freed from their sins in Christ and bind them up with a bunch of traditions and regulations that are non-essential.
Circumcision has nothing to do with a person being saved and is therefore non-essential.
I think if we were to examine our Christian practices, there are a lot of things that we do and that we impose on others that are non-essential, peripheral issues. Traditions that helped us or that helped a previous generation of believers may not necessarily be required for our current generation.
Don’t get me wrong, I value traditions. Many of them are helpful. But we must see that an overemphasis on a particular expression of Christian life, which is in many way shaped by our personal church tradition, can lead to unnecessary roadblocks for new believers. And worse, this seemingly harmless emphasis on a particular outward behavior is just one step removed from a distortion of the truth itself.
Paul knew that circumcision was a non-essential external practice that didn’t need to be insisted upon for everyone. Yet, I should mention that if someone not being circumcised causes others who don’t know Christ to dismiss the bearer of the message, then Paul would say, for the sake of their salvation, you should be circumcised.
We see this in Acts 16:3 – Paul told Timothy to circumcise himself for evangelistic purposes since he was a minister in an area that had many Jews and his father was a Gentile (Greek).
Circumcision was an obstacle for Gentiles to come to know Christ, but not being circumcised in certain circumstances was likewise an obstacle for Jews to believe in Christ.
So extra traditions and practices beyond faith in Christ is not essential and should not be emphasized unless the people you are trying to reach would benefit from you following that tradition.
Two points to consider from this section. First, examine your practices and traditions regarding your faith. Are they essential? Could some of them be roadblocks for seekers? Second, examine the people you are trying to minister to. Are there things that can seem burdensome or inconvenient for you to do, but those things would be helpful in connecting more with the people around you. Those are the types of non-essential things God may be asking us to do because it is for the purpose of the other person’s salvation. But anything that may hinder another person’s salvation, let’s do away with.
In both instances, the key guiding principle is living intentionally for the salvation of others. This means refraining from things that will hinder another person from drawing closer to God as well as voluntarily choosing to do things, even if it is inconvenient or painful to ourselves (literally), out of a heart to see another person come to know God.