The First Church Controversy

The first major controversy the early church had to contend with strikes the modern reader a bit strange. Unlike later theological debate over the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity, or modern concerns over how to properly worship in church or who can (or cannot) be ordained as a minister, the earliest church struggled to know what to do with Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Are these Gentiles “converting” to a form of Judaism? If that is the case, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God fearers Gentiles,” people welcome in the synagogue without having to fully convert?  If they are fully keeping the law, does this imply a secondary status for Gentile believers?

Primarily as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission, the percentage of Gentiles was growing in Christian communities. Some Jews thought that it was necessary for the Gentiles to keep the whole Law, starting with circumcision.

CircumcisionBased on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision.  Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora.  After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).

Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew nor Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

If Paul rejects the Jewish boundary markers, what does this imply about the status of Gentiles in the present age? How does the book of Galatians address this issue?

19 thoughts on “The First Church Controversy

  1. At the risk of going about this post completely wrong, I am going to say that we are Gentiles who believe Jesus died for us. I’m not a Jew. So by definition, I think I am a Gentile. If Paul is rejecting the Law as the basis for salvation, that is because he is seeing it while only looking for the means of salvation. The Law is good for other things, moral character building, honoring and beneficial relationships with people, healthy lifestyles, etc. But following the Law doesn’t make me ‘saved’ or right before God at all. Galatians 5 has a lot to say about whether they should follow the Law, or at least that they should DEFINITELY NOT get circumcised (vv. 2-6). I think it to be the most important point to make that in 5:14 Paul reminds them that they are to “Love [their] neighbor as themselves,” and therefore fulfill the law. Then either way, he encourages them to be led by the Spirit and not be under the law. (18).

    • Piggy-backing off of what you said; I believe the law to be entirely beneficial. Still writes “In his Galatian letter, Paul exposes the weakness of this viewpoint. In 5: 3, for instance, he holds out the prospect of having to obey all the law and insinuates that it is a daunting, unappealing, and errant prospect; and in 6: 13 he charges the agitators themselves with not keeping the law, despite their circumcised state.” As we continue to pursue right moral standing it important to understand the impossible task of perfecting said law. While some faith circles will teach a doctrine which advocates for full and complete sanctification it is apparent to Paul that such a thing simply could not be done. I have to humbly agree. The benefit of the law comes less from the completion/fulfillment of it, and more in the pursuit.

  2. Indeed, Paul’s concept of Jews and Gentiles as equals in one “Body of Christ” (as well as males and females, slaves and free people) was radical to the other (Jewish) followers of Jesus…. those who’d been with Jesus.

    Apparently Jesus didn’t directly teach these concepts and the Gospels indicate somewhat conflicting things about Jesus’ posture toward non-Jews. But I think indications are that he did lay the groundwork and wouldn’t have disagreed with Paul on that precise point. At the same time, in his supposed teaching over 40 days post-resurrection to the disciples, Jesus must not have taught this. (I do find evidence they had SOME kind of vision of Jesus after his death.) Nor did the Holy Spirit reveal it to them, apparently (tho Peter later did “come around” after Luke’s claimed “sheet lowering” vision, and others took “mid way” positions, largely at Paul’s urging, notably the then-ruler [ca. 49 CE] in Jerusalem, James, Jesus’ brother).

    This was Paul’s greatest creative and influential breakthrough, along with the related universalizing of Jesus’ role to cosmic Savior and deifying him (not his sole effort, but one he was key in). And I find more evidence against than for the idea that the “Twelve Apostles” deified Jesus, at least fully. Still, “early high Christology” was developing in their lifetimes, as seen at least in Paul. Their LACK of the same vision/understanding of the Kingdom of God and the nature of Christ as that of Paul was the basis for actually a LOT of conflict and tension between them and him (seen not only in Galatians and elsewhere in Paul’s letters but also somewhat disguised in Acts.)

  3. Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28).

    At first this made me wonder whether the church today is truly the church as Paul understood it, since it is now entirely Gentile.

    But then this part

    If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.”

    seems to be not about demographics, but about individuals and their characteristic approach to the divine. A good scriptural basis for inculturation and the status of the local church (with respect to the universal church), then!

  4. When paying attention to church controversy today I often consider the possibility of gentile-like scenarios. For instance, the boundary markers of a 21st century Christian in America often look like pure language, appropriate modest dress codes, and heterosexuality, or things like that. However, to differentiate what is considered morally orthodox or simply a boundary marker is a hard call to make. I think using the logic set forth by Paul we can determine safely that certain actions are timelessly immoral. Things that Paul repeated like “witchcraft” and “idolatry” echo the teachings of Jesus and God the father in the old testament. Still writes in “Thinking Through Paul”, “It is little wonder, then, that in his exasperation Paul speaks his wish that the agitators would simply cut off their own penises if they are so interested in cutting penises (5: 12).” (Still 89) I can’t help but laugh and agree with the interpretation. If we are so concerned with boundary markers and being the police of said boundary markers then why no go all the way? In our language, why do we choose to cover swear words with substitutes? Why not choose to forgo the thought entirely? Galatians talks often about the fruits of the spirit. In chapter 5 Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” The invitation here seems to be that instead of rejoicing in the practices of a temporary solution for symptom relief, why not run to the cure? Not to sound too preachy, but to answer the question in it’s purest most unfiltered form; we are far too concerned about our own image and the images of others. It’s probably time the church had a heart to heart with it’s people about the condition of it’s heart and the disease that plagues it even to this very day of pride and idolatry.

  5. With Paul rejecting the Jewish Boundary markers, he is saying that the Gentiles are just as equal in God’s eyes as the Jews, who worked very hard to follow the law, are. This would be very controversial and if I were a Jew in that day, I believe that I would be very upset about this as well. Saying that the Gentiles did not need to follow the Law to be saved, especially that they did not need to be circumcised was like giving the Gentiles an award for running a race when the Jews were the ones that ran it but God doesn’t care about the race anymore. Paul says that the whole law is fulfilled by “loving your brother as yourself” in Galatians 5:14.

  6. When Paul was rejecting the idea of Jewish boundary markers, he was trying to put the focus on what was most important. Jesus Christ himself. These ‘markers’, that we even have today, tend to get in the way of what is truly important which is our relationship with Jesus Christ. I like what Nick talks about, and I thought this was interesting from Thinking Through Paul, the idea of just going all the way. Longenecker starts off chapter 3 by talking about circumcision and why this is such a big deal. There were agitators that were distorting the gospel and making Galatians believe this (TTP 89). This is how Paul felt for the people back in those days because that is what was separating them. Today, the issue of circumcision is not an issue we deal with, but we deal with many other things, as Nick said as well. I like Nick’s example of us covering up swear words by using substitutes. If we are just covering up the worst word, but know what we want to say, why not just take it all the way? The way Paul deals with these issues in Galatia “…demonstrates much about his understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in any age” (TTP 89). Paul says in Galatians 5, “…if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” If people are so focused on keeping the law instead of living in grace, we have missed the point. Our actions do not do anything for us if we do not have faith in Jesus Christ. Paul emphasizes that being circumcised or uncircumcised does not matter, but putting our faith into practice through love is what is important (TTP 102). We are called to live by the Spirit, as talked about in Galatians 5 (the fruit of the Spirit), and not by the flesh (what the world tells us we need to do).

  7. I think that what Paul was trying to say was similar to what has been pointed out in a couple of the comments ahead of mine. I agree that things do get in the way now days, those “markers” tend to be given more attention rather than the things that should be payed attention to as they are more important. Jesus Christ himself is truly most important and we should put our focus on that rather than any “markers” we may have today or back then.

  8. The Jews would be very upset, in the case that they are following all of the Laws that were given to them. Then Paul tells the Gentiles that they do not have to follow the Law to be saved. By doing this though is seems like Paul is trying to narrow down to what is the most important thing, that we should keep in mind today, and that is a relationship with Christ. No matter how much we try to live by the Law will not matter if in the end we do not have a relationship with Christ. The same thing kind of applies today, when everyone is trying to live like a Christian. At the same time we have to think, is there any type of relationship there, are we just trying to act the part or do what we think we have to? There is so much more behind it. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Gal. 3:13) We are also told in TTP that Paul says it is not whether we are circumcised or not, but putting faith in our love and actions that matter.

    • The Jews would be upset because they have believed and known the laws their entire lives, believing that works and the law was their way to salvation (TTP 90, 91). But then Paul told them they do not need to follow the law to be saved–a fundamental of their entire lives was challenged (Galatians 2:16). Paul calls the followers foolish for swaying towards the law to earn their salvation (Galatians 3: 1-4). So of course this would upset the agitators. Longenecker and Still purpose that the agitators’ goal may not have been to challenge Paul’s teachings but that they “imagined their message to coincide with Paul’s in some fashion” (90). It has also been proposed that they were undermining Paul’s credentials, whom they viewed as having a dubious reputation (TTP 90). Another idea is that the agitators could have been adding a step to salvation in that “putting faith in the Messiah was then to be followed by undergoing circumcision” and following the Mosaic Law (TTP 91). Regardless of their goal or intentions, the agitators were challenging God’s word and Paul’s teachings to the congregation of Galatia, and Paul wanted their influence on the congregation to end.

  9. Paul basically was rejecting the Law as a mean to salvation. Obviously the Jews would be crazy mad about it because it was something that they were teaching for ever, that through the Law you would obtain salvation. Paul was emphasizing that it wasn’t a matter of being circumcised or not, but his point was against the Jew teachers that got inside of the churches and were preaching that in order to have a life fulfilled by God, they had to follow the Law. The circumcision example was because it was a basic practice for the Jews. Nowadays there are things that we find ourselves obsessed to do thinking that because of our works, we will be saved, but we miss the point. Paul explains clearly that the Law was only given to in a certain way organize the people until the “Seed of Abraham” (Jesus) was to come and fulfill the gap of salvation (Gal 3:19).

    To follow the Law does not make us “more” Christians, Paul even said that if they were cirmcumcised Christ would be no value to them at all (Gal 5:2-3).

  10. For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.” This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later. One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

    If Paul rejects the Jewish boundary markers, what does this imply about the status of Gentiles in the present age? How does the book of Galatians address this issue?

    The only status difference I caught onto in Galations, and from reading Still and Longenecker’s book, is that the Gentiles might have seemed above the Law to the Jewish converts of Christ. The Jews had lived for generations believing that the rituals and instructions for their people would always make them the closest ones to God. Even though they were now followers of Christ, they still wanted the Gentiles to be more uniform with themselves. They especially focused on circumcision being important for the Gentiles to perform, however; Paul heavily denounced that idea saying that faith brougt them closer to the Lord than the Law did. Longenecker and Still said this, “Since Christ himself was cursed by. The law for having ‘hung on a tree'(Deut 21:23, cited in Galations 3:13) but was raised by God, he liberates others from the curse that the law pronounces on those who do not observes the law–evidently liberating them from having to observe the law so that the promised Spirit of God can be received through faith in Jesus Christ. (3:14),” (TTP, 100). This concept would have been unsettling to the Jews because they had always thought the Messiah was coming to redeem Israel and the Gentiles could only be considered their equals, in that sense, if they followed the Law (convert to Judaism first). I think that being told about not needing the Law anymore, and rather than elevating the Gentiles who already not following it, that Moreno just put them all on the same status level in my opinion. Their statuses were not different, they just needed to see the full picture, and understand that faith in
    Jesus is how we get away from sin and are separate from the world flesh, faith is all they needed after Christ’s resurrection and onward.

  11. Ephesians 2:8 says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. I believe that Paul was simply reminding the people that keeping the law is not only by action but by faith. Circumcision was a law that Jews followed. When Paul declared that circumcision was no longer necessary, he simply meant that circumcision was longer just a physical act, circumcision needed to be a spiritual act. Romans 2:29 says that “No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code”. Paul reminds us that Christ should be center reason why we keep the law. If we are keeping the law because it is whats required of us, and ignoring our relationship with Christ, then we should not even keep that law in the first place. Our relationship with Christ is what matters.

    • The commonly memorized and quoted Eph. 2:8 you mention has often been misinterpreted and contributed (with other factors) to development of the concept of “soul sorting”, or personal “ticket to heaven” that many exploring Evangelicals have found to be misleading, if not outright “wrong” in recent decades. I’m not saying you’re part of that… I have no idea. I agree a “relationship with Christ” matters and can be important for one’s spiritual development. But concepts of what such a relationship may be and represent vary widely within Christianity and other legitimate spirituality concepts.

      Having studied the Bible and Paul’s works specifically a whole lot, it seems apparent that neither Paul nor other biblical authors ever set out just what CONTENT, level, or consistency of faith is supposedly required to have one’s soul “saved” (or sins forgiven, become justified before God via expiation, or whatever). Mishandling this biblical reality negatively impacts many people, causing confusion, anxiety, etc. We need to develop, personally and together, more “whole(some)” and truly biblical understandings of “salvation”. And see Paul’s work more in relation to his ideas of transformation that do not revolve around specifics of theology which have historically, for now 2000 years, been subjects of hot debate and changes among Christians of equal sincerity.

  12. Being that Paul rejects the boundary markers of Judaism, he is saying it is obviously no longer needed. He addresses this multiple times in Galatians, even as far as getting after Peter in Galatians 2. Peter would eat with the Gentiles, but once James came along, he was afraid he would be judged so he separated himself from the uncircumcised. This led other Jews, as well as Barnabas, to be “led astray,” and so the same (Galatians 2:13).

    So Gentiles were equal with the Jews, as he said in Galatians 3:28, but it was just really hard for the Jewish Christians to understand and accept that, even people like Peter.

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