What can we learn from this act, required by the Apostle Paul?
We read in Acts 16:3 that the apostle Paul “circumcised Timothy” because of the Jews who lived in the area of Lystra in Galatia.
Is this the same Paul who opposed so strongly the Judaizers (Acts 15:1) and wrote vehemently against the imposition of circumcision on Gentile converts to Christianity (Galatians 1:6-9; 3:1-5; 5:2-6)?
Why is he requiring circumcision of a young man who has a Jewish mother and a Gentile father and who has become a Christian along with his mother and grandmother (Lois)?
Has he lost his mind? Does he show inconsistency by first opposing and then requiring circumcision of converts to Christianity?
If we look at these questions from the point of view of Paul and his vocation to be the apostle to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews living in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire, then there is an answer which maintains Paul’s consistency!
It is this:
That once the basic principle that circumcision is not necessary for salvation & entry into the kingdom of heaven and into the Church of God has been established (which had been established in the Church by the time of Paul’s visit to Lystra recorded in Acts 16), then it may be most useful in some cases for the performance of the missionary vocation of the Church. Timothy had entrance into two different communities in the Roman Empire --- into the Jewish community being the son of a Jewish woman and thus a Jew, & and into the Gentile community by reason of having a Gentile father. Entrance into the Jewish community and synagogue as a missionary would be the easier if he were circumcised. So Paul required or asked for his circumcision. What was not necessary for his acceptance with God the Father was deemed advisable for acceptance by some human beings (the Jewish Diaspora).
There is in the action required by Paul of Timothy a basic principle that the Church from time to time has appealed to in the pursuance of her vocation in the world. However, this principle can easily be mis-applied and mis-used!
An obvious example of the application of this principle is by the Roman Catholic Church allowing the reception and ordination of former ordained Anglican Ministers, who are married, as Priests in the Roman Church. The fixed rule is a celibate Priesthood, but concessions are made when the unity of the Church and her mission require such a concession.
Another is the allowing in the Church of England of the marriage of a divorced person in church. The standard rule is that marriage is for life and there is no remarriage unless the spouse has died. Yet exceptions are made in certain circumstances. (Here of course the principle can be applied in too generously in liberal times.)
Another could be – but I doubt it – the use of non-fermented grape juice for Holy Communion in an Anglican Eucharist in North America. At the recent Essentials Conference in Ottawa at the end of August 2004, the normal sacramental, fermented wine used by Canadian Anglicans was not used. Why so? Out of respect for the Pentecostal denomination, whose tabernacle was being used for the Conference, grape juice was used (because this denomination uses grape juice in its advocacy of no alcohol). This meant that some persons present did not feel able to share in this Eucharist for it was not in their judgment a Eucharist as Christ instituted.
IT SEEMS to be the case that in the present crisis of Anglicanism in the West/North that this principle will be most useful and applicable in various situations and circumstances that will arise (I have some possibilities in mind but will not mention them here). The danger is that in acting hastily, it will not be applied with sufficient care and wisdom.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon October 1, 2004