When Compromise Compromises the Gospel

Galatians 2:3-5

(3) But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was not compelled to be circumcised (4) because of false brothers smuggled in (who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus in order to enslave us), (5) to whom we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Paul Refuses to Compromise on Circumcision

In the first two chapters of Galatians, Paul has so far been concerned to show that his gospel message and his apostolic commission are directly from God rather than mediated through humans and thus subject to the almost inevitable corruption of human interest. He also has made a point of showing that in his time serving Jesus he has actually avoided easy and obvious opportunities to ingratiate himself with Church leadership in Jerusalem. It would have made sense for him to spend more than two weeks in Jerusalem and to more intentionally rub shoulders with Church leaders, but he didn’t. If he had wanted to move up in the organization’s ranks, he probably should have spent more than just two weeks in Jerusalem during the first 15 or so years of his Christian life.

When he finally did go to Jerusalem, he apparently discovered that the ranks of Church leadership were dotted with men who believed that you had to adopt certain Jewish customs in order to be fully reconciled to God. It would have been expedient for him to at least give in a little bit to these men. Indeed, elsewhere in his writings we see Paul instructing us to strive for unity, to bear with our brothers and sisters who have weaker consciences, and not to judge a brother because they think you cannot eat meat or you should worship on one day over another.

But in this case in Jerusalem, Paul would have none of it. He did not even permit Titus to be circumcised to make them happy. This is because, in Paul’s understanding of the gospel, compromise of this sort would not simply have been about unity. Rather it would have undercut the integrity of the entire gospel and of Christ’s work on the cross. And Paul concludes the first half of chapter two by noting that the real pillars of the Church in Jerusalem – James, John, and Peter – had nothing whatsoever to add to Paul’s gospel. Led by the Spirit, he had independently come to an understanding of the gospel of Jesus that was completely compatible with that held by the original followers of Jesus. What this shows is that the compromise demanded by the “pseudo-brethren” was not the kind of compromise that would have led to a healthy unity.

Healthy and Unhealthy Compromise

This is an important point worth reflecting on, not least because of a rash of schisms afflicting many denominations in recent years over certain social issues. It is not my intention to take a side on doctrinal matters, but I do want to observe the way “unity” has been invoked in a manipulative way. A pattern appears to have emerged in the behavior of those supporting one particular side of an especially contentious debate. One side, whose position in this debate challenges tradition and violates the conscience of their denomination’s more traditional members, lobbies for years at the highest levels to get their position voted in by a central governing body within the denomination. While their position may actually represent a minority of denominational members, they manage through savvy navigation of political processes and public relations to achieve a slim majority when the vote actually comes.

This predictably upsets the traditional members of the denomination, since often they feel that this issue is not just an average issue but one that strikes at the very core of their Christian identity (perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t, but that’s the way they feel). Because of this, the traditional members threaten to leave the denomination. The minority party who has just achieved a victory in the vote now condescendingly chastises the traditional majority and instructs them to accept the vote in the name of “unity.” They publicly and loudly express sorrow over their brothers who are creating a schism in their denomination. But here’s my question: if they were so concerned about unity, why did they lobby for a vote they knew would be contentious and work to get it approved by a slim margin. Perhaps they also felt that compromise on this issue would have violated the heart of their Christian identity. My point, though, is that there is no grace being shown the traditional members in accommodating their strong feelings on the matter.

What would Paul say here? First, I doubt Paul would have had much sympathy with people who use political processes to get into positions of authority in a denomination. That was what the “pseudo-brethren” did. Second, if Paul allowed that the minority party held a view that was not inherently contrary to Christ, he would say to the minority party:

“Accept anyone who is weak in faith … decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in your brother’s way … [F]or if your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love … it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats. It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” (Romans 14:1, 13, 15, 20-21, HCSB)

“Eating” here can stand for the non-traditional view held by the minority party. Perhaps the traditional party are weak in their faith (perhaps not). But if the minority party were truly and biblically concerned about unity, they would never have attempted to get their position voted in until there was a clear majority on the issue, and maybe not even then. If compromise can be demanded of one side, it can also be demanded of the other side. It is noteworthy in Romans 14, moreover, that Paul writes to those who are strong in faith, not those who are weak in faith. One can say that much of the rest of his writings, particularly Galatians, seem to be written to those who are weak in faith, but that’s not where he invokes the concept of unity. In other words, “striving for unity” is something he urges of those who are mature, who are strong in faith. It is not a concept Paul gives to those who are “strong in faith” as a means of bringing those who are “weak in faith” into line. So the pattern of behavior I have seen play out in several denominations regarding this issue is an unbiblical – and manipulative – invocation of the biblical concept of unity.

But Paul himself, the one who urges us to strive above all for unity and to accommodate each other in grace has told us in Galatians 2 how he did not compromise for the sake of unity with those demanding circumcision. Instead, he calls them “pseudo-brethren”. So there is a point for Paul where compromise would produce only a toxic kind of unity.

How then do we identify the difference between a compromise that would violate the gospel itself and one that does not, no matter how strongly we feel about it? Taking Galatians 2 as our primary example (and the example by which we must judge even that venerable schism, the Protestant Reformation) it must be an issue where compromise contradicts the core of the gospel message. Discerning this, however, requires that we be able to accurately articulate a biblical gospel message. Fortunately, the rest of Galatians helps us with this.

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