The thin end of the wedge

Sometimes, when there’s a conflict or difference of opinion, compromise is the most expedient solution: I’ll give up something if you give up something. That’s not to say it’s the best solution. Compromise can be a way of calming things down quickly, but it too often avoids the longer and harder discussion that could generate a more creative and satisfactory answer for both parties. The underlying differences, after all, haven’t really been resolved, and may come roaring back with a vengeance later. Moreover, some compromises that seem small now may grow in importance over time. Such unintended consequences may be even more difficult to deal with than the original problem.

As we’ve seen, Jewish Christians — including Peter himself — struggled with their newfound sense of identity. They first had to accept that their Messiah was a man who was crucified on a Roman cross. Then they had to wrestle with the implications of the Gentile mission. Previously, some Gentiles, who had shown an honest interest in Israel’s God, were considered “God-fearers.” But the rest were considered pagans and sometimes derisively referred to as dogs. Could Jewish believers embrace large numbers of Gentiles into this newly reconstituted people of God?

For some, the answer was “yes,” but only on condition of an important compromise: the Gentiles had to be circumcised.

For Paul, this was unthinkable. He had already publicly confronted Peter on this topic. The Jerusalem council had also officially declared circumcision unnecessary. But the issue wouldn’t go away, and Paul wanted to make absolutely sure that the Philippians didn’t fall into same theological trap as the Galatians did. Here is the text again, this time from the Common English Bible:

Watch out for the “dogs.” Watch out for people who do evil things. Watch out for those who insist on circumcision, which is really mutilation. We are the circumcision. We are the ones who serve by God’s Spirit and who boast in Christ Jesus. We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body… (Phil 3:2-3, CEB)

Paul’s language is salty, attention-grabbing. His words are meant to overturn any pretensions the Judaizers — “those who insist on circumcision” — might have to being on the righteous side of the issue. He calls them “dogs,” flipping the typical insult back onto these Jewish believers. He calls them (literally) “evil workers,” rather than doers of what’s right and good. And although English translations typically render that last warning as again directed at the Judaizers, it’s actually directed at what they’re proposing: circumcision, which Paul (with a bit of wordplay in the Greek) relabels “mutilation.”

It’s nothing less than a rhetorical slap in the face. As some scholars suggest, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there actually were Judaizers in Philippi when Paul wrote the letter. If there were, we’d probably expect him to say more, as he does in Galatians. But Paul had dealt with such issues so often that he knew the threat couldn’t be ignored.

What was the threat? Only that circumcision, which might seem to some to be a reasonable compromise, was the thin end of a theological wedge that would undermine the gospel.

Before we deal with the theological threat, however, we need to ask how much of a threat it was, realistically. Were there enough Jewish converts in Philippi to create significant social pressure? Would any of the Philippians actually have submitted to circumcision? It’s impossible to say. But don’t forget: the Philippians were under the gun from their neighbors. Judaism was sanctioned by the state as an ancient religion to be respected. Some Philippians, then, may have seen circumcision as a way to prove they had converted to Judaism and should therefore be left alone.

To Paul, though, any such compromise would come with theological consequences. First of all, he says, “We are the circumcision”: You Gentiles there in Philippi, together with me, Paul, a Jew and a Pharisee — we and others like us are the chosen people of God! Furthermore, we “serve by God’s Spirit” and not according to anything having to do with our flesh, even as time-honored a ritual as circumcision.

But the key here is the contrast — really, the opposition — between “boasting” in Jesus and “putting confidence” in the flesh. The issue, as he frames it in other letters, is the question of the basis of our salvation. Are we saved solely by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ? Or are there additional conditions that must be met so that, as some Judaizers argued, one cannot be saved without being circumcised first (e.g., Acts 15:1)?

For Paul, requiring circumcision isn’t a compromise: it’s a rejection of the gospel. Adding any other requirement, whether circumcision or any of the hundreds of regulations in the Law of Moses, is a betrayal of the good news that salvation comes only — only! — by the unearned grace of God through faith.

This is not an abstract theological point for a bygone era. What Paul is saying here is still of utmost importance for the church. In what do we “boast,” if not in the grace that comes by way of the cross? That’s the question we’ll take up in the next post.

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