Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paul, the Mosaic Law, and Christian Convictions

Reading from Michael Bird’s brief Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message reminded me of just how difficult the problem of the continuing relevance of the Old Testament law was for the early church. Bird (p. 150) summarizes the four major perspectives on the law reflected in the early church:

• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who insisted on full observance of the Mosaic law, including circumcision.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision, but did require converts to keep some Jewish observances.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision or adherence to the Jewish food laws.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision, adherence to the Jewish food laws or Jewish cults and feasts.

The incredible thing about the early church may not be as much that they survived intense persecution from the outside as that they survived each other and were able to overcome the Jew/Gentile divide from within the church. Paul’s instructions on how mixed congregations were to handle their conflicting convictions concerning the Mosaic Law serve as a model for how Christians today can continue to worship and serve together in unity even when disagreeing over secondary matters of conscience or conviction.

Paul taught that believers in Jesus were no longer “under the law” (Rom 6:14-15; 7:1-6). The coming of Christ and the arrival of the eschatological age of salvation had brought epochal changes with regard to the role and function of the Mosaic law. Believers were no longer under law in that: 1) Christ had delivered them from the curse of disobedience to the law (Gal 3:10-14); 2) the 613 stipulations of the Mosaic law were no longer the regulating code for the covenant between God and his people (cf. 2 Cor 3; Gal 3:19-24; 4:4-5); 3) the boundary marking behaviors separating Jews from Gentiles (circumcision, diet, Sabbath) were rendered obsolete by the formation of Jews and Gentiles into one people (Gal 5:6; 6:15); and 4) Christ, rather than the law, had become the “goal” or focal point of God’s revelation (Rom 10:4). However, the Mosaic law itself had not become obsolete. As the eternal word of God, the law continued to fulfill its roles of exposing human sinfulness and providing a moral guide for those who live under “the law of Christ.”

The arrival of this new era of salvation history meant that the Mosaic law was not to be imposed upon Gentile believers and that Gentiles were not required to become Torah-observant Jews in order to become full members in the new covenant community. The apostles and leaders clearly articulated this principle at the Jerusalem Council when members of the circumcision party were insistent on circumcision and Torah observance as conditions for the full inclusion of Gentiles in the church:

And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Acts 15:7-11)

Paul’s rebuke of Peter at Antioch when Peter withdrew from eating with Gentile believers because of peer pressure from Jews belonging to “the circumcision party” reflects the importance of this insistence that Torah observance was not to be imposed on Gentile followers of Christ:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Gal 2:11-14)

By withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers, Peter was implying that these Gentiles did not have equal standing in the new covenant community and that they were second-class citizens unless they became fully Torah-observant. Paul confronted Peter for his hypocrisy, reminding his fellow-apostle that such behavior was inconsistent with the gospel message of justification through faith in Christ. The insistence that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians is what enabled Christianity to become a fully international movement. If the apostolic teaching had imposed Torah observance on Gentile believers, then Christianity would have become just another form of Jewish proselytism.

Paul’s instructions that Torah was not to be imposed on Gentiles in the church did not mean that Jewish believers were required to abandon their Jewish customs and practices. For reasons of culture, conscience, and testimony, the majority of Jewish believers likely continued to practice a Torah-observant lifestyle. Bird writes, “We should note that while Paul defended the right of Gentiles to be free from the forcible imposition of the law upon them, he did not demand that Jewish Christians give up all observance of the law” (p. 151). John McRay concurs: “I would suggest that no consideration of Paul’s teaching on the law can be deemed satisfactory if it does not recognize that he had one view of the law for a Jew and another for a Gentile.” (Paul: His Life and Teaching, p. 367). Mark Nanos, in his article “The Myth of the ‘Law-Free’ Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews,” makes a strong case for the idea that Paul continued for the most part to live a Torah-observant life even after his conversion to the Christian faith. In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul encourages believers to remain in the condition to which they were called (7:20), suggesting that Jewish Christian should continue with the customs they have practiced in the past. The book of Acts offers several examples of Paul’s practice of Torah: in 18:18, he cuts his hair in order to complete a (Nazirite?) vow; in 21:21-26, he performs rites of purification to counter the charge that he is encouraging fellow-Jews to abandon the law; and in 24:17-19, Paul recounts how he had been arrested when presenting alms and offerings at the Jerusalem temple. Paul also reminds the Corinthians of how he “became as a Jew in order to win Jesus” (1 Cor 9:19-23).

Jew-Gentile fellowship in the early church was made possible because two different convictions on Torah observance were allowed to peacefully coexist. Gentile Christians were given the freedom to not practice Torah observance, while Jewish believers were given the freedom to continue to practice many aspects of their former lifestyle. This same allowance for believers to practice their own convictions, while respecting those of others, carried over into other secondary issues of conscience. We learn from 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14-15 that the areas of major controversy in the early church revolved around food and fellowship. 1 Corinthians 8 informs us that some Christians believed that it was acceptable to eat meat that had been offered to idols; some did not. In Romans 14:1-15:7, there are some Christians who believe it is permissible to eat meat and drink wine and others who do not. There are some who observe the Jewish holy days and some who do not. In working through these issues, Paul allows believers to arrive at their own convictions. It is acceptable to do something or not do something that is morally neutral, and one is not better than the other. Bird comments: “Note that Paul does not argue for an uniform view of meat, drink and Sabbath observances, but recognizes the freedom of individuals to decide such matters for themselves. This is born out of the conviction that what unites Christians is infinitely stronger than anything that might tear them apart” (p. 153).

Christian love does not require that I surrender my personal convictions, but it does demand that I allow other believers the same freedom to live by their convictions, even when theirs are different from mine. Paul reminds us that if we are truly practicing Christian love, then the spiritual well-being of others will take priority over my personal convictions:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.(Rom 14:5-8)

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (Rom 14:17-19)

Bird (p. 154) offers these summarizing principles from Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8 on how Christians today should deal with issues of conscience and conviction:

• Learn to differentiate between areas of conviction and areas of command
• Don’t major on minor doctrines
• Withhold judgment where the gospel is not threatened
• Exercise your convictions to build others up, not to tear them down
• Do not exchange freedom in Christ for slavery to human tradition
• At all time act in love and fulfill the law of Christ.

Through the Spirit’s enablement, the fledgling church experienced remarkable harmony under the most difficult of circumstances as Jews and Gentiles came together to form the body of Christ. Paul’s willingness to set aside his own past prejudices concerning the standing of Gentiles before God is in itself a powerful testimony to the transformative power of the gospel message. When we constantly hear of secondary issues that divide Christians or that keep them from working together in fulfillment of the church’s mission, It seems a shame that we are not doing a better job of living out this reality in the American church 2,000 years later.


  1. Once again, well written and thought out. I had a student this summer who, although a Gentile, participates in a Messianic church that remains observant to the Sabbath and Torah to this day. I think this article is an excellent, thought provoking reminder of this issue in Paul's day.

    Keep up the good writing.

  2. The million dollar question becomes - what are these secondary issues as the faith once delivered is assaulted?
    - gay christian?
    - Joel Osteen's "gospel"?
    - Rick Warren's influence?
    - unity first, doctrine second?
    - Ted Kennedy's plea to the Pope?
    - Truth is relative?

    I think many "secondary issues" today are often times viewed as "un-Christ like" when it really boils down to folks being obedient and maintaining and defending the authority of scripture. A "conviction" is utterly useless without God's word.

    Too often folks use their "conscience" as nothing but an excuse to undermine God's clear directives and the church buys into that hook line and sinker. In other words, the world now leads the church- never a good thing. The church should be doing a better job of defining the Primary issues; sin, repentance, Christ Jesus, and ones's eternity. Never popular among the world and usually considered "secondary" issues.

    Nonetheless, good advice by Bird to re-consider, Thanks! Blessings!

  3. Re. the term “Jewish Christians”:

    To differentiate, A logical analysis (found in www.netzarim.co.il (Netzarim.co.il is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) (including the logical implications of the research by Ben-Gurion Univ. Prof. of Linguistics Elisha Qimron of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT) of all extant source documents of “the gospel of Matthew” (which is a redaction of Netzarim Hebrew Matityahu (which was perfectly in harmony with Torah) and anti-Torah) and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

    Judaism and Christianity have always been two antithetical religions, thefore the terms “Jewish Christians”, “Christian Jews”, etc., are oxymorons.

    The mitzwot (directives or military-style orders) in Torah (claimed in Tan’’kh (the Jewish Bible) to be the instructions of the Creator), the core of the Judaism, are an indivisible whole. Rejecting any one constitutes rejecting of the whole… and the Church rejected many mitzwot, for example rejecting to observe the Shabat on the seventh day in the Jewish week. Examples are endless. Devarim (“Deuteronomy”) 13.1-6 explicitly precludes the Christian “NT”. Devarim 13:1-6 forbids the addition of mitzwot and subtraction of mitzwot from Torah.

    Ribi Yehoshuas talmidim Netzarim still observes Torah non-selectively to their utmost today and the research in the previous mentioned Netzarim-website implies that becoming one of Ribi Yehoshuas Netzarim-followers is the only way to follow him.

    Anders Branderud