Daily Office Readings – New Testament ( Acts 15:36-16:5 )

After we finished morning prayer today, a few of us commented on the scripture readings for the day, one of which was the passage from Acts, where we find that Paul had Timothy get circumcised. Beyond the obvious “ouch” of performing this procedure on a grown man, there was talk as to why Paul would have allowed this to happen, since we know that the early church had already reached the decision that they would not force non-Jews to get circumcised, and Paul himself was part of the decision. It seemed like this was in direct conflict to what Paul himself preached about faith being a matter of a “circumcised heart.”

Timothy was well respected by the believers in Lystra, and we find that Paul asked him to get circumcised because of the Jews who lived there. In other words, Paul was asking Timothy to get circumcised to make non-believers happy. It seems odd that he would do such a thing, especially when we know that he didn’t ask some of his other disciples to get a circumcision (e.g. Titus). Since Timothy was half Jewish, it seems that Paul wanted to make sure that Timothy’s heritage, and his adherence to that heritage, could not be questioned. In other words, if Timothy ever tried to convert anyone of the Jews living in the area, his own heritage would not cause them to question his legitimacy. In other words, Paul asked Timothy to conform to the cultural norm with a focus on outreach and missionary work.

The Roman Catholic Church was adept at this sort of syncretism when they sent out their missionary priests. As long as the local culture and beliefs were not in direct conflict with the word of God, the priest could adapt the Gospel message to incorporate elements of the local culture into the rituals of belief. This is why we have such varied beliefs and practices among Christians throughout the world, and it emphasizes the diversity of God’s creation. This too is conformity to the local culture, with an eye on outreach.

Too often, it seems that churches celebrate the flip side of conformity. Instead of allowing the culture to define the church’s response, the church requires people to conform to a particularly narrow view of what is acceptable: clothing, behavior, and even thinking. The end result is a group of Stepford Believers who think, act, and behave just the way they are supposed to.

I’ve seen it happen where someone comes to church, dressed all in black, with colored, spiked hair, wearing chains and combat boots, listening to the latest and greatest heavy metal – and then several months later you find that that person is now wearing skirts, blouses, cardigan sweaters and beautiful high heeled shoes. This didn’t happen overtly, and didn’t happen overnight, but somehow the idea that “good Christians don’t do that” permeated someone’s life to such an extent that they gave up the exciting and diverse person that they were to become just like everyone else merely to fit in and be accepted.

It didn’t matter if this person had a beautiful relationship with God or not. The end result was that the person was not fully accepted until they conformed to the Church, rather than being fully accepted for who they are, just as they are.

But the church is supposed to be a body of missionary people and we are to reach out to those around us. It’s not just missions to far off lands, but missions to those that are different from us even within our own local community, those that live within walking distance from our churches. We should be bringing the church to people, rather than just bringing people to the church. And we cannot do this if we do not allow ourselves to be challenged by other ways of being, other ways of appearing, other ways of doing, especially when those ways still hold dear to a relationship with God. We cannot be a missionary people if we are unwilling to go where we are the one that is different, where we do not fit in, even if that place is just down the street.

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