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"Christ will be of no benefit to you." —
The ELCA and the New Circumcision

by Julie A. Smith, Clarkfield, MN

Date unknown

In my very brief career as a piano student I was taught one important principle for learning to play. Start by learning the right hand, then learn the left hand, then put both hands together. Separately, the two parts each make a kind of music. A melody emerges. A bass-line pulse can be heard. Each hand has its own purpose and tone, but when put together the two parts transform each other and the fullness of the music comes to life.

The Right Hand: Text

The text is our melody. It is the story we have to tell. It’s a rather simple melody: Jesus Christ – incarnate, crucified, risen, all for our sake. This basic melody has countless arrangements, some stark and simple, others intricate and complex. But no matter the arrangement, the melody comes through: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. The particular arrangement of the Jesus story we will focus on is Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

For those of us who tend to preach from texts assigned by the lectionary or printed on bulletin inserts, preaching Galatians presents something of a challenge. Fully half of the text of Galatians is absent from the Revised Common Lectionary. In a six-chapter epistle composed of a rather tight argument, the omission is problematic. The Galatians passages that do appear in the lectionary are grouped together during the season after Pentecost in Year C. This does provide an opportunity to preach a series of sermons on Galatians. Unfortunately, the heart of Galatians is cut from the lectionary, so, if sticking to the assigned texts, one would be preaching a series of sermons on the empty shell of Galatians.

One wishing to preach on Galatians would be better served by abandoning the lectionary and creating an opportunity, or opportunities, to preach Paul’s great epistle without the editorial assistance of the lectionary. The story of Galatians is not so very complicated, but because the letter is so tightly woven together the particulars of the letter make the most sense within the context of the entire story, observing how the particular passage serves the argument. For the purposes of this essay, the particular text which will serve as a lens for the story of Paul’s letter is Galatians 5:1-12.

In chapter five Paul spells out in no uncertain terms precisely what is at stake in the disagreement taking place among the Christians in Galatia. Certain people from James had come to Galatia insisting that the Gentile Christians in Galatia needed to be circumcised. If these Gentile Christians hoped to be heirs to the promises of Abraham, they needed to live by the same set of rules that the rest of Abraham’s children lived by. They needed to abide by the terms of the covenant. In particular, they needed to accept circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham. Accepting that sign was part and parcel with coming under the covenant.

What is strange about this visit by the men from James is that the matter of circumcision was supposed to have been settled when Paul went up to Jerusalem and met with the acknowledged pillars (2:6ff). At that meeting the Jerusalem leaders agreed that Paul had been sent as an apostle to the uncircumcised just as Peter had been sent to the circumcised. When Paul met with the leaders in Jerusalem they gave him the right hand of fellowship and gave no indication that they intended to insist that the Gentiles be circumcised. Even the Greek Titus, who had accompanied Paul on the journey to Jerusalem and was a co-worker in the gospel with Paul, was not compelled to be circumcised. The discussion should have been over.

Having been given the right hand of fellowship by the acknowledged pillars in Jerusalem, and being assured that he was not running in vain by not demanding circumcision, Paul went on his way, proclaiming the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter went to the circumcised. But then even after this agreement had been reached, men from James came into Antioch and as a result Peter cut off his table fellowship with the Gentile Christians. Paul gives us very little information about what led to Peter’s change of heart. He does not tell us what the men from James did or said. He does not tell us what their line of reasoning was. He simply tells us that somehow the “circumcision faction” (2:12) inspired fear in Peter, enough fear so that he stopped eating with the Gentiles. He agreed to abide by a set of rules he did not believe in, and thus, tacitly endorsed the position of the circumcision faction.

Paul had no patience for Peter’s hypocrisy. He publicly condemned Peter’s actions because Peter’s own actions condemned themselves. Since Peter was living like a Gentile, having broken the dietary laws, he had no basis upon which to expect the Gentiles to live like Jews. Jews and Gentiles alike are justified by faith in Jesus, not by works of the law. The law could not be used to make distinction between Christians. Paul insisted that Peter and the circumcision party were acting in a manner inconsistent with the truth of the gospel. The continued requirement of the law for fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians effectively nullified the grace of God. It meant Christ had died for nothing. If justification came through the law there was no reason for faith in Jesus.

This disagreement as to the nature of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians was nothing new. It was as old as the Christian movement itself. The trouble in Galatia, and the occasion for the letter, was that the Gentiles were beginning to believe the argument of the circumcision faction. They were beginning to believe that they were lacking something. Perhaps Paul had not told them everything. Perhaps they needed to reconsider the matter of circumcision. If they really were free in the gospel, circumcision certainly would not hurt them, and it would repair the breach between the Galatians and Peter and the circumcision faction. And in case Paul was mistaken about that freedom he kept talking about, their bases would be covered.

By submitting to circumcision the Galatians had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Or so they thought until they receive Paul’s letter and found that they may have something to lose after all. They had salvation to lose. In case there had been any confusion about Paul’s point in the first four chapters of the letter, chapter five spells everything out quite clearly. I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised Christ will be of no benefit to you.. . . You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5:2, 4). Circumcision was proving a threat to the very work Jesus had done on the cross. There was nothing harmless about it.

But if neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counted for anything, how could salvation be an issue? If this was a matter of indifference, why weren’t the Galatians free to compromise? What’s the problem here? Paul offers two explanations on why this issue is so important and why there is no room for compromise: a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough and the offense of the cross is removed. Accepting even one part of the law leavens the whole batch of the gospel into a legal system. The Galatians cannot be choosy about which portions of the law to abide. If the law is going to play any role in their justification then they are obligated to obey the entire law. If they do not, they stand condemned.

The true message about the cross is radical and offensive. It leaves no room for compromise. Those who say otherwise, those who are confusing the Galatians by introducing bits and pieces of the law as though they are harmless, will pay the penalty for theiractions. Paul’s strongest words of reprimand are not for the Galatians themselves. The Galatians have behaved foolishly, like children, bewitched by the smooth words of flatterers (3:1; 4:17). Paul certainly is not happy with them. But Paul’s real target is the circumcision faction. They have led the Galatians astray. The offense of the cross, the notion that Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished what the law could not, had been removed by those who continued to preach circumcision. They obscured Jesus’ work by over-emphasizing their own.

In 5:12 Paul can contain himself no longer and explodes, wishing the circumcision faction would just cut the whole thing off and be done. We see in this outburst how the ongoing debate with the circumcision faction had begun to wear on Paul. This had ceased to be a theological debate. It was no longer an in house discussion among the acknowledged pillars. When they came into Galatia with their gospel of circumcision the men from James put Paul’s congregation in jeopardy by raising doubts about the gospel of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. The issue had become very personal, no longer a theological abstraction that could be debated without any real consequences. The salvation of the Galatians hung in the balance.

In chapter five Paul plays the melody of Jesus Christ crucified in the most stark and clear arrangement possible. Gone are the complex chords of theological abstraction. The melody of the gospel comes through one clear note at a time. The Galatians have been set free from the curse of the law by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the letter Paul is quite clear that the Gentiles are already heirs to the promises of Abraham. They are already full-fledged members of the family of faith. Through the cross Jesus has accomplished this for them. Any attempts to improve upon the work Christ has already done, by performing works of the law, is, in fact, falling away from grace. It is submitting again to a yoke of slavery. The result of such action is to lose the benefit of Christ, to lose the kingdom.

The Left Hand: Context

Context is our bass line. It’s the pulse that beats through our lives. At the sound of the word “context” all kinds of options come to mind: Clarkfield, the prairies of Minnesota, the upper midwest, the United States, the Northern hemisphere. Or perhaps Mainline American Protestantism, the ELCA, the Southwestern Minnesota Synod, the Lac Qui Parle Conference, or Augustana, Bergen, and Swede Home Lutheran Parish more closely fits the bill. Any one or any combination of these could provide the bass line we’re looking for. Any one could anchor us in a particular time and place. Any one could tell us to whom the text will be speaking.

Since August 1999, a new context has emerged and taken over the bass clef. That new context is membership in a denomination, the ELCA, which threatens to come apart at the seams over a recent ecumenical decision. At the 1999 Churchwide Assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America accepted, by more than the required two-thirds majority, the ecumenical proposal Called to Common Mission. This proposal, if passed by the Episcopal Church, USA, will establish “full communion” between the ELCA and ECUSA. To reach this agreement the ELCA took a step unprecedented in Lutheran ecumenical relations. The ELCA agreed to accept the Anglican historic episcopate as a term of the agreement.

As a result of this decision by the Churchwide Assembly, a major rift has developed within the ELCA. Some supporters of Called to Common Mission see in it a golden opportunity to take a step toward reconciliation of the western church, which was rent asunder by the Reformation. They say Called to Common Mission breaks down one of the barriers in the church, paving the way for increased partnerships between churches that already share a great deal of common theological ground. Others see Called to Common Mission as an important official endorsement and expansion of existing partnerships between Lutherans and Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church, USA and ELCA Lutherans have had an interim agreement since 1982 and, for some, Called to Common Mission is simply thelogical conclusion to that agreement.

Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons Lutherans across the country are rising up in protest. Some protest because the church undertook an action over which there is so little agreement. Despite widespread public opposition to the full communion proposal the leaders of the church steamed ahead, taking a calculated risk that the fallout would be minimal. Others protest because all the attention Called to Common Mission gives to bishops in historic succession is an affront to their piety. These folks are frequently labeled upper midwest pietist congregationalists who simply do not fully understand the concept of a church structure apart from their particular congregation. Still others are convinced that a top-down approach to ecumenism is a move in the wrong direction in what appears to be an emerging context of “post-denominationalism.” At a time when free churches seem to be booming in America while mainline denominations continue to experience steady decline, this move toward greater emphasis on structure seems counter-intuitive and just not very smart. And finally, there are those who find the whole business idolatrous, arguing that with Called to Common Mission a human institution has been raised to the level of a necessary mark of the church.

While supporters and opponents of Called to Common Mission continue to argue the issues, some searching for common ground, others (in both camps)awaiting what seems an inevitable break, the vast majority of ELCA Lutherans are indifferent to the issue, or simply unaware that there is an issue at all. Some among this group simply defer to the leaders of the church and the actions of churchwide assembly. They trust that the official position of the church on any given issue will be consistent with the central teaching of Lutheranism. Others just do not pay much attention to churchwide activities. To many pastors Called to Common Mission is just another piece in the flood of mail and paperwork generated by church headquarters. It can be ignored just like the rest of the churchwide mailings. The real action of the church is in congregations, and the assumption is that Called to Common Mission will not have much effect on local congregations. It’s only an ordination issue.

So if the majority of the ELCA is totally uninterested in Called to Common Mission how can it be said that the issues surrounding Called to Common Mission are so important to questions of context? The reason is simple. Even though it directly involves a relatively small percentage of the membership of the ELCA, the current battle over Called to Common Mission is a fight for the very soul of the church. Through the lens of this issue we will soon see whether the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American has the courage to live by faith.

That may seem a bit overblown. Surely something as innocuous as a few extra hands on the heads of bishops will not prevent the proclamation of the gospel in Clarkfield. Surely congregations will be able to go right along without ever really being affected by the historic episcopate. Most members of the ELCA will not even know it exists.

But proclamation of the freedom of the gospel is bound to be obscured by the creeping legalism of institutional hierarchy in the church. If members of the church pay any attention to the ELCA at all they will begin to hear the dissonance of our song. The people of Clarkfield will see the growing chasm, the officially sanctioned chasm, between what we believe and what we do. We believe in a functional office of ministry but we adopt a sacramental office of ministry. We believe only those things that convey justification are signs of the church, but we call the historic episcopate a sign of the church. We believe that the historic episcopate is not really necessary, but we have agreed to require it in all future ordinations.

The disparity between belief and practice threatens the proclamation of the gospel in Clarkfield. Finally, it will become clear that two different songs are really being played. The actions of the ELCA are one song and the supposed beliefs of the ELCA are another. In the end the actions will speak louder than the words, as they always do. Talking about freedom will not change the fact that the ELCA is building the walls to its own prison. It is building back up the very thing that was torn down (2:18).

In addition to the confusion it causes within ELCA congregations, this disparity between belief and practice is a failure to fulfill the calling to bear witness to the freedom of the gospel. If Lutherans claim to believe that Word and sacrament define the church, that faithful proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments among the assembly of believers is sufficient, but retreat to a human institution in search of legitimacy, the church demonstrates itself a transgressor. Why would anyone believe the gospel Lutherans want to proclaim if Lutherans prove too afraid to trust that gospel?

In agreeing to accept the historic episcopate the ELCA has given up the most important gift it brings to the table of ecumenical discussions. It has given up the clear articulation of the freedom of the gospel. Theological word games have drowned out the confessional voice of the Lutheran Church. The left hand is a mess. The bass line is a confused jumble of competing chords and stray notes. This bass line will have tremendous difficulty anchoring the song.

Both Hands Together: Proclamation

The task of the preacher is to put both hands together and give voice to the text within a particular context, even while the context conditions the reading of the text. Galatians is a powerful text at any time, since it addresses the all too common desire for something more concrete than faith. Paul’s epistle always has the power to speak to the human heart. The refrain of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is difficult to miss. We are reminded that Galatians has always pushed reform, never allowing one to turn aside from the unconditional freedom of the gospel. But in the current context the melody of Galatians sings even more powerfully over the racket of the confused bass line. The relentless refrain of Jesus Christ crucified for our sake can work to get the left hand back in time and on tune.

Simply letting the text of Galatians be heard is a step in the right direction. This foundational document of the Lutheran faith is rarely allowed to sing its whole song to the Lutheran church. The full song of Galatians would practically preach itself in the ELCA at the present moment. The introduction of the historic episcopate into the ELCA closely, though not perfectly, parallels the introduction of circumcision into the church in Galatia. It is not a perfect parallel because the historic episcopate is not being directly linked to justification in Called to Common Mission. But in both cases something in addition to the saving work of Christ is required for unity among Christians. In both cases a legal requirement has been deemed necessary in order for Jesus’ work to actually be effective. In both cases something that was once known has been forgotten. The ELCA and the churches in Galatia both forgot the gospel that was once proclaimed to them.

The ELCA, in all three of its expressions – congregation, synod, churchwide – is a church living in fear, fear of the dwindling of mainline churches, fear of coming apart at the seams, fear of having legitimacy neither with Rome or Canterbury, nor with Evangelical Protestantism. The ELCA has forgotten who it is. It has forgotten where it came from. It has forgotten its scriptural and confessional heritage. It is casting about for an anchor, an identity, and seems unsure where to look, frantically searching for what will hold this big church together.

In Galatians Paul tells us exactly where to look. Only Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, can hold the church together. And Jesus is doing precisely that. Through his death and resurrection Christ made us all heirs to the promises of Abraham. The whole Christian church on earth has been united in the body of Christ. Jesus did not need our help in accomplishing that. He did not need tedious legal agreements between non-profit institutions. He simply declared it and made it so. Our calling is not to create unity in the church. Rather, it is to declare the unity that already exists. It is to declare without apology or compromise that Christ is sufficient; the work has been done. Freedom has been granted.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (5:1).” That is the promise and the task Paul proclaims to us in Galatians. Christ has already freed us from everything that would enslave us: elemental spirits, sin, the law, death. We are called to hold onto that freedom with everything we have. We cannot hold on with one hand while reaching for something a little more concrete with the other. This promise is all that is worthy of our trust. It is all that can save us.

When we put both hands together and proclaim Galatians in a particular context we are called to name and reject anything or anyone that would turn us away from the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified. In every context there are powers at work, attempting to make Christ’s followers unsure of the sufficiency of his promises. The ELCA is certainly not unique in that regard. The task of proclaimers of the Word is to prevent those powers from creating doubt in any of God’s children. Faithful proclamation of the gospel creates the believers who hear it.

When the right hand is played with clarity and precision it will become clear which of the competing notes in the left hand are out of key. When the stray notes from the left hand are eliminated the richness of how the treble and bass clefs work on each other can be heard. The gospel is given life and flesh in a real fellowship of believers. It ceases to be words on a page and becomes a life-giving Word. When put to work in a context the isolated melody becomes a song.

As long as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continues its course of implementing Called to Common Mission it will continue to be convicted by Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The left hand, the ELCA, will continue to be off key and out of time. It will continue to obscure, even drown out, the melody of the gospel. Preaching the text of Galatians in the context of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America demands nothing less than the relentless and unswerving proclamation that the ELCA has fallen away from grace by looking to something other than Christ to unify the church. The freedom of the gospel cannot be harmonized with the new circumcision of a required, sacramental historic episcopate.