By Karen L. Willoughby
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP) – To first-century Jewish Christians in Acts 15, there was just one solution to the problem of gentile believers: they had to become circumcised.
[img_assist|nid=7159|title=Jeff Iorg|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=80|height=100]The uproar caused by the spread of the gospel to gentiles in Antioch provides a case study of how issues related to the gospel and culture should be handled, said Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the most multi-cultural seminary in the world, the president said. He discussed “The Gospel and Culture” at The Gathering for Spiritual Awakening, which took place at Southern Hills Baptist Church March 2-4 for Native Peoples from across North America.
Natives understood what he was saying because he used a story that they could relate to in their cultural context, several said later. “The scales fell off my eyes,” said Pandora Watchman of the Navajo nation.
Was circumcision a matter of doctrinal conviction, spiritual commitment or personal preference? Heated debate surrounded the question, said Iorg in pointing out that confronting believers is sometimes part of preserving fellowship.
Frivolous reasons, sinful choices and false teaching all must be confronted by people who stand for doctrinal integrity, Iorg said. At the same time, preserving fellowship is a priority.
“The fundamental challenge is identifying convictions and holding them without compromise, while at the same time demonstrating and patience and grace with other believers who have differing commitments and preferences,” Iorg said.
Paul argued in Acts 15 against the need for circumcision as proof of conversion, yet in Acts 16 for the sake of the gospel he circumcised Timothy, Iorg pointed out.
Convictions define the Christian faith, are non-negotiable among true believers and are worth dying for, Iorg explained. Commitments define vital issues for Christians, vary among believers and are the basis of fellowship among denominations.
Preferences are based on changing tastes, cultural background, regional biases, po,litical persuasions and generational experiences, Iorg continued. They’re optional among believers, and are the basis of classes, clubs and organizations.
“The most explosive doctrinal conflicts among Christians occur,” Iorg said, “when an issue is given more weight than it deserves – when a commitment is treated like a conviction, or a preference is treated like a commitment or conviction.”
The gospel transcends cultural barriers, Iorg said. In the case of Antioch, it was anonymous preachers who initiated the gentile movement that grew with the interest of Barnabas and Paul.
The gospel produces change that transcends culture, the seminary president continued. Believers got a new name – Christians – in Antioch, and, also in Acts 11, a broader vision: They gave an offering to people who earlier had rejected them. The gospel changes people too, Iorg said. Cultural identity becomes less significant than Christian identity.
The gospel needs translators to communicate it cross-culturally, people who understand both cultures, people who can strip away non-essentials, people who nurture young believers and defend the results of God’s activity, Iorg said.
“The gospel is power,” Iorg said. “Share it with confidence. Share it with everyone.”
By Karen L. Willoughby