In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to be circumcised, then later condemns it. Was he being hypocritical?
I don’t think the apostle was being hypocritical at all. This is a very interesting historical situation that the New Testament records for us. It does say that Paul circumcised Timothy and then refused to circumcise Titus, and this became a major controversy in the early church. Paul’s reasoning behind it, I think, can be ferreted out through a study of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans.
He talks about his concern for ethics and says that there are certain things God prohibits and certain things he commands. Then there are those things that are basically neutral in the ethical sense—those things that in and of themselves have no moral import or ethical significance. He is consistent in his approach to these things, as we read in correspondence to the Romans and Corinthians; these are areas in which Christians can exercise their liberty.
But the Judaizing party sprang up and threatened to destroy the infant Christian church by seeking to impose the absolute law of circumcision on every convert to Christianity. The counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was one of those examples of the church having to respond to this. The counsel’s conclusion was that it pleased the Holy Spirit not to add all of these burdens upon Gentile converts that God had required of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament. What had happened in contemporary terms is this: Those who wanted to cling to some of the now antiquated practices were considered by Paul to be weaker brothers, and Paul said we don’t do anything to cause the weaker brother to stumble. We want to be sensitive to the weaker brother.
But suddenly the weaker brothers became so strong that they wanted to tyrannize the church and make their preferences the absolute law of God. Whenever people do that, it is a representation of legalism that destroys the essence of the gospel. Paul, by the time he wrote Galatians, saw the expansion of this group of Judaizers as being such a threat to the truth of the Christian gospel that he steadfastly refused to engage in circumcision as a religious act and used the strongest language to condemn those who were trying to make a matter of personal preference the absolute law of God.
You remember the earlier debate that Jesus had with the Pharisees. Jesus was very harsh with them because he said that they had taken the traditions of men and passed them off as if they were the laws of God, something we are not permitted to do. Jesus took the Pharisees to task for doing it, and Paul did the same thing; that is, in the earlier situation in which circumcision didn’t have this legal import to it, he went with the flow. He said if you want to be circumcised, fine; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. So for those who wanted it, he did it. But when they tried to make it a law that he circumcise other people, he steadfastly refused to do it, in order to keep the integrity of the gospel intact.
©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.