What do tattoos, alcohol, and circumcision have to do with each other? I promise it wasn’t just a link baiting title that you see so often on Facebook and other places nowadays. Honestly, I think that Scripture has something to offer when dealing with all three of these topics in a similar way.
In case you’re new to church culture here in America, there is a constant debate going on as to whether Christians should be participating in certain things. Two of the things at the forefront of this debate are tattoos and alcohol. “Should Christians get tattoos? Is that something that a genuine disciple of Jesus could do? What about alcohol? Can someone love the Lord and still drink a glass of wine for enjoyment?” For some, the answer is no and for others the answer is yes. My goal with this post is not to provide an answer either way.
Rather, I want to look to a certain situation in the Bible that might can reveal some wisdom when dealing with such things. Whether it’s alcohol, tattoos, or some other activity that Christians debate over, how can we find a way work out our differences and find unity in disagreement? To find a possible answer, we look to our third category: circumcision.
In Acts 15, Christians do a really funny thing. They gather together ask basically ask the question, “Can God do what God just did?” It actually sounds eerily similar to what a lot Christians ask today. But, that’s besides the point. In Acts 15, they hold a council after Gentiles begin to receive the Holy Spirit and are saved. Their claim, in verse 1, was that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Repeating their point in verse 5, the Pharisees were claiming that circumcision is absolutely necessary in order to be a genuine believer.
However, Peter began to explain how God showed no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and uncircumcised. After all, God knows the heart and gave them the Holy Spirit that he had given to the Jewish Christians. Salvation wouldn’t come by bearing the “yoke” of their ancestors. Rather, all people are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Barnabas and Paul began to chime in and support Peter in his declaration. Circumcision was absolutely unnecessary in order to gain salvation.
They couldn’t have made their point any clearer. In order to be a genuine follower of Jesus, circumcision is of no importance. However, in the next chapter, something very interesting comes up. This is what Acts 16:1-3 says:
Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
What is this? It seems as if Paul goes back on everything that was said at the Jerusalem Council the chapter right before. Which is it? Is circumcision necessary? Or is it something Christians should practice? While this is a dramatic example, I think what we see here can help us a lot when we approach debated activity, such as alcohol, tattoos, and other things.
Again, I’m not trying to prove whether these things are acceptable. I have my opinions, but what I’m trying to find is something that can go beyond mere agreement and disagreement. And I think we that thing here in Acts 16.
What if this episode with Paul and Timothy shows us that, perhaps in order to reach a wider community of people, we have to make sacrifices that have nothing to do with our state of salvation? In other words, Paul obviously didn’t think that Timothy was any less of a Christian for not being circumcised. He proved that he believed such in Jerusalem. However, Paul wanted Timothy to have credibility with the Jews and knew that, since they knew his father was a Gentile, they might discount him.
Therefore, Timothy was circumcised. Not in order to be saved. Not in order to be more holy. Not in order to find favor in God’s eyes. But rather, for the result that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” Timothy participated in something that had nothing to do with his salvation in order to be a credible witness to a group of people who both need Jesus and perhaps would have dismissed him had he not bore the signs of their image of a “faithful and genuine” believer. The point isn’t that they are justified in thinking that way. According to Paul a chapter earlier, they aren’t. However, Timothy loved this community of people enough to facilitate to their views at the time in order to be a better witness to them.
So what can we learn here?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether tattoos or alcohol or whatever is something Christians can participate in. Maybe we should be asking, “In this particular context, is the something we should be participating in?” For the record, I am of the persuasion that the particular examples I use, tattoos and alcohol, are okay if treated with responsibility. And I think that makes my point even stronger.
When we enter into the faith and become a Christian, we don’t embark on a private spiritual journey. We become a part of a worldwide community called the Church. Modeling after the founder of our faith, Jesus himself, we are called to live in a manner of self-sacrificial love. Perhaps we should examine what that might practically look like when it comes to issues like these.
For example, though I personally think that tattoos are fine, I probably won’t get one. Because I think it makes me more holy? Or because I think those who have them aren’t saved? Of course not! As Peter and Paul both said, we’re saved by grace through faith. However, I know for a fact that there’s many churches who wouldn’t allow me to preach or minister at their church if I were to get tattoos.
Are they justified in that belief? I personally think not. But, that isn’t my point. My point is that I don’t mind demonstrating self-sacrificial love for them and avoiding getting a tattoo in order to be a better witness to them. Not to mention that in many foreign countries, tattoos are seen as a sign of evil. If I were to go to a Muslim country and they were to write me off immediately because I had tattoos, I would start to feel pretty selfish.
The same applies with alcohol. Though I personally think alcohol in moderation is acceptable, there are many churches who think alcohol is inherently sinful. In fact, my own church leans in that direction. However, I respect the pastors of my church and want to be an effective witness in my church body. Therefore, I abstain alcohol, especially around those whom I know are personally convicted that it is a sinful thing. Whether or not they are justified in their belief is a different matter. Since I’m called to have self-sacrificial love for them, I’m okay with participating in abstinence from alcohol, just as Timothy was willing to participate in circumcision.
My point, then, is that maybe we should treat alcohol, tattoos, and other things similar to them in the same way that Paul treated circumcision. Abstaining from those things don’t make us any better or holy or acceptable to God. Salvation comes through faith by grace! However, in a community that is so much larger than ourselves and with a call to live in a sacrificial way, no matter our thoughts on those issues, we should be at least willing to metaphorically go under the knife and be circumcised, if our particular situation calls for it.
Perhaps, our actions may even make it possible that our church are “strengthened in the faith and increas[ing] in numbers daily.” Isn’t that the goal? Let’s focus less on what we can do and worry about what love has called us to do.