Here, as is true so often, St. Paul demonstrates a principle that I have adopted as principle by which I live. The principle is this: “Be inflexible in the essential things in life and flexible in the less essential things.”
Paul is absolutely clear that Jesus Christ has revealed to him that not only could Gentiles be saved but that they could also be saved without being circumcised or keeping all of the ceremonial law. This liberty in Christ, this mystery of the ages, was so clear and so true to Paul that he was absolutely inflexible when it came to this point. Over this point, he was willing to stand up to the one that Christ had called the Rock, and to demonstrate that Peter was wrong. Over this point, he was willing to stand up to all of those “who were of reputation” in Jerusalem, the mother church. It was over the gospel of Jesus Christ, and particularly its implications for the Gentiles, that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians and confronted them with the false gospel they were beginning to fall for.
And yet, as inflexible as Paul is whenever it comes to Christ, the gospel, the Church, or the faith once delivered to the saints, he becomes very flexible when it comes to applying this inflexible truth. Just when you think that Paul is simply a mule-headed individual who will simply assert his way no matter what, you realize that there is another wonderful side to the man. What seemed like hard-headedness and even pride and arrogance was only a pitbull attitude toward the essential things in life, things like Jesus Christ and His gospel.
When Paul explained his gospel of the Gentiles to the leaders of the Jerusalem church, he went privately. He says that he went privately, lest by any means he might run or had run in vain. But I believe he also went privately so as to not create a problem for the Jerusalem Christians and to save any possible embarrassment to the noble and venerable leaders of the Jerusalem church if they were not receptive to Christ’s revelation to Paul. Paul is able to be bold and ruthless with false teachers but gentle and peaceable to those who have faith, even if they might disagree with him.
In other places, although Paul knows circumcision is nothing, he allows Timothy to be circumcised, for the good of Christ and His gospel. Paul himself shaves his head and takes vows so as not to be a stumbling block. And, of course, we are all familiar with how Paul sacrifices his own body and comfort for the glory of Jesus Christ and the growth of His Kingdom.
One of the potential weaknesses of any church is the temptation to be flexible on the essentials and/or inflexible on the non-essentials. In the Anglican tradition, the greatest problem now is with false teachers who teach a gospel different than that of Paul or Peter. They teach that the Bible is just the words of men, that it doesn’t mean what it says, that Jesus isn’t the only way, and that what God plainly says is sin is not sin. It is over these essential issues that many Episcopalians have decided to become flexible and “inclusive.” Such “tolerance” is actually intolerance towards Jesus Christ and His revelation, and it will be the ruin and damnation of many.
On the other hand, many Episcopalians (and this temptation is common to all church traditions) are completely inflexible on non-essentials. Many of the Episcopalians who stay in churches with many false leaders, including their own rectors and bishops, stay because they were acolytes there, or their parents went there, or certain outer adornments are “theirs” and the church (meaning the building) is theirs, regardless of the fact that God has left the building.
One personal example happened to me one Sunday morning when a nice, elderly lady in her 80s motioned to me before the service with great concern.
“What’s wrong,” I said.
“Fr. Erlandson – I don’t think I can worship this morning.”
“Why not,” I asked, very concerned and hoping she wasn’t ill.
She paused a second, and then motioned to the altar area. “The flowers are taller than the cross on the altar – and that’s just not right!”
I walked in a dignified way to the altar, scissors in hand, and righted the wrong.
The problem is not just that this woman’s priorities were out of whack but also that the non-essential things, ultimately, trumped the essential things. The worst problem of all regarding this is that inflexibility on non-essentials can easily lead to flexibility on essentials. For the sake of a custom with which I wasn’t familiar and didn’t really care about (for its own sake), this woman was willing to give up the worship of Almighty God. Rather than caring about hearing the Word of God and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, she was hung up on flowers and measurements.
If you spend your time worrying about flowers and crosses or clinging to past memories about what you’ve done in a particular church, then God and the gospel will pass you by. You will have made a Faustian bargain.
The truth is that we all make such bargains from time to time. We demand our way on small things in our life and in the process don’t care enough about the big things of God in our life. Often, at the end of our lives, comes the clarity. “I wish I’d spent more time with my family than at work” is a common epiphany that comes too late. One that may not be as commonly or as clearly seen is this: “I wish I had been less flexible on Christ and His gospel, and I wish I’d been more flexible on my own things.”
It’s amazing, even from a human point of view, how well this principle works, to be, like St. Paul: inflexible in the really important and essential things in life but flexible in just about everything else.
Prayer: Father, I ask that you would inspire me by the Holy Spirit to love Christ and His things more and my own things less. Order whatever is disordered in the way I make priorities in my life so that Your will may be done in my life as it is in heaven. Give me such a love of You that I love less the small things I so selfishly cling to so that Your Kingdom may come in my life and in the lives of those who are my neighbors. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
Explore how your flexibility on essentials or inflexibility on non-essentials is affecting your life or the lives of those close to you. What steps could you take to value essential things more or to take non-essential things less seriously?
Resolution: I resolve to consider one area in my life where I may be too flexible on essentials or too inflexible on non-essentials. I further resolve to take one practical step today to remedy this problem.
Photo of St. Chrysostom’s by Fr. Charles Erlandson