Essentials and Nonessentials
Knowing the difference between what is essential to the Christian faith and nonessential, or what we must demand agreement upon and what we can agree to disagree upon, is, well, essential to the Christian faith. The Christian faith is not some manmade philosophy that changes over time with the ever-changing whims of men. Man is like the grass of the field, but the word of God endures forever (Psalm 119). And do not be fooled by those deceivers who will say that as man’s knowledge grows about the world that our understanding of Sacred Scripture must grow with it, for this is simply another way of changing what the Bible says to justify our sinful desires.
Thus, in the Church there are doctrinal and moral teachings to which we must cling, and matters over which we may disagree. Matters essential would include the doctrine of the Trinity, that Christ was and is fully human and divine, was virginally conceived, that he rose bodily from the grave and will return again, the substitutionary atonement, salvation by grace through faith, the person and work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, and that all of this was according to the plan of the Father out of love for His people – these doctrines the Church has always accepted. Along with these are moral laws that express the very heart of God, such as the Ten Commandments, love of God and neighbor, and the necessity of pursuing godliness in the Christian life. We may disagree as to mode of baptism, our several understandings of the Lord’s Supper, or whether one should send their kids to a Christian school, public school, or homeschool. There are matters of doctrine over which honest men disagree that do not compromise the faith, and other matters of mere prudence.
So to our passage: Why would Paul circumcise Timothy while at the same time delivering the decision of the recent council (Acts 15:1-35) that circumcision was not necessary for salvation? And the answer is to not give offense to his Jewish listeners. If someone said to Paul: “You must be circumcised to be saved,” Paul saw that as compromising salvation by grace through faith and was ready to go to war (see his Letter to the Galatians). But if circumcising Timothy would open a door to witness to Jews who would not listen otherwise, then Paul and Timothy were willing to do what was necessary to open that door, as long as there were no sin in it. In other words, we see here in Scripture an excellent example of distinguishing between essentials and nonessentials. And this is becoming increasingly important in an uncompromising and intolerant pagan society.