The first crisis of the early church was whether to allow Gentiles to come into the church without first becoming cultural Jews. This would mean that all the males had to be circumcised and all the non-Jewish believers would have to follow the Jewish customs. This forced the church to struggle with what it really means to be a Christian. It was clear that God was pouring out His Spirit on people who were not Jews, but many of the Jews struggled with how one could follow Christ without being part of their exclusive group.
It took the church ten years after the birth of the church to figure out that God’s Spirit was available to everyone in spite of their culture. It’s okay to have cultural traditions that surround our faith. Depending on what part of the world one is in, or what denomination one belongs to, there are cultural distinctives that are important to those groups that have nothing to do with being a Christian. It becomes sinful, however, when we use those distinctives to exclude people from the “household of faith.”
I grew up in a denomination that had lots of cultural rules added to our faith. Our dress code and entertainment rules were legislated by a church hierarchy. As I matured as a Christ follower it became clear that we confused our cultural traditions with the essence of the gospel. Ultimately, we disregarded those that didn’t follow our customs as inauthentic Christians. I was fully acculturated in my denomination’s customs and could have happily abided by most of them except that those customs were used to exclude others from the faith. Leaving my denomination was not an exercise in personal freedom. Like Paul and Barnabas, I was making the trip to Antioch to encourage the other believers who were not of our group that their walk with Jesus was as genuine as mine even though they didn’t follow my group’s customs.
One of the great challenges of life is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is to receive the free gift of the Holy Spirit made available to all people and to abstain from immorality. The spread of the gospel hinges on our ability to distinguish our culture from the content of the gospel.