“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1 NKJV).
When people convert from one religion to another, it is rare that they are able to make a clean and immediate break with all of the beliefs and practices of their first faith. Many of those are so deeply ingrained as to seem instinctive; they have become part of the person’s identity. But they are not intrinsic characteristics; rather they are simply the old baggage remaining from rejected faith.
The most casual study of comparative religions helps to identify some of these carry-overs. The love of symbols such as crosses and statuary, common in Catholicism and some other denominations, may be traced back to paganism where for thousands of years followers were devoted to rituals involving idols and images.
In South Asia one frequently observes former Muslims who continue to abstain from eating pork. Many Hindu Christians paint dots on their babies’ foreheads to ward off demonic spirits, and continue to use jewelry reminiscent of the Hindu tikka sign of blessing. Other lingering remnants of their earlier religion may be less obvious externally, but more damaging spiritually.
In the first century one of the great obstacles to Christian unity was the reluctance by some Jewish Christians to relinquish their traditional practices as mandated by the Law of Moses. Observance of the Sabbath day, various feasts, circumcision, food restrictions, and many other similar things continued to attract them so much that they sought to impose them even on Gentiles converted from idolatry (Acts 15:1; Colossians 2:16-22).
This baggage from the past was the background for the Galatian letter and the controversy described in Acts 15, and probably for much of the tension seen in churches in Rome and elsewhere. We may look at some of those practices and deem them harmless. Why be concerned about the kind of jewelry one chooses to wear? What harm does it do?
The answer may be that it inflicts great harm. Wearing or decorating a building with crosses, for example, may reflect trust in material symbols (good luck charms as it were) rather than Jesus or his Father. Protecting a child from demonic spirits indicates belief in a spiritual system contrary to that taught in Scripture.
The New Testament is clear and emphatic that the believer in Christ is to make a complete and total break with the world from which he has turned. Peter commanded, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Discussing this very subject, Paul wrote, “For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? . . . Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15, 17).
When one accepts the gospel, he or she is rejecting falsehood for truth (John 8:32) and turning from dead and lifeless idols “to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Let us work hard to ensure that we have left all useless distractions and encumbrances behind us, and that we look only to God and his word as our guide.