The Anatomy of Compromise

 The Problem of Bad Compromise

 Like “jealousy” or “ambition,” “compromise” is one of those Jeckyll-and-Hyde nouns that is bipolar in connotation. The meaning is singular enough—acceptable middle ground between two contending positions. But the middle ground solution posited may connote either good (if it's perceived to be a good deal) or bad (if it's perceived to be a bad deal or if it's believed that the issue is inherently uncompromisable).

 In matters of the Christian faith, compromise is so frequently associated with conformity to the world and apostasy that positive uses of the concept are hard to come by (cf. Romans 12:2; 2 Timothy 4:10; James 4:4). However, there are some biblical cases of compromise without the label that comes with divine sanction. They therefore demand a positive interpretation. These instances make the point that compromise can be a good thing, even in some intractable religious conflicts.

 To be sure, the essential or fundamental or defining doctrines should never be compromised. The well-known “Unity in the essentials, charity in the non-essentials” is intended to relegate tolerance and compromise to the peripheral elements of the faith. This was a hard-learned historical lesson. For example, the bitter debate of the fourth century regarding whether Jesus Christ was “very God of very God,” “like God” or “unlike God” was finally resolved in favor of the deity of Christ, after half a century of dalliance with compromise. But the uncompromising solution was no different than what even unbelievers had been able to observe of the earliest Christians who met together to sing hymns of praise unto their Christ as unto God. That is, a compromise on an essential doctrine is bad precisely because it has exceeded the good use of the concept by compromising what cannot change. In reality, the indestructible truth of God abides while the compromisers' relationship to the truth and to the One who is the truth changes destructively.

 From the time of the New Testament, creedal formulations, like the Apostles' Creed, have tried to state succinctly those fundamental elements of the Christian faith that each baptized believer should boldly affirm. The Trinity of God, the vicarious atonement, justification by faith, the inerrancy of Scripture, the believer's sanctification, the Church as the fellowship of the saints, the return of Christ in judgment and victory, etc., are essentials. As such, they have been carefully formulated and assigned unassailable permanence among the articles of the faith in the various confessions of faith. This is the historic pattern evidenced also in the Alliance. Positing a diminished form of one of these to accommodate some secular objections is to engage in bad compromise.

 What then is a good compromise in matters of the Christian faith? Since only the Scriptures, the voice of God, are the sufficient rule for faith and practice, we turn to them.

 A Case Study of Good Compromise

 In Acts 15 a complex dispute was brought to a compromise solution by the Jerusalem Council. The sharp contention started between former Pharisees: Paul, on the one side, supported by Barnabas and Peter; and, on the other, a sizable group of Judaizers, converted Pharisees zealous for the Law (cf. Philippians 3:5; Acts 15:5). The latter maintained that Gentile converts should be required to keep the whole of the Law, including the ceremonial law, to be eligible for salvation. That is, nothing less than faith in Jesus and submission to the whole will of God for His covenant people was necessary for one to be truly a child of God. This view was consistent with the strong tradition of conservative Judaism. For centuries, Gentile initiates had submitted to the tutelage of the Law as proselytes of Judaism. After such a successful tutelage as proved their conformity, they were marked with the sign of the covenant (circumcised) and ceremonially washed of their uncleanness (baptized). Then they were received as full-fledged members of Judaism and children of God (cf. Jesus' condemnation of this process, Matthew 23:4, 13-15).

 Paul's party advocated the contrary, a revolutionary shortcut to God: Gentile converts should be bound by none of the ceremonial practices that burdened Judaism, including circumcision (Acts 15:10; Galatians 2:3; 4:9-11; 5:2-6). In fact, Law-keeping of any kind as a requirement of salvation was, and is, diametrically opposed to the gospel of grace (Galatians 3)! The period of the Law's tutelage is over because its purpose was to lead to Christ so that all could be justified by faith in Him (Galatians 3:23-25). The crowning argument of this position was that God Himself had evidenced His unconditional acceptance of the Gentiles by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon them when they believed (Acts 15:8; Galatians 3:2-5).

 The somewhat spotty account of Acts 15 and Galatians 1-2 makes it a little difficult to see that there are two intertwined but distinct questions here. The more obvious one has to do with the nature of the gospel. If salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, whose work alone is complete and sufficient for our redemption, then adding any additional requirement results in a different gospel and falling from grace (Galatians 1:6-9; 5:4). Paul argues vehemently against the possibility of giving any ground whatsoever on this essential issue!

 Since the Judaizing opposition continued to preach their brand of the gospel either as renegades or unauthorized delegates or as members in good standing of the Jerusalem church (cf. Galatians 1:7; 2:4, 12); Acts 15:24; 21:20), it is not clear that the Jerusalem Council succeeded in resolving this part of the conflict. Paul says that the Council added nothing to his message (Galatians 2:3-6, 15-16), but did it correct or denounce the Judaizers' alternate gospel? Certainly they imposed no compromise upon Paul's gospel to the Gentiles. That would have been a bad compromise.

 The less obvious question considered by the Council is the more practical one: If the gospel now embraces equally both Jews and Gentiles, how can they be bound together in a unified fellowship, the Church, if one party continues to consider the other “unclean”? For the converted Jews to continue keeping the Law while the Gentile believers disregarded it might mean that only segregated congregations could thrive. In places like Syrian Antioch with mixed congregations the certain result would be a two-tiered Christianity (with Gentiles as second-class citizens) and a gospel powerless to forge unity in the face of divisive cultural barriers (cf. Galatians 2:11-21; Ephesians 2:11-22). For this problem James had a ready, good compromise.

 It is in the nature of a good compromise both to sustain the rights of and extract concessions from the contending parties. For the Jewish converts this meant that they should continue to obey the Law of Moses read in every synagogue each Sabbath day (Acts 15:21). But they would have to stop considering unclean what (and whom) God had declared clean (cf. Acts 10:9-16; Romans 14:14; Mark 7:14-23; 1 Timothy 4:4). That is, their legal, ceremonial scrupulousness could continue but it would have to be accommodated to the new equality, intimacy and fellowship of a multi-ethnic Church.

 For the Gentile converts the compromise of James meant that they deserved to be treated as equals and beloved in the household of God. Their concession would have to be made for the sake of the squeamish conscience of their Jewish brethren. They would have to concede some of their freedom from the observance of the ceremonial Law to meet their Jewish brethren on middle ground. James chose the four violations related to worship and table fellowship that were most offensive to observant Jews: eating food offered to idols, participating in ritual fornication (or, perhaps, avoiding consanguineous marriage), eating blood, eating meat not drained of blood. These minimal restrictions would have to be observed by the Gentiles to pave the way for a more perfect unity. An authorized Council letter bearing the Spirit-inspired compromise was sent to all the churches with the concurrence of Paul and Barnabas.

 By his own claim, the compromise did not infringe upon the purity of Paul's gospel (Galatians 2:5). Moreover, Paul enforces the intent of the compromise in Galatians 2 against the segregationist prevarications of Judaizers, Jewish converts, Barnabas and Peter. So he was for it. Only the Judaizers frowned on it, apparently (Galatians 2:12).

 The Benefits of a Good Compromise

 Many benefits and applications can be made from this notable case of a good religious compromise. Let me state a few significant ones that occur to me:

  1. A good compromise addresses areas in which a shift of position is possible and enforceable. Where human conduct and Christian liberty meet, there is room for good compromise. The compromise Paul forges between the “weak” and the “strong” further confirms the good compromise of Acts 15 (Romans 14:1-15:7; 1 Corinthians 8-10).
  2. A good compromise obtains the reconciliation of the contenders by winning them to agree to live by the solution. It finds the way for Christ in them to become the instrument of peace by tearing down their fortresses of division and hostility (Ephesians 2:14).
  3. A good compromise accomplishes more important ends (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). The right of the Gentiles to live in freedom from the bondage of the ceremonial law was important, if the gospel was going to be multicultural. The right of Jewish converts to continue keeping the whole Law as their religious and cultural heritage was significant if the gospel was to continue as a viable option among observant Jews (cf. Acts 21:20-27). But the equality of everyone in the Church of God and the unity of His body were higher goods that absolutely had to be achieved.
  4. A good compromise is conducive to Christian growth and maturity because it advances the principle of bearing one another's burdens as the way of fulfilling the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). By binding my brother's interest to mine, it teaches me to be my brother's keeper.
  5. A good compromise promotes kingdom growth by reinforcing the hard lesson of how much we believers can achieve, when we are willing to give up our rights for a higher good.


 So there is a place for good compromise. In fact, when one knows what to look for, it is more common and more far-ranging than one might think. Is not the Alliance instructional statement on church government a compromise of discretion? Its emphasis falls on accomplishing a greater good (Manual, 1995 ed., G1, 5-9). Is not Jesus' teaching on divorce a compromise of necessity? Its emphasis falls on avoiding a worse evil (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 5:31-32; Mark 10:1-12). Is Paul's teaching on slavery not a compromise of restraint? Its emphasis falls on redemptive submission until a better day (Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

 If a good compromise is so good, perhaps we should all hasten to ask if there are any current, difficult church conflicts that may benefit from a consideration of the anatomy of compromise.

Editorial: The Anatomy of Compromise


The Social Gospel vs Personal Salvation: A Late Nineteenth-Centuray Case Study- Walter Rauschenbusch and A.B. Simpson, Daniel J. Evearitt

The Seal of the Holy Spirit and the Eternal Security of the Believer, Eldon Woodcock

The Restoration of the Doctrine of Binding and Loosing, Paul L. King

Why Youth Groups Matter: A Social Science Research Perspective, Leonard Kageler

Reaching the World through the City, George Reitz

The Religious Celebrity Syndrome: A Contemporary Application of First Corinthians 3:1-9, Richard Brown

Christ and the Spirit: Fleshing Out the Vision of A.B. Simpson's Imitation of Christ, Craig J. Slane

Glossolalia and the Ruark Procedure: Distinguishing between True and False Utterances, K. Neill Foster

About the Authors

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

Home > 1997

©2006 by K. Neill Foster