Two Ways of Handling Differences
One is through the Spirit, which means building cohesion. We can apply this to our situation today, say between Protestants and Catholics. Galatians is used most often to divide us from Catholics.
Building cohesive community doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to what is wrong. Accepting the traditions of others doesn’t mean we accept and build Christian community on things in our lives that are wrong. And when we come to a unified worship with Catholics, there are many things we don’t agree with.
First, what matters is the core of the person’s faith. If it is a genuine trust in the death and resurrection of Christ, then, as Paul claims in Romans 10, the person is a brother or sister, even with their diverse traditions. We must accept them fully as a Christian brother and sister on that basis.
Second, concerning their traditions, most of the time we just don’t understand them. We don’t give them grace. We have been brought up with biases, and we read them differently. We judge too easily. We don’t see the core values of the traditions. For example, we condemn Catholic confession, forgetting that it comes James, “confess your sins to one another and pray for each other.” This is good, if carried out sincerely. It’s true, these things are often corrupted in our systems of religion.
But there is often “a baby in this bathwater” of tradition.
So, Paul says, if there are things that concern us, then try to address these things in the Spirit, meaning in the context of brotherly unity.
And then Paul adds, remembering ourselves. That is, we too have traditions that we are blind to. We don’t realise that our traditions can be just as much against Christ as the traditions other people hold. We mightn’t even notice we have traditions. We have traditions of private prosperity and private holiness, in the context of a suffering world, that are wholly against Christ and his teaching.
They are often clearly covetous and idolatrous. Yet, we are quick to condemn others for idolatry.
Paul reiterates James, being quick to hear and slow to speak, slow to judge. This is the kind of community Christ calls us to. The problem comes when we get arrogant against each other and we on “both sides” can do this very easily. We have both said that we are the true faith. This arrogance in both our hearts needs to give way to Christ’s love.
So, Paul says, when we notice faults in others, seek to help them as a brother and sister in love. This helps to bear their burden, to serve them, rather than mistreat them. See the person as someone to love and care for, not someone to reject. This fulfils the law of Christ.
The Way of Boasting
“If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own burden.”
The circumcision party however, thought they were something if they could persuade and covert others. This boast in the flesh of others, in making others to be circumcised, wasn’t adding anything to their own transformation of character. It is a deceptive holiness, counting the scalps of those you have won. Rather, we should be looking to our own character, and whether Christ is being formed in us. This is where our boasting should be, but a boasting in God’s grace. We should carry our own burden in this way, rather than busy ourselves with the faults of others.
This is a common misconception. We think that our holiness consists in correcting others. Rather than boasting in that, we should seek the growth of community through manifesting true Christlikeness in our own lives.
“Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.”
This is what we do, whenever we divide with others, and yet we don’t keep the law of love ourselves. We demand people keep righteousness, when we aren’t. Its like Jesus’ sermon about the log in our eye, looking after our own burden of faults first.
Paul sets out two forms of correction. One is in the Spirit, through a communion together. The other is in separation and boasting in our own correctness. This comes back to our misunderstanding of Paul at the outset on this letter. We thought Paul was calling Peter to divide from community, to boast in his correctness about faith. But Paul was calling Peter back to community, to sort out their differences in the love of unity in Christ.
“Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.”
This statement comes out of the blue. It isn’t connected in any obvious way with the text. Is it a general exhortation to the church? Paul didn’t write in this way. What he is saying throughout Galatians is carefully connected to the situation there. There is a background reason why this statement is inserted here.
It may have been something to do with some parties in the church withholding support to elders who didn’t conform to their ideas, or maybe withholding support to uncircumcised elders, or to elders who didn’t preach circumcision. This might happen today, as committees impose sanctions on some ministers. If this is the case, then this would be wrong treatment of people who have family and needs. They should to be treated in care, not with an unloving political purpose.
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
If we treat people in this uncaring way, withholding support to whom it is due, we are acting in hostility towards others, and this is sowing seeds of aggression and injustice. If we sow seeds like this in our community, then we will reap harvests of ill manner among us. People will break out fighting in various ways. Paul, once again, warns the church about behaving in a caring way towards each other, and not in the divisive way that brings harm to every person.
If we keep doing good as a community then it will produce the good fruit in time. The destructive attitudes will eventually be overcome, if we keep sowing good actions towards each other. If we keep doing justly, our community shall begin to reap the outcome of cohesion and unity, and this will spill over into the city of Galatia, bringing glory to God, and a caring, loving witness to all around them.
This is what Paul means by “doing good to all people, especially to those of the household of faith.” If the church has infighting, so it doesn’t care for the elders and their children, for those in its own household, then how is it going to reflect Christ’s character to the world? We learn love in our family, so that our family might share that love with the world. If we fight each other, then we have nothing to share with the world. But the purpose is that the church renews the world.
This is the harvest Paul is speaking about: gospel witness by following Christ in our relationships. This gospel witness renews ourselves, and the societies where the church is located. This is the vision of Isaiah about new creation.
This is the reason Paul focuses on getting the church right. Not just so we can be right, but so we can live out the transforming witness to the world. Just like Paul said to the Corinthians, the worldly powers of self-centredness must be defeated in our own fellowship, before God can use us to bring the same powers to nought in the world. This transformation of the gentile world will bring glory to God. This is Paul’s earnest desire.
God’s Postexile Israel
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.”
The Israel of God are all those who are in the eschatological community. This is all those who share in the renewed creation, to be part of God’s global restoration, after Israel’s return from exile in the gospel, launched through the resurrection of Christ. This is the joint Jewish and gentile community, made into one new humanity by faith, as Paul shares in all his letters.
Its purpose is to build restoring togetherness, which undoes the oppression of old humanity, the empires that seek to divide and take over. The church embraces a non-nationalist love, sharing and building others, a counter revolutionary culture in a world of covetousness and self-preservation.
This Israel of God, not an emphasis on our salvation in an individualistic sense, is the topic of all Paul’s letters. He is writing about the church, bringing about God’s end-times program, as depicted in Isaiah and all the prophets, of a restored humanity in peace, finalising in the bodily resurrection and the completed, fully reconciled, new heavens and new earth.
We, Jews and gentiles, in one community of faith, are the Israel of God, returned from exile among the nations, from or past condemnation in sin, to be one family, building God’s future world in his mercy and peace.
Galatians is a letter about God’s post-exilic community. Paul repeatedly evokes the exilic prophecies, which all describe the church as one Jew/ gentile family, living out the way of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit, towards each other. This becomes the vision, the way of merciful justice, to the world around us, bringing about God’s transformation of our world.
Its maybe because we are so urbanised, that we don’t appreciate this community in the postexilic vision of the Prophets. We see the vision largely as personal salvation. Missing this community message has led us to the kind of world we live in today, where in our social lives we are divided into denominational, religious, racial, economic and national groups.
The church often is left without a witness to address these divisions, that have the potential of destroying many, if not much of the world today. There is need for a radical re-evaluation of our faith, to get an early faith back, that is relevant to a true Christlike response.
We have also indulged in a separatism, which we have called spirituality. This has disengaged us from the problems of the world, rather than led us to seek practical solutions for the sufferings of the majority. Our faith has become more irrelevant to the real need of others. We haven’t reflected God, who came to live with us, breaking down our social dualism, calling Jews and Samaritans to neighbourliness, drawing us together in mutual support.
Paul’s last statement is about his persecutions. Those who seek their own welfare and preach the gospel of self and national agenda, should no longer trouble Paul. His persecutions show he is serving Christ and his church, not himself.
Just one more note on bearing the cross. In Paul’s period of history, the Jews had been granted exemption from Emperor worship. Normally, failure to worship the Emperor attracted the death penalty. But the Jews had resisted so much, they were eventually given exemption, with the proviso they would pray for the Emperor, to which the Jews agreed.
The early church was closely associated with the Jews. They were like a division within Judaism.
Jewish Christians still attended the synagogue and temple, and kept the sabbath. But the new movement of accepting gentiles into the faith, without “becoming Jews first through circumcision and keeping the laws of the temple,” could throw the Jew’s special status in the Roman Empire into question. Associating with gentiles in the church, Jewish Christians could risk losing their Jewish identity and exempt status.
So, acting in love towards gentile believers, as Paul was calling for, was to potentially risk your life, and the lives of your family. But this was the early discipleship, tha followers of Christ lived. It was love for foreigner, before love of nationalism and love for self.