Paul develops what it means to “serve one another in love” in Gal 6:1-10. This section has been described as a collection of general principles appended to Paul’s main argument (Betz, Galatians, 291f). Witherington, on the other hand, argues that there is a cohesive theme which holds these ten verses together and that they form the conclusion to the argument of the book (Galatians, 417-8).
Paul is alternating between principles for the community and for the individual here. While we tend to take these principles individually, Paul intends some to be for the whole community: correcting a sinning Christian (v. 1a) and bearing burdens (v.2) are clearing aimed at the church group as a whole, while taking account of one’s motivations (v.1b) and bearing your own load (v. 6) are aimed at individuals within the church.
A critical question for reading Gal 6:1-10 is concerns Paul’s command to “bearing burdens.” What sort of burden does he have in mind here? Typically verse one and two are taken together – a person caught in a transgression should be helped to bear their burden. Burden is therefore a spiritual burden, a “besetting sin” which the community can help a person to overcome. But verse one is not grammatically connected to verse two, rather verses two and three are connected by the use of γάρ. If this is the case, then perhaps the “burden” in verse two is unrelated to the transgression of verse one.
The noun translated “burden” in verse two is baros (βάρος). It appears in the Pauline letters only three times. 1 Thess 2:17 he uses the word to describe financial burden associated with his apostolic authority. There Paul says that he could have been a burden, but he voluntarily set aside that right as an apostle. The related adjective abares (ἀβαρής) appears in a similar context in 2 Cor 11:9 and 12:13-18 (using καταβαρέω in verse 16). There Paul says he was not a financial burden to the Corinthian church. John Strelan collects several examples of the word from the papyri showing that the word refers to a tax burden (for example, p.Giss I, 7:13, about A.D. 117). In the context of financial decisions, Sirach 13:2 says that one should not “try to carry a burden too heavy for you.” In fact, Strelan surveys all of the vocabulary related to βάρος and concludes that the word-group is overwhelming concerned with financial burdens rather than spiritual burdens. In fact, Gal 6:1-10 has at least seven words which are related to financial transactions (Strelan, 270-1).
Strelan’s article makes a persuasive argument that financial burdens are Paul’s main theme here. This observation helps make some sense of those who “think they are something” not participating in burden bearing (verse 2). In addition, it helps us understand the seeming contradiction in verse 5. There Paul commands that everyone bear their own burden, even though he has just told the congregation to bear their own! Likely this is a reflection of the work-ethic Paul expresses in 1 Thess 3, one must work to pay for their own needs and not rely on the wealthy in the congregation to support them. Here in Galatians Paul is telling the congregation to work hard, pull their weight, but if someone does fall short the congregation ought to help carry that member.
Perhaps this falling short is a special tax or fine assessed on the Christian for not participating in the Greco-Roman society. If so, then the whole congregation helping to “bear that load” is a way of walking in step with the Spirit.
Bibliography: J. G. Strelan, “Burden-bearing and the Law of Christ: A Re-examination of Galatians 6:2,” JBL 94 (1975), 266-76.