Galatians 1 – Why Is Paul So Harsh?

Why is Paul so harsh on people preaching that Gentiles ought to keep the law?  F. F. Bruce suggested that Paul knows that law-keeping for salvation is a “snare and a delusion” from his own personal experience.  He had kept the law as perfectly as anyone, yet he had not been pleasing to God.  But he clearly sees that now.  In addition to the simple self-deception of law-keeping legalism, Paul knows that there are dangerous implications for those gentiles that try to keep the Law, they risk not really being saved.  Polhill describes Paul as “livid” at the Galatians for abandoning the gospel for a “perversion,” and points out that Paul calls them “stupid” for rejecting the spirit for the flesh (3:1-5). These are harsh words and strong emotions.

Bruce’s reconstruction is is possible, but it does not really take into account recent studies on Paul and Judaism. Did the opponents in Galatian really think that they could earn their salvation?  The Pharisees, for example, did not really think that keeping the law made one right with God.  A person is right with God by election (God chose Israel), and the Jew stays right with God by keeping the Law as best as he can.

Not all Jews had to be Pharisees, but all Jews keep the “Works of the Law,” including Sabbath, food taboos, and circumcision.  These were the principle boundary markers which defined “a Jew.”  I think that Paul point is that if the Galatian Gentiles keep the boundary markers, they will be not really different than Gentile god-fearers or converts to Judaism.  A God-fearer worship in the synagogue and may try to keep the law as best they can as non-proselyte Gentiles.

For Paul, to acknowledge Jesus is to acknowledge that the Law has been fulfilled in him as the Messiah and the Gentile believer is under no obligation to keep the Law, beginning with the boundary markers.  The fact remains that Paul’s gospel is that God sent Christ into the world to rescue those who were condemned in this evil age. Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, they are saved apart from the Law.  If they are converting to Judaism, then they are not really saved, since the Jew also needs to accept the Gospel.

The harshness we detect is perhaps more of a product of our modern, western multiculturalism.  Paul declares boldly that there is only one Gospel, his Gospel.  The others are wrong, with the result that a person cannot be right with God apart from Paul’s gospel.

Is there any room in contemporary discussions of the gospel for the sort of “righteous indignation” we read in the book of Galatians?  I am confident that there are quite a few people inthe present church who should be “lit up” by Paul, but does this really “work” in a modern context?

19 thoughts on “Galatians 1 – Why Is Paul So Harsh?

  1. I laughed when I read your last question and saw that you tagged Joel Osteen to this… just my personal correlation and thought…

    I really enjoyed reading Polhill’s chapter on Galatians because it shed some light on a rather scathing book of the bible. For one thing, I greatly appreciated the background of Greek rhetorical theory on page 143. It would make sense to me that Paul would use this argument style with the Galatians because of a few things. 1) The Galatian population had been, for some time, a part of the Greco-Roman world and were familiar with the convincing debate styles of their day. 2) The fact that the Galatians were falling prey to convincing Pro-Judaism debaters showed that they had some background and influence in this rhetoric and 3), because Paul is so furious with how the Galatians would so easily turn from the true gospel on account to a “convincing argument”, he naturally uses the same (if not better) style of rhetoric to win them back.

    Now to try and apply this kind of rebuke in today’s culture and context would be met with completely different results. We have many people in all camps of Christendom who actually verbally thrash each other because they believe that their interpretation is the “true gospel” or “true” theological stance. There is nothing wrong with debating with each other the stances that we hold to but to speak to and about each other with such “righteous indignation” would be out of place. First of all, most of these Theological stances have the same basic principles that all Christendom can agree upon. For those that deviate from the doctrinal pillars that mark Christianity as Christianity, this is an entirely different story. Second, people are not drawn to a “righteous fury” because it is seen as a “holier than thou” or right wing fundamentalist bible thumping zeal (not that there is anything inherently wrong with this other than it is off putting). You can put someone in their place but in doing so, you tend to alienate the individual and those that witness the thrashing from yourself and thereby effectively slam the door on the willingness of people to listen to you.

    It seems as though we have entered into an age where love and feelings are much more emphasized so that when “righteous indignation” arises, people shy away from it and don’t want to be around the individual regardless of the rightness or wrongness of their actions.

  2. Righteous indignation is an interesting subject indeed. These are my initial thoughts rather than strong convictions at this point. That being said, I do think its right to have righteous indignation when it comes to false and perverted gospels like that of Joel Osteen. If people preach a gospel that is different from that of the Bible we need to preach to our people with righteous indignation against it. This is the example of Paul after all… he preached harshly against false teaching to his own people not those religious leaders who proclaim various perversions. If we were to take this same approach with the preachers/teachers of false gospels and their followers we would alienate them before giving time to share the truth of the gospel (like Jason pointed out). I think we need to react in love when we encounter people believing a lie or teaching a lie. I think we definitely need to challenge their beliefs but its all about the approach we take.

    It sounds as though righteous indignation was just what the Galatians needed. “In Paul’s day people often vilified their opponents, painting them in the starkest of hues possible” (140). He preaches the gospel again (v3-5) and then proclaims his anger as to what they have fallen into (v6-9). Afterward he continues to proclaim the truth of the gospel he presented them with (v11-12; 15-16). He was really convinced they were going to hell in a handbasket (literally) if things did not dramatically change. And since Paul believed the kingdom was at hand he had real conviction in correcting their ways as soon as he could. Urgency may have made the message all the more harsh because it may have been Paul’s only moment to share with the Galatians.

    • “I do think its right to have righteous indignation when it comes to false and perverted gospels” – I agree, but still wonder about how far we should drive this anger. I think that it easy to poke fun at Osteen or Hinn (I do it all the time), but is that really helpful? I read a lot of vicious rhetoric on the blogs when someone publishes a book questioning hell, for example. Is “ripping them to shreds” on a personal level going to help the situation?

      What can we do to answer the perverted gospel without bringing more shame to the gospel? Or maybe, how can we be “Pauline” in our defense of truth?

  3. I definitely think there is a place for righteous indignation, even in a culture where we tend to do everything we can to be all inclusive and non-judgmental, especially when it comes to religion. This becomes dangerous when we thwart the message of the gospel. I’m all for correcting and rebuking through a loving manner, but when someone begins to distort the gospel and lead others astray with their teaching, righteous indignation and a harsh correction may be in order. Anna, thank you for pointing out the note of urgency that may have been tied to the situation with Paul and the Galatian Church: “Urgency may have made the message all the more harsh because it may have been Paul’s only moment to share with the Galatians.” Polhill noted this in somewhat of a tongue and cheek manner: “One can also picture Paul dicta ting a hasty, angry letter to the “foolish” Galatians’ and dispatching it at once”. (139). Perhaps ones belief on the date that this letter was written would account for whether or not urgency was involved in Paul’s letter.

    Upon reflecting on all this, I keep going back to the story of Jesus in the temple, when he overturned the tables in righteous indignation in response to the church culture as they used the temple as a marketplace. (Matt 12:12-13). Paul was faced with this kind of situation, and he needed to boldly declare that what they were being taught was heresy.

    • The analogy to Jesus is good, although the difference is that Paul might not have been so righteous in his indignation! He seems quite angry in his rhetoric, maybe Polhill’s tongue-in-cheek comment is correct.

  4. There is definitely a place for righteous anger today in this world. Every where we look or go, the world is corrupt. As Christians we want to change this — but as humans, living in this world and partaking of it, we sit back compliant instead of standing up for what is right. Paul’s letter is not really harsh, so much as it is honest and in it’s own way, caring. Paul appeals to them to change their ways, not because he hates them for doing something different than he believes in, but because he cares deeply for their spiritual and eternal welfare. He reaches out to them, reminding them of their conversion when they followed what he had taught them about God, I think you can hear the plea in his voice when he cries out to them in the letter saying “”Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal 4:16) — as Polhill said it, “his appeal now took on a more anguished, personal tone” (Polhill 150).

    I think that today we can apply this example of Paul’s righteous anger into our own living. He did not strike out at the Galatians in anger, but reached out to them (being absolutely blunt honest), and pleaded with them to return to God’s teachings (Gal 4:1-7). Just as Paul did, we can speak the honest truth to those who have strayed from (or do not know) God — but we also must follow his example that we have a caring heart as we do. Paul lashed out because he cared for their eternal souls — if we do not care and our motive is only to change things to our liking, there is no way we can reach others for Christ.

    I would say then, that there is indeed a need for righteous anger today, in that we should step up to the plate and speak out against the evil in the world — but that we do it with a righteous motive, and a genuine love for the people God created.

  5. While I was reading your responses, I thought I might respond to these comments:

    (1) “You can put someone in their place but in doing so, you tend to alienate the individual and those that witness the thrashing from yourself and thereby effectively slam the door on the willingness of people to listen to you.” – Jason

    I went through a season in my life where I preached with this righteous indignation. I felt like I needed to expose sin and preach the essence of hell telling others to repent and turn to faith in Christ Jesus, but doing it so bluntly turned people away. Why? Because people felt like I didn’t care about them, there was no relationship established for me to speak into their lives in such manner. In Galatians Paul is responding to several different things, his: apostleship, conversion, gospel, appeal to covenant relationship, friendship, use of scripture, and warning of the judiazers. (Polhil 145). Paul speaks to the Galatians in such way, to communicate in an apologetic form, the slavery of the law and the freedom the Gentiles now have in faith in/through Jesus Christ. “Paul relentlessly called them back to the freedom of the Spirit which they once knew when the apostle first opened the gospel to them.” (Polhill 152)

    (2) Anna- “I think we need to react in love when we encounter people believing a lie or teaching a lie.”

    This is a beautiful statement. In the time that I preached with such zeal, the LORD ended up convicting me in the manner of my love for people. I began to understand that I only cared about the spiritual aspects of people not being damned to hell, rather than having a care and concern for the wholistic well-being of a person. ‘The Love of Christ’ ought to compel me in my sharing of the gospel. I think going to school has made me much more conscious of my ethics.

    (3) “Paul’s letter is not really harsh, so much as it is honest and in it’s own way, caring.” – Micah

    I’m not sure if I totally agree with this statment. I do see what you are trying to point out that Paul is doing this out of love to appeal to his fellow believers to turn back to the correct gospel. However, after reading Polhill he puts it very clear that Paul’s words are pretty harsh. “Paul was absolutely livid. He was angry with the Galatians for so quickly deserting the true gosepl for a perversion (1:6; Polhill 139). They were stupid; they were abandoning the Spirit for the flesh (3:1-5). Read this whole paragraph, I’m not going to quote it all, but it looks to me that Paul is very upset. He doesn’t even include a greeting or emphasis he is coming in grace and peace. He preaches boldly to the issues being addressed here.

  6. Righteous indignation is an interesting topic indeed. Unsure of what it actually meant, I looked it up on and found that it meant “retribution, retributive justice, anger and contempt combined with a feeling that it is one’s right to feel that way; anger without guilt”. I am unsure yet on how I feel about this subject to be honest. I do believe that if someone is teaching a false Gospel or perverting it in some way, there should be consequences and one should be rebuked and corrected in a way to stop them from converting the minds of many people, but just as to how far one should go with expressing anger and retribution is something I am still struggling with. If used correctly, it may be useful for some people and even some churches, however, I personally would not be too keen over the idea of someone rebuking me out of anger and I believe that in today’s day and age, most people would agree with me. I like what Anna said “If we were to take this same approach with the preachers/teachers of false gospels and their followers we would alienate them before giving time to share the truth of the gospel”. However, righteous indignation was probably the best tacit for Paul to use in his time. Pohill described the people in Paul’s day to “often vilified their opponents, painting them in the starkest of hues possible” (140). If this was the case, I believe that righteous indignation was exactly what the people in Galatia needed in order to turn once again to the true Gospel.
    I want to spend a little time on the topic of Paul’s attitude towards the Galatian church. I am not sure if it’s just the fact that I do not want to think of Paul as this big angry man, or that I really just feel that Paul isn’t being as harsh as I feel Pohill and some other people are making him out to be but I tend to want to agree with Plong where he is saying that “The harshness we detect is perhaps more of a product of our modern, western multiculturalism”. I personally believe that this harshness that we are reading in Galatians is more of Paul’s zealous and passionate character/personality. When Paul was Saul, he was zealous to kill off the Christians that threatened to disprove or discredit his religion and I believe that when he was converted, his personality never changed and he just became zealous for Jesus Christ instead. Paul believed that they were in the age of Christ’s return and he had been given the job of sharing this message so that people all over could be saved. Paul is being blunt in trying to save the Galatians from Hell. Literally. “Paul knows that there are dangerous implications for those gentiles that try to keep the Law, they risk not really being saved” (Phil Long) and these harsh words found in 1:6-10 and elsewhere in the letter to Galatia were just an attempt to show them how much he cares about their lives.

  7. I think that Jesus’ example of when to use ‘righteous indignation’ is an indication of when we should be upset. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, Jesus usually gets angry and rebukes Jews (the ‘believers’), not the Gentiles(the ‘nonbelievers’). In Matthew 23:23 Jesus says,

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish and then the outside also will be clean.”

    Jesus is upset with those that know the law and act righteous but are truly not living for God. Another example of Jesus becoming infuriated is when he drove out the Jews making the temple a ‘den of thieves’.

    A higher standard is set for those that are Christians. Nonbelievers should not be held to the same standard that Christians are because, as 2 Cor. 4:4 says,
    “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

    I believe that we should approach the unbeliever with kindness, grace, and understanding for their sin condition. Jesus demonstrates these characteristics in many situations. One that comes to mind is when he saves the prostitute from becoming stoned by asking the crowd to throw the first stone if they are without sin.

    Paul seems to follow this example by becoming upset with the Galatians and with Peter and Barnabas. He becomes so upset with the Galatians, he goes so far as to say they are stupid (139). I’m sure that felt like a slap in the face when reading the letter. Paul was upset with Peter and Barnabas for not eating with the Gentiles. Paul does as Jesus does by remembering that it is the sick that need the doctor and not the healthy and It is those that know God that need yelling at, not those that don’t know Him.

  8. Righteous indignation…righteous anger… When I think of righteous anger, I often think of the way that God might feel towards us. He has these great opportunities and these amazing plans for us, and then we do something our way rather than His way. He is angry because He loves us so much that when we screw up, it stands in between the great things that he intends for us to have and do. God is commonly referred to as a father caring for his children, which is very true. I can’t tell you how many times my parents would be so upset with me because I went my own way instead of the way that they knew I should. It placed a void between us because I was so insistent that I knew the best way and the only thing that was left was for me to fall and come running back to them. God is just waiting for us to come running back to Him.
    I view Paul in this same light. The Galatians have gone down their own path, and he loves them so much that he is angry at them for forgetting the things that he has taught them. He only wants what is best for them and wants them to come running back to him, but more importantly, he wants them to come running back to God, whose message Paul is preaching. Polhill comments that he is so angry at the Galatians that he even forgot to include his “customary thanksgiving and prayer for the Galatians.” (p. 145) Consider chapter 3, the anger that Paul feels is coming off in waves at this point. This righteous anger, or righteous indignation as PLong puts it, is about Paul’s love for the Galatians and about their realizing their place as children of God. It is about making them better than they could have ever realized with their own power.

    • “he is angry at them for forgetting the things that he has taught them”, or better, for rejecting the things that he has taught them! That is the issue, not that they “forgot,” but that they have willingly rejected waht Paul taught!

  9. It is tough to draw a line in this situation. I feel like determining whether to present the Gospel in a way that Paul did, where what he was saying was the only truth and people need conversion, or to present it more watered down can be determined by the audience in today’s society. Even though I find myself more on the side of staying away from a watered down Gospel in most situations, I can see where watering it down a little bit could work, pertaining to the world today.
    Prime example: Rob Bell. Universalism is just a different interpretation that someone has about God’s plan for the world. Why bash and hate on it, even if he does not point to a literal hell. In one aspect, this is a watered down Gospel in that he does not throw the fact in peoples’ faces that if you have a relationship with Jesus Christ you go to heaven, and if you don’t, you go to hell. I do not agree with everything he says, but what if people are attracted to this Gospel, and accept Jesus Christ into their lives when they never would have before because of the fact that now they see God as more loving? It is a tough situation, and I believe that Paul would be very turned off by Rob Bell’s new book back in Biblical times, but now-a-days, people think differently and are different.
    “Let anyone, even an angel, go to hell, if they preached a different gospel, because there is no other gospel, only false gospels” (Polhill, 45), or similarly Paul in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!”

    • “Prime example: Rob Bell. Universalism is just a different interpretation that someone has about God’s plan for the world. ”

      This is a great example, I am surprised no one took up Rob Bell before now. To some, this is a “Critically important element of the gospel,” to others it is a difference in interpretation. I suspect that Paul would disagree with the specific issue of alleged universalism in Bells book, but probably not call him out for teaching “another gospel” at this point. (I also think there are plenty of other things Paul would go nuclear on in the pop-oriented modern church!)

  10. I like what Cory has to say about this post. It is tough to draw a clear line in this sort of situation. Although, to play devil advocate, i feel like in this early of a setting, a watered down version of the Gospel might not be the best idea. Paul was sharing a new message that needed to be conveyed clearly. All throughout the new testament we find truths that, if watered down, could be missed or misinterpreted. Paul would have wanted to avoid the, “i accept this part of the Gospel, but this part is sort of unclear so i will avoid it”. He needed to convey the message of the Gospel in a clear and distinguishable way, and I think he did just that.

  11. Righteous Indignation… I am certain there is a place for it, but I am hard pressed to draw any sort of definitive line (outside of Salvation by Grace through faith in Christ’s perfect sacrifice at Calvary). We draw all manner of denominational divisions. Some of these divisions may be beneficial in so far as they allow different groups to focus on different tasks and different demographics in ministry. This is virtually the only benefit I have been able to find for these divisions, but it is a significant benefit.
    I bring this up, because this is only the case for some of these divisions. Others of these divisions are muddied and colored by a belief in the absolute depraved immorality and false doctrine of one another’s beliefs. Perhaps this is valid and perhaps it is not, depending on the situation, but that is precisely my point. I have no idea where I would draw a line. The best line I can draw is just what I stated earlier. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. Anything which exceeds this is “Legalism” and anything less than this would have to be apostacy.
    I am plagued by paradoxical worries. On the one hand, I worry that some people, perhaps even I myself, are prone to deride other Christians’ beliefs and cast them aside as illegitimate or ill-founded without any real basis for such analysis. On the other hand, I worry that many people, quite likely myself included, are prone to let slide a variety of very dangerous ideas in the name of acceptance and tolerance… Either of these two courses have dangerous consequences.
    As I said, There is most certainly a place for Righteous indignation… I am just terribly uncertain as to where that place is…

  12. I honestly think that Paul’s “harshness” or “indignation” could just be a personality thing. Some people just react to things differently. His personality might have been more forward and “no nonsense.” This could maybe make sense with the Barnabas and John Mark deal where Paul and Barnabas disagreed and separated. Paul could just be really type A. Or maybe he went for the holy anger thing like Jesus did in the temple. Who knows?

  13. I feel like Paul had a legitimate reason to be harsh in his teachings. He was strongly convicted that his gospel was the only way people are going to be justified. Paul writes in Galatians 3:10 “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” Paul admits that he used to live under the law and kept it perfectly, but that was not at all pleasing to God. In this case, Paul is talking to the Galatians, who are saved and is calling them foolish. they are living in ways that are not so pleasing to God what so ever. THis all being said, Paul had a very good reason for preaching the way he did in a harsh manner.

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