Restoring Others Gently – Galatians 6:1

Paul described what those who “walk by the Spirit” look like in Gal 5:22-26. In the first part of chapter 6 Paul gives another example of walking in the Spirit from Galatians 5. There is a contrast between bearing the burden of the Law (Acts 15:10, 28) and bearing one another’s burdens. These burdens may be spiritual, but there are real physical burdens in mind here as well. The household of God is called to do good to all people, beginning with those in the household who cannot carry their own burdens.

Those who live by the Spirit will restore one another when they are “caught in sin.” What does this mean? To be “caught in sin” sounds like the person is caught red-handed, in the act of a sin. Sometimes people think that if they are not caught, it does not count against them (like speed limits, for example).  But the word Paul uses (προλαμβάνω) translated “overtake” in the aorist passive, as in hunting down an animal (T.Judah 2:5, for example).

Image result for hester prynneIf a person is caught, they are to be restored (καταρτίζω), returned to their former condition. The verb is used for folding and mending nets in Matt 4:21, or to complete what is lacking in 1 Thessalonians 3:10. The restoration is to be done gently (πραΰτης), the same word Paul used as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:23. This means that the church is not arrogant or inconsiderate when dealing with a public sin, they seek to restore the person to fellowship without humiliating the person who was caught by a sin. The goal of any correction in this verse is a restoration of the brother who has sinned. Paul is not creating some sort of inquisition here.

But Paul also warns the reader not to think too much of themselves. His main concern is conceit and self-deception. Like Gal 5:26, Paul is concerned that the one who “walks by the Spirit” will be tempted, thinking that they are spiritual when they are not. By helping another believer deal with their own burden of sin, someone might become conceited, thinking that they are better than the one caught in sin. There is a balance between confronting a brother or sister in Christ who has a problem and meddling in things that are not your business.

Self-examination is therefore critical for a community of believers. While Paul has encouraged restoring a brother caught in sin, he is not inviting the congregation to investigate the private lives of members of the church looking for potential sins. This verse does not call for an inquisition which investigates church members looking for potential sins.

On the contrary, the first (and only) person that a believer ought to investigate is himself! In verse 1 he says that the spiritual ones who are trying to restore a person caught in sin ought to examine themselves first (σκοπέω). In verse 4 he says that each believer ought to test (δοκιμάζω) their own work. Both words have the sense of critical examination.

Contrary to popular belief (and practice), Christians are not called to a life of critical examination of the lives of other people. After carefully examining their own loves they may be able to restore a brother or a sister in Christ who struggles with sin, but there is no warrant in the New Testament for the sort of judgmental attitude associated with Christianity.

If this balance between self-examination and gentle restoration were practiced regularly, how would it transform the church?

Galatians 5:13-16 – Freedom in Christ

The fact the believer is free from the Law should not necessarily lead to the view that the believer may indulge in sinful behavior (Galatians 5:13). Does Paul contradict himself in this verse? He has consistently argued in Galatians that the believer is free from slavery to the Law, but now he says the believer ought to re-submit to slavery, this time to his neighbor. Freedom from Law is not a freedom from everything. There is always some sort of obligation to fulfill, whether to the government or family, etc. Here in Galatians 5, Paul has in mind our obligation to serve God by serving one another.

Galatians Freedom in ChristSince the one who is in Christ is free from the obligations of the Law, they now must voluntarily re-enslave themselves to the Spirit. For Paul, there are only two possibilities, either one is enslaved to the flesh, or one is enslaved to the Spirit. Paul will unpack what he means by flesh and Spirit in the next paragraph, but for now it is important to understand these are the only two options for the one who is in Christ.

Based on what Paul says in Galatians, the Law is not an option for living out a life “in Christ.” Nor is it acceptable to blend a life “in Christ” with something else, such as a Greek philosophy or worship of another god. Paul would be just as critical of the Galatian churches if they chose to live out a new life in Christ through popular Stoic or Epicurean ethical philosophy as he is with the Gentiles trying to keep the Law.

The fact we are free from the Mosaic Law is not to be used as a reason to indulge in sinful behavior. The noun here refers to a starting point, like capital for a business venture or a military base from which an assault is launched. By the first century, the word was used for “pretext” or “occasion, opportunity.” In 1 Timothy 5:14 it is used for an “excuse” for Satan to slander unmarried widows for moral lapses.

Since the believer in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law, it is possible some people took Paul’s gospel as a license to sin. Paul must deal with this problem here and in Romans 6:1-1-4 since there were people who did take their freedom too far. Some of the problems described in 1 Timothy and Titus are a result of people “sinning so that grace might abound.” The letter of Jude deals with people who “pervert the grace of our God into a license to sin” (Jude 4). If someone is free from all restraint of the Law, what keeps them from indulging in all sorts of sin?

Someone might say, “If election and preservation means I cannot lose my salvation, then I can behave any way I would like and still be saved.” Paul would never agree with this statement. This is an issue of spiritual maturity. For example, imagine the first taste of freedom a teen has when they go to college. Mom and Dad are not watching them all of the time so they have the freedom to do whatever they want. As a result, many college freshmen get into trouble (or at least the freshman fifteen….or twenty!)

While it is possible for a person to understand their freedom in Christ in this way, Paul says it is inappropriate for the one who is “walking by the Spirit” to indulge the sinful nature.

What is an example of a Christian using their freedom as an excuse for sin? Based on Galatians, how would Paul respond to that sort of misuse of one’s freedom in Christ?

Galatians 5:1 – Why Legalism?

Galatians 5:1 is a transition from the scriptural argument in Galatians 3-4 to the final section. In Galatians 5-6 Paul deals with the consequences of legalism. This is a real problem for Paul’s view of the Law. If the believer is free from the Law, what God does require? Is there another law or set of instructions the Gentile believer in Christ must now follow? There appear to be some Christians who want to mark out a series of “dos and dont’s” in order to keep believers from doing things they consider to be sin. Or is it the case that the Christian completely free from all laws and rules? Since Paul says in Romans 6 the Christian cannot “sin that grace may abound,” it seems like there were people who thought they could indulge in all kinds of behavior and still be right with God.

This is a difficult passage because Paul is very personal and emotional. Paul drives his point home using language which is jarring and unexpected. If the Galatians return to the old covenant, Paul says :Christ will be of no advantage to them” and they will put themselves in very real spiritual danger. Paul’s use of shocking language in these verses is calculated and intentional – he is demanding that his readers make a decision to stand firm in the gospel now, before they accept the Law. It will take a conscious decision on the part of the Galatian believers to be “in Christ,” to live in the freedom of their adoption as children of God rather than to return to the now out-dated and obsolete covenant of the Law.

What would be the motivation for Gentile members of the Galatian churches to adopt Jewish Law? Ben Witherington suggests that by accepting Jesus as messiah and Savior, they have also turned their backs on the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman world as well as ritual observances associated with the gods. To accept Jesus as Savior is to reject pagan gods.  By rejecting pagan gods, the Gentile converts severed many social ties and joined a religious movement unlike the rest of the ancient world. There are virtually no rituals in the Christian church other than an initiation ritual and a shared meal. There are no sacrifices or liturgy to follow, no festivals, feast days, temple or central gathering places.The Jewish Law, in Witherington’s view, provided an opportunity for Gentile believers to concretely express their Christian identity. Since Judaism was an ancient religion, Gentile converts could avoid the charge that they were accepting a new religion, a “superstition” which was suspect in the Roman world.

Here we see one of the greatest applications of Galatians to a modern church setting. What is it that motivates people to be “legalists” in contemporary Christianity? Very few people would argue that Christians ought to be keeping the whole law (although there are a few). More likely is the claim that one must do a series of rituals in order to be right with God, or that one must subscribe to a particular doctrinal formulation, or that one must avoid certain lifestyles or behaviors. Paul never says that one must act like a Christian in order to be right with God – one is right with God because they have been adopted into God’s family and they are his children.

Paul is not talking about a religion in Galatians, but rather a relationship with God.  We are not slaves, but rather his dearly loved children.

Galatians 4:21-5:1 – Sarah and Hagar

This is the final stage in Paul’s scriptural argument against the agitators in the Galatian churches. He has made the point that Abraham was justified before circumcision, rather than after. In fact, Abraham was right with God before the Law was given at all.

He now moves to a allegorical argument based on the two wives and two children of Abraham. This is one of the most difficult passages in all of the Pauline letters for several reasons. First, Paul uses a method which is not simply unfamiliar to us, it seems to be drawing things out of the text which are simply not there. If a modern pastor made this sort of an argument, most people would question them and probably reject the argument based on the use of allegory alone.

Second, the allegory itself seems strange to the modern reader since it is not a modern allegory at all (Aslan is Jesus, Pilgrim’s Progress, etc.). But that is not at all the sort of allegory Paul wants to find in the Sarah and Hagar story. Paul is creating a contrast between the two sons of Abraham, one who was born free, and the other who was born in slavery. The story in Genesis is not an allegory at all, Paul is drawing an allegorical contrast from it. As Ben Witherington points out, Paul is using allegory to contemporize a text, not find “deeper meanings” (Galatians, 330). In other words, this is more like an application, or an analogy in contemporary rhetoric rather than a full allegorization of the original story.

With those clarifications, what is the point of the allegory? These two covenants are contrasted as between the earthly Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem. This is obscure, but Paul’s point is to connect the old covenant (the Law) with Sinai, a location outside of the land, in Hagar’s territory, with the new covenant enacted in the “real” Jerusalem in Heaven.

The fact that Paul considers Jerusalem to be under the yoke of slavery is significant. He could be referring to the fact that it is still under Roman rule (the exile continues), but likely as not he is dismissing the earthly Jerusalem because the agitators make a great deal about their connection to the Jerusalem church.

What is surprising is that Hagar represents those who are enslaved by the Law, or Second Temple Period Judaism! Sarah is the free woman, therefore she represents those who are saved apart from the law. Going back to verse 19, Paul describes his ministry as “bearing free children” like Sarah, while the agitators are “bearing slave children” like Hagar. It is all that they are capable of since they are still under the yoke of the Law (Witherington, Galatians, 331).

The point of the analogy is made clear when we realize that Paul is taking on the role of Sarah and commanding that the agitators be expelled from the church! As strange as it sounds, Paul is speaking the words of Sarah to the congregations. The agitators must be removed because there is danger in letting them remain. Like Ishmael, they threaten the (spiritual) life of the true heirs of Abraham.

This seems strong by contemporary standards, but for Paul this is critical to the health of the church. The agitators are attacking what it means to be “in Christ” and therefore risk destroying the church. As he will say in 5:9-10, the bad yeast must be wholly removed and thrown away. Just a little legalism is enough to ruin the whole church!

Galatians 3:28: Neither Jew nor Gentile

For the Apostle Paul, the believer’s the status as “in Christ” makes all the previous social distinctions meaningless, including ethnic and social distinctions.After arguing the Gentile who has come to Christ in faith is not under the Law, he states they are all children of God and are “clothed in Christ” (Gal 3:26-27).  He then makes the stunning proclamation that “all are one in Christ,” so there are no Jew or Gentile, no slave not free, no male nor female. Karin Neutel examined these three pairs in detail and concludes Paul is describing “ideal ways to live and to organize society” (16).

The first of the three pairs of relationships Paul mentions is ethnic (Jew nor Gentile), but most appropriate for the main theme of Galatians. If one is “in Christ,” it does not matter if one is born a Jew or a Gentile.

The reason these social distinctions no longer matter is that the one who is “in Christ” by faith is now the offspring Abraham. We are the same family, therefore ethnic and social distinctions no longer matter.  The idea of family is important in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures.  The bonds between brothers were more important than the bonds of marriage – family always came first.

This means there is no point to conversion to Judaism, since there is no difference in Christ. This is potentially the most radical thing Paul has said so far in Galatians. For the agitators, and probably for James, the Gentiles are becoming part of Israel, so they are Jews, no longer Gentiles. Paul claims here that when one has “put on Christ” ethnic distinctions no longer matter. There is no longer an advantage to being Jewish, or a disadvantage to being Gentile (or, form a Gentile’s perspective, no disadvantage to being a Jew or advantage being a Roman). The only status which is significant in the age of the Spirit is being “in Christ.”

The second pair (slave nor free) breaks down one of the most important social distinctions in the ancient word, the distinction between between a free person and a slave. Sociologically, there would be no way a person who a free citizen of Rome (like Paul) would recognize a slave as an equal. In fact, a Roman who had a high status would not recognize a lowly servant at all. Yet here Paul declares that all who are “in Christ” are equal. This means at a shared meal, a free person would share food with their slave as equals. This should be extended by analogy to “rich and poor” (as it is in James), or Roman citizen or non-citizen. Whatever a society considers to be elite or utterly untouchable are now equal in the Body of Christ.

The third pair is perhaps the more surprising since virtually every culture would have made a distinction between male and female. It is possible women were considered second class in the Body of Christ since they could not fully keep the Law (the could not submit to circumcision as a sign of he covenant). Ben Witherington suggested the Galatian agitators may have required that a woman be married to a man who was properly keeping the Law in order to be considered a Christian (Witherington, Galatians, 279). Imagine a shared meal where a young gentile slave woman sat at the same table as a Roman freedman slave owner and shared food. These two people on the opposite ends of the social ladder are equal because their status of “in Christ” trumps any earthly status.

Like Jesus before him, Paul is creating a new family which transcends human family. The members of the churches at Galatia are part of a family now, the family of Abraham, and that new relationship in Christ is more important that earthly family distinction. That the body of Christ is a family is foundation for the argument Paul is making here. If we are in Christ we are a new creation, but we are also part of a new family, adopted by God and therefore responsible to that new family.  The old family is left behind and only the new matters.

This is perhaps one of the most applicable passages in Galatians since so much of the American church is separated into social and racial groups.There are not many multi-racial churches, this is a oft-observed problem.  But there are not very many churches which mix the wealthy and the poor either.  Part of the problem is that wealthy Christians tend to build big churches where they live, not where the poor live.  Perhaps the poor would be welcome, but we are not going out of our way to welcome them!

What are other implications for Paul’s vision of equality in the Body of Christ? Does this have something to say about who leads the church? Is this statement a “cosmopolitan ideal” (to use Neutel’s phrase) intended to reform all of society, or is it limited to the church itself?

 

Bibliography: Karin B. Neutel, A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul’s Declaration “Neither Jew nor Greek, Neither Slave nor Free, nor Male and Female” in the Context of First-Century Thought (LNTS 513; London; Bloomsbury, 2015), 16.