Who are you listening to?
That’s a question I’m asking myself these days.
After realizing that I fell into the all-too common trap of studying the Bible for preaching and teaching, and for seminary assignments, but not to nurture my own relationship with God, I’ve been working my way through Galatians this summer. And let me tell you, I have missed this. This time that’s between me and God for no other purpose than for me to rest in God’s love. This way of worship for which I am primarily wired. This message of grace, grace, all is grace.
There’s also something in this letter that I’ve missed every time I’ve read it.
…we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.
There’s a lot going in Galatians, and there’s debate as to what the going’s on actually are. What seems clear to me is that there are people – who could be classified as people who genuinely love God – who are undermining the freedom that the believers in this region possess because of their relationship with God through Christ. These people – again, people who probably love God – are telling the Galatians that there’s more they need to do. Sure, yes, confess your belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fantastic. But also make sure to keep the law, specifically the practice of circumcision. Basically, you Gentiles should take the extra step of becoming Jewish.
Are these the same people that Paul is saying he didn’t submit to? I don’t think so. He calls them “false believers” in verse 4. There’s a difference between a false believer and someone who truly believes but is off in their practice. The end result is the same – chaos and legalism. But you don’t interact with a false believer and someone whose practice is off in quite the same way. Obviously I wasn’t there, but having read all of his letters multiple times, I think Paul probably had more patience for those whose practice is off. After all, he spends a good amount of ink writing to that kind of person.
Still, there is a common thread. Paul doesn’t submit to the false believers (and how I wish there was a recording of what went down in that moment). He also tells the Galatians not to surrender their freedom to anyone. Actually, he goes a step further, writing,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?
To be clear: Paul is Jewish. He is not anti-law. He is not anti-Judaism. He is, however, anti any roadblocks that anyone would erect to keep anyone from experiencing life-giving relationship with God. In this letter, that looks like reminding these Gentile Christians that he never told them that they needed to become Jewish pre- or post-conversion, because God never told him to communicate that to them. They aren’t called to keep the law the way a Jewish person is (and I think it can be argued that Paul and especially the author of the letter to the Hebrews teaches that Jewish people are no longer required to keep the law in the same way they had before). The point: Christ brings freedom. Out of that freedom we are moved to respond to God’s love with love, by nurturing our restored relationship to God, ourselves, others, and all of creation. We do good not to earn freedom. We do good because we already have it, and we want others to have it.
Anyway, like I wrote above, there is debate. This is simply what makes sense to me as I study.
What truly stands out to me here is that Paul is telling them not to submit to anyone and everyone who claims to speak for God. Paul also models that for them. He is telling them to think for themselves. He reminds them that they have the Spirit. They can interact with God directly. And this challenges an assumption that I didn’t know I had. I don’t know when I picked it up, either.
It’s easy to refuse to submit to someone who makes outrageous statements and clearly lives in a way that is out of alignment with God’s character and love. What is not so easy is to refuse to submit to someone who isn’t saying anything outrageous, and who isn’t blatantly out of alignment with God, but is nevertheless challenging what you know to be true of yourself and God and God’s design for your life. Again to be clear: Being challenged isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It’s important to be open to learning from anyone at any time. It’s also important to know that people are people, and can and do get it wrong. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love God. It does mean that they don’t always see things clearly.
You don’t have to submit to everyone all the time.
You don’t have to do exactly what they tell you to do.
You can and should take a breath, a pause, a step back, and go to God, all on your own, and ask, “Are they right on this? Did I mishear You?”
You can and should say, “Brother…sister…I love you, but I do not agree. In fact, you are wrong.”
The voice of God is the voice that matters.
So go to God, again and constantly. Doing so doesn’t mean that you reject other believers. It just means that people are people, and can and do get it wrong.
God never gets it wrong.
GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,