1. New Testament Cameos of the Church
Some of the things I like about the early church are the cameos we can read in the Acts of the Apostles, and the stories of the spread of the gospel throughout (what we might call) Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece. Because, yes, growth wasn’t always easy, and there was a lot of opposition from outside of the church. But, despite that, the church grew. And in a sense these cameos describe how the church should be.
Unfortunately, things didn’t stay that way. And when we read further, particularly some of the letters of Paul, we very quickly find those churches changing for the worst, and beginning to tear themselves apart. So from such a promising start, things very quickly tended to go terribly wrong.
So what was the problem? Why did things go downhill so very quickly? And what can we learn from the mistakes of the past, to make sure that we don’t end down the same track?
2. The Churches in Galatia
Well in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in the first 7 verses of that letter we find the problem of that church in a nutshell. Verse 4 tells us that they had received a gospel of grace; that Jesus Christ had given himself for their sins to rescue them. But then verse 7 tells us that the gospel was being perverted by a group of people within the church. But not only that, in verse 6 we’re told, that the church was deserting the person who had brought them the gospel in the first place. In other words in these first 7 verses, we have the familiar story of the early church – an ideal church based on a gospel of grace, being perverted into something quite different.
But who were the Galatians? What had they actually done? And who was this person who had brought them the gospel in the first place?
B. PAUL AND THE CHURCHES OF GALATIA
Firstly, who were the Galatians?
Well, sadly, the answer to that is that we really don’t know. The Roman province of Galatia, like all territories, has shifted its boundaries over the years. It has included the towns of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, where Paul founded churches on his first missionary journey. But, it has also been known for the official administrative centres in the north, in the towns of Pessinus, Ancyra and Tavium, to which the official term “Galatians” fits very well. However, regardless of to whom this letter was really, it seems to have been written as a circular to the surrounding churches too. Perhaps indicating that the problem was far more widespread.
So secondly, what had these Galatians actually done? How had they perverted the gospel of grace?
Well we don’t actually have to go very far to answer this question, because the letter is full of clues. And if we read it, and don’t come out with the idea that people were being taught that males needed to be circumcised, and that aspects of the old Hebrew law needed to be kept, then there would be something wrong. The reality was that there were some Jews in the church who had converted to Christianity, who either couldn’t let go of their past, or were being pressurised by Jews outside the church to continue their old Jewish practices. As a consequence they were adding certain ceremonial practices, effectively changing the gospel of grace into a gospel of works.
And thirdly, who was this mystery person who had brought them the gospel in the first place?
Well it was none other than Paul himself (as we find in 4:13). At the time Paul hadn’t been well, and had either stopped over or diverted from his journey to recover. But despite his illness, the people had welcomed him, accepted the unadulterated version of the gospel, a gospel of grace, and had been filled wih joy.
2. Paul’s Biography
a). Paul’s Motivation (1:10-12)
Now you can probably begin to see, then, what Paul’s involvement had been with the churches of Galatia, and why this letter was written with such passion. Because skip forward something like 3 to 5 years after his visit, and imagine Paul either in Lebanon or Greece hearing what had happened. And on that basis we can now read his response. And what we have is – his defence of the gospel of grace, and his denouncement of a gospel of works.
But, perhaps, mixed in with that, is something of his own defence. Because in trying to win their case for the inclusion of Jewish practices, the Judaisers had undermined Paul’s reputation. They had claimed that Paul adjusted the gospel to suit his audience; that he provided one version for the Jews, and another version for the Gentiles. And he did so to bignote himself, so he would be seen as a true apostle
At the heart of Paul’s response then is the claim that his sole motivation was to serve God (not man). And that the gospel of grace was given to him directly by revelation from Jesus himself, without any human involvement whatsoever. And he provided a short biography to prove his point.
b). The Gospel According to Paul (1:14-24)
He begins with his non-Christian past: his life in Judaism, his persecution of Christians, and his love of the law. And indeed, it’s like Paul is saying, “I’ve been there done that . The laws and practices that you are now adding to the gospel used to be my life. But that’s history, I’ve left all that behind.” He then continues with his Christian life, to prove why the Gospel of Grace is the only genuine gospel.
Indeed, he refers to his Damascus Road experience and his personal call by Jesus to the faith (still with no other human involvement). He then goes on with his call to preach the gospel, his time of reflection in Arabia, and his return to witness in Damascus. And then, he says, 3 years after his conversion he went to Jerusalem for the first time, but even so he only met with Peter and James. After which he spent some time in Syria and Cilicia where he preached the gospel , but quite independently of the existing Christian church.
c). Paul’s Commission by the Church (2:1-10)
Furthermore, it was 14 years after his conversion that he went with Barnabas and Titus to Jerusalem. And only then did he lay out the gospel he had been preaching to the Gentiles, to the leaders of the church. And even then they didn’t add anything to it, or take anything away from it. Indeed they entrusted Paul with the gospel to the Gentiles, as is.
There were only two concessions they asked of Paul. The first was that Titus, a gentile, should be circumcised. But not because he needed to be for the gospel, but as a concession to certain sham-Christians. And the second…. was to care for the poor, as he had intended to do anyway.
What we have in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, then, is a statement that the gospel, the gospel of grace, is the only true gospel, and that it was given to Paul directly by God. Indeed even the apostles were unable to fault what he was saying. There wasn’t one gospel for one group, and another gospel for another. And on that basis, from Paul’s own life experience, he effectively appealed to the Galatians to put aside their gospel of works (no matter how attractive it was to them), and to return to the gospel of grace.
Now I think the story of Paul and the churches of Galatia is rather sad. And you could easily ask, why did they let it happen? And why did they allow Paul to be treated so badly in the process? But then don’t we have a bible full of stories of people who wanted to change God’s message? People who were determined to adapt the faith to suit themselves. And don’t we have a bible full of stories where God’s messengers were rejected, hurt, and even killed in the process?
So what are the lessons that we can learn from the mistakes of history? What can we learn from the example of the Galatians? Well I think in the context of the letter, we need to ask ourselves 3 questions.
b). The Gospel of Grace
And the first thing that we need to do is to ask ourselves “are we united in the only gospel, the gospel of grace? Have we accepted that the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for us to rescue us? Is that the gospel we believe in, pure and simple, with nothing added and nothing taken away?”
Now for those who are tempted to nod at this point, a warning… Because you know if that was really true then surely what our church should look like, is one of those cameos from the Acts of the Apostles that I mentioned before . And the one we can read about in Acts 2:42-47 is a good example.
Now I’m not saying that in the 21st century that that is exactly how the church should look like today. But what I am saying is that the unity, the meeting together, the disregard for personal possessions, the caring for one another, and the imperative to worship of God, should all be features of a church which is united in the gospel of grace.
c). A Gospel of Works
As a consequence, if we’re not like that, the second question we should ask ourselves is, “Have we corrupted the gospel of grace? Have we added to it, or taken from it, so it is more to our liking? Have we converted the gospel of grace into a gospel of works?”
Now I think it is here, that we in our churches today should be nodding.
You know corrupting the gospel is a very easy thing to do. We can do it without even thinking. After all, we all have things which are helpful for us. We all have ways that we like things done, even things we like to surround ourselves with. And there may be nothing wrong with any of those things, per se. But should even the slightest thing that we like, become a thing that we must do, then we have a problem. And it becomes an even bigger problem should we then impose it on others. And symbols and traditions are two of those things that so many people like, but can so easily take on a whole new life of their own.
Now I’ve never been in any church that has been totally united in the gospel. Not one. And the route cause, as you probably realise, is that not everyone is on the same page. Not everyone is united in the gospel of grace. And the most common indication of that is that the church is in decline. And yet one of things that I have noticed about declining churches, is their unwillingness to even consider unravelling their gospel of works, to restore it to the gospel of grace. It is extraordinary the lengths that people go to maintain the things that they like, the things they find personally helpful. But the things that create a millstone around the necks of others.
d). Shooting the Messenger
And when that happens, what happened to Paul, is what happens even in our churches today. So the third question we should asking is, “Are we the kind of the church that when things go wrong, or we don’t get all our own way, that we begin to look for someone to blame?”
Now that might sound like an extraordinary question. But the reality is: that the Israelites blamed Moses for their problems in the wilderness; most of the kings were very antagonistic to the prophets; the Pharisees and the Sadducees did much to undermine the ministry of Jesus (before putting him to death); and as we’ve seen the Galatian church attacked Paul. Apart from that, however, my experience is that that it is very common for a Rector to be attacked by members of his or her parish too. Indeed as I read Paul’s letter in preparation today I couldn’t help empathise with Paul. And even say, “Been there done that.”
Of course shooting the messenger doesn’t help the situation. On the contrary it makes it far far worse. And the reason for that is: it doesn’t deal with the issue. It doesn’t deal with the issue of having strayed from the gospel of grace. And it doesn’t deal with the need to be united in the gospel at all.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians, then, is a glimpse of what happened when a group of people accepted the gospel of grace. And then began to add to it and subtract from it, to make it more acceptable. The result was a church that lost the true gospel, adopted a false gospel, and people got hurt – Paul in particular.
There are lessons that we can learn from the Galatians experience. And they all revolve around the same three questions:
The first is, “Are we a church that believes and practices the gospel of grace? Do we believe that Jesus did indeed give himself for our sins to rescue us? Are we all united in that gospel of grace?” Secondly, “Are we a church that has adapted the gospel, and consequently made it a gospel of works? Are there things that we’ve added? Are their things we have taken away? How careful are we with our symbols and our traditions?” And if we have strayed, then, thirdly, “Do we have a tendency to shoot the messenger to get our way, or when things go wrong? Do we undermine the ministry of our people in order to get our way?”
© 2015, Brian A Curtis