Summary of the text: A Tough Way to Start Ministry
You don’t have to spend much time on Twitter or Facebook to be reminded that schadenfreude (taking joy from another’s misfortune) is alive and well. Depending on whose downfall or misfortune is in view, you might not even have to log on anywhere, finding globs of glee bubbling up in your own heart. Some of this is to be expected in our present political climate, where the fall of an ideological opponent can make it seem as though your own view is inching closer to an elusive vindication (and it doesn’t help that many conspiracy theories and irrational views currently have large followings). So the antivaxxer gets sick. The smug politician is proven to be a hypocrite. The brash megachurch preacher is caught in a scandal. And you feel that warm glow of being correct—you reap what you sow, right? (For a particularly stark illustration of this, consider reading this Slate article on what has been dubbed, “the Herman Cain Award.”)
When someone within our own circle of influence is caught up in error or sin the temptation is either to gloat (perhaps more inwardly than one might with a public figure) or, if we like the person, to turn a blind eye. Paul points us in a more helpful direction—to restoration. And a restoration than is marked by a spirit of gentleness (one of the fruits of the Spirit he has just listed), and by a humility that acknowledges that—as Augustine would put it—“there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Focusing on repentance and healing, rather than on either judgment or avoidance, can guide the situation to a Freude (joy/pleasure) that is unalloyed with Schaden (misfortune).
Caveat: what if there are victims?
While no crime and no sin is, in an absolute sense, “victimless,” some have more obvious, and obviously harmed, victims. In these cases this “restoration” might not look like the common English usage of that term. It’s worth noting that katartisis can also mean “discipline.” Some churches have rushed to “restore” an offending pastor to the original office with very little “discipline” (and often little regard for justice for any victims). In some cases restoration should not include a return to a position of influence at all, with the focus being on “restoring” the offender’s soul, and not their position.
At a few points in this concluding chapter of Galatians Paul seems to be contradicting himself—almost as if this were a Socratic dialogue, but with the name of his interlocuter redacted.
Paul: Bear one another’s burdens.
Opponent: All must carry their own loads.
Paul: May I never boast in anything but the cross of Christ.
Opponent: Only your own work should be cause for pride.
Paul: Restore sinners with a gentle spirit.
Opponent: You reap what you sow, bro.
What’s going on here? Is Paul canceling out his own arguments? Are different situations in view? Is there some sort of a double standard at work? Or perhaps he’s trying his hand at dialectical theology in preparation for a proto-Barth conference?
The preacher should feel free to play with these tensions and to test out different approaches to resolving (or not resolving) them. I will suggest some below.
Going for a PR
Paul frequently uses athletic metaphors for the life of faith (developed most fully in 1 Cor. 9:24-26). While he doesn’t do that explicitly here (unless if you view bearing burdens and carrying loads as events in a strongman competition), a comparison between different kinds of competition may be instructive. Right in the first verse Paul warns against the complacency that comes when you have already determined that you are superior to another (“Watch out—being spiritual doesn’t give you a Teflon temptation-deflecting suit”). And bearing another’s burdens (v. 2) is more the action of a teammate than a competitor.
However, there is still a competition of sorts— “all must test their own work” (v. 4). But it is more like trying to set a PR (personal record) than trying to better an opponent. One should always be striving to make progress in the life of faith, but that progress is not measured in others passed (though partially in others helped). This dynamic might help to explain some of the apparent contradictions in the text—the pride of having made personal progress vs. the pride of having bettered others (and if your personal progress is measured by how thoroughly “crucified” you have become to the world, then this pride is consistent with v. 14).
Cause and Effect
Paul reminds us in vv. 7-8 that grace doesn’t always remove every consequence of our actions. We can receive the Spirit, be forgiven, be “restored” (in one sense or another), and be fulfilling the law of Christ, and still have to deal with messes that our sin has created—we still will reap what we have sown. This can be a word of comfort to a congregant doubting their forgiveness because of lingering effects of a particular past sin, or a word of conviction to one who thinks that grace allows them to wash their hands clean of damage they have done. In either case, take care not to let this section pull you too far toward a works-righteousness presentation of salvation.
The sensitivity that Paul calls for in reforming a fallen fellow seems to support a more flexible casuistic (employing case-based reasoning) over a rigid legalistic approach. “Casuistry” has taken on a pejorative sense—making excuses and weaseling your way out of taking responsibility—largely because of early Protestant polemics against the Jesuits, who were masters of this art.
But even these Protestants recognized that the circumstances should factor in when weighing a misdeed and discerning its proper redress. And so a “spirit of gentleness” guides the correction more so than do preset legal penalties and penances. This flexible, Spirit-led approach might also explain some of the apparent contradiction of Paul’s counsel. One person might sin out of weakness, and so need help bearing their burden (v. 2), while another might commit the same sin out of pride (v. 3) or carnality (v. 8), and so require some harsher discipline.
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny. Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017). After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the hapless Sacramento Kings.
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