In a previous post, I asserted that popular confusion about law, grace, and the Christian life is often partly due to misunderstanding what was happening in the Galatian churches and what Paul taught to correct it. I argued that the Galatian trouble centered on their understanding of justification and its relationship to Mosaic Law, and that they were led astray by unbelievers who, in reality, cared as little for the Law of Moses as they did for the gospel.
Seen in this light, the epistle does not encourage sweeping rejections of effort and struggle in the Christian life, nor does it provide a basis for excluding firm boundaries against sin (often termed “man-made rules”) in Christian living.
But loose ends remain. Further study of the letter not only resolves the remaining issues but also clarifies common points of confusion such as the distinction between conscious self-discipline vs. “the flesh” (or the non-biblical term, “self-effort”) and the difference between slavery to the Law vs. obedience to Christ.
Loathing toward legalism (and perceived legalism) is commonplace in today’s evangelical ministries, including those of fundamentalist heritage, and Galatians often plays a prominent role in how we think about legalism and Christian liberty.
But liberty is often misunderstood, and overreactions—as well as under-developed reactions—to legalism seem to be a growing problem. It’s no coincidence that the Galatian error, and Paul’s remedial teaching, is also often misunderstood. The result is that a letter that has great potential to help us with our present-day understanding of law, grace and liberty ends up contributing to confusion instead.
So the question in focus here is, to paraphrase the title, what was the Galatian problem?
The Bible describes with clarity many responsibilities of believers in the contexts of government and society. Still in some areas believers are not given specific instructions, and instead must rely on applying general biblical principles to contemporary challenges. For example, Paul mandates without compromise that the Roman believers should pay the taxes required of them (Rom. 13:7), but when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul gives the Corinthians options (1 Cor. 8-10).
Pagan temples in first-century Corinth often included animal sacrifice. Even beyond the temples themselves, the marketplace was well represented with meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Consequently, the issue of whether a believer should eat such meat became an iconic cultural problem for the Corinthian church. Each era and context presents its own unique challenges. Every culture encounters, From time to time, moral issues so complex as to defy simple solutions. Still, in each and every instance, despite any level of complexity, these challenges can be answered appropriately by biblical principles. But before one can correctly apply a general principle to a specific situation, the person must understand the principle. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians is helpful, as he explains the principles and their grounding so that the believers at Corinth could apply them well, and in so doing could maintain clear consciences.
“Unless you’ve counseled a worn-out wife about her husband’s alcoholism, unless you’ve comforted a teen whose parents have both been heavy drinkers for as long as he can remember, unless you’ve discipled a new believer trying to throw off his addiction before he loses custody of his child, unless you’ve wept with a woman who has tried and failed to get sober for the better part of two decades,
The debate over whether Christians ought to consume alcohol is not only an old one but, on the Web at least, a tired one. Much of the tiredness, though, is due to an excess of passion and a shortage of precision. Quarreling has been abundant and arguing scarce. I hope to contribute a bit here to the argument rather than the quarrel.
One example of arguing rather than quarreling dates back to the spring of 2006. I gather that Bob Bixby posted a case against the use of alcoholic beverages by Christians.1 Bob Hayton responded, in part, with an essay entitled “Wine to Gladden the Heart of Man”: Thoughts on God’s Good Gift of Wine. In the essay, Bob Hayton argues not only that “God gave us wine to bring us joy,” but also that the joy He had in mind is an effect of wine’s alcohol specifically.
Speaking of Judges 9:13, Ecclesiastes 10:19, and Zechariah 10:7, Bob observes:
It should be clear that even the intoxicating nature of wine is being praised, here. Wine lifts the spirit and gladdens the heart long before it actually overtakes you and makes one drunk. Wine can be enjoyed and its effects relished without losing control and becoming drunken.
This theme runs through the eight points that form the main structure of the essay. Following the eight points, a section focuses on counterarguments related to the biblical warnings against wine and the use of weaker brother passages. Though Bob wrote the post some years ago, I became aware of it during a discussion here at SI last year and pledged to write a response sometime. Here it is.
Having been in our new church ministry just over a year, my husband and I have kept very busy getting into the lives of our dear church people. While developing these relationships has found us in a number of settings, one evening it found us in the stands at a public high school basketball game cheering on a young boy from our church. We assumed it would be both fun and relationally productive. In the end, both results were accomplished … and, to our surprise, much more.
I guess you could say I’ve been “sheltered.” Having attended Christian school eleven years and home school for one, I was never faced with the constant negative influences prevalent in an institution whose motto doesn’t contain allusions to “the glory of God.” Furthermore, my parents, though never unreasonable, did their best to make me “wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19, NASB). Given that as a backdrop, maybe my reaction to the half-time dance show isn’t too surprising.
I love to watch people. As the game progressed I took notice of the lively high-school students, the band (wow, what a talented bunch!), and the parents. The dance team gathering in the corner of the gym also caught my eye as they warmed up, giving me a taste of what was to come. Having a weakness toward sexual sins of the mind, I must work to suppress any curiosity in these matters and I knew viewing the upcoming dance show would not be beneficial. Thankfully, I had a good excuse to miss it, with my three- and four-year-olds needing a bathroom break. Trudging through the thick crowd while the dance routine began, I took keen notice of the spectators, young and old alike, whose eyes were glued to this entertainment. Frankly, I would have loved to indulge in a glance myself but God’s gracious leading prevented me. We continued to exit the bleachers but my mind was racing. Inside I wanted to yell, “Don’t you get it?! Need we wonder why there are so many broken homes, unfaithful spouses, or teen pregnancies? You make it too easy!”