Studying Galatians has made me realize the pervasiveness and intensity of this debate in the early church. It has opened my eyes to the main questions in many passages of Scripture. What is difficult with this pervasive issue is that I, and most Christians I know, cannot really relate. We are Gentiles who don’t even know Jewish Christians, much less the heated dimension of the desire to maintain Jewish identity in the first century. We live in a time when the demarcation between Judaism and Christianity is clear. The questions and debates over this matter in the first century have been left behind, and they are considered foregone conclusions today.
While we may not experience the same things today, I believe that it is vitally important that we try to put ourselves in the world of the first century to understand the debate that was occurring at the time. One of the dangers of overlooking this first century debate is that we can tend to read the Scriptures out of our own cultural context. If we are not careful, we can miss the point the Scriptures are making.
Despite this difficulty, I believe that some important principles can be learned from this general debate in the first century. Right now anyway, here’s what I would glean from the text.
- The gospel is for all. While there was some question at first whether the Gentiles could be included in the gospel, the Scriptures unequivocally conclude that the gospel is for all people. Neither race, social status, gender, nor any other external description of people should serve as a barrier to the gospel. Neither should social status or gender.
- The church is one body. We are called to be one people in Christ despite our cultural and racial backgrounds. In many ways, the greater struggle came in the first century when Jews and Gentiles had to actually worship together. This interaction of a church family surfaced many issues and problems that required attention. It is only when one fails to consider the social distinctions of the world and truly develops the mind of Christ that harmony and equality can exist in the church.
- The Christian’s primary identity is Christ. This seems like it should be obvious, but it is much more difficult in practice. An additional factor that complicates the matter is that questions of identity evoke extremely strong responses from people. This seems to be the reason Paul was so agitated in Galatians. By forcing Jewish social customs on Gentiles, the Judaizers were in effect saying that Christ was not sufficient. They found their primary identity in the Law and their Jewishness and not in Christ. Lest we be too quick to cast stones at the Judaizers, we must take a serious look at ourselves. American pride and national fervor are common, even among Christians. Political differences have turned people into enemies, an “us” against “them.” This occurs when American politics dominate a person’s identity. Hobbies, sports, clubs and other social functions have consumed the lives of many and become their primary identity marker. Even in religion, identities develop in questions and controversies that in effect deem Christ insufficient. It is only in a total submission of self that a person can find their primary identity in Christ.
I’m sure there are more lessons to learn, but those are three that stand out for me. The study of Galatians has challenged my faith to become stronger. It has caused me to look at my core security and beliefs. It has given me a greater desire to be a stronger disciple in Christ.