Dr IAN ELMER…
Last week, you will recall, Dr Elmer invited us to explore the Christology of St Paul. This week he turns to look at the Ecclesiology of St Paul as it is expressed in Galatians. What was Paul's view of "church" and "Christian community" and how might we take it on-board today?
The Church in Galatians
Over past few commentaries, we have been exploring Paul's letter to the Galatian churches, which appears to be the earliest extant letter from Paul. The majority of scholars agree that in this letter we find Paul locked in combat with a group of Christian-Jewish opponents who have infiltrated his communities in Galatia with the intention of winning over his Gentile converts to "another gospel" (Gal 1:6) that entails full observance of the Mosaic Law (e.g., Longenecker: 1990, xliii, lii-lv; Russell, 1990: 329-350; Matera, 1992: 7-11; Martyn, 1997: 117-126).
When Paul wrote Galatians, these Judaisers (as they are traditionally called) were well established and were enjoying some success (Gal 1:6; 3:1; 4:21; 5:4, 7). Indeed, many of Paul's Gentile converts were apparently adopting some aspects of Law-observance (Gal 4:10-11), and Paul expresses astonishment at the rapidity with which the Galatians had deserted the gospel he preached (1:6).
Paul brings to the defence of his Law-free communities a number of arguments, that shed light upon Paul's beliefs and practices. Last week, we spoke of Paul's vision of Jesus and the Christ event as the new Adam who heralds in a new creation. This week, we will turn our attention to Paul's understanding of the community of faith. The most significant "hermeneutical key" in this respect is Paul's emphasis on the fatherhood of God (Russell, 1990: 330-331), which appears from the very outset of the letter — in what we call the prescript of Galatians.
In the "Family Way"...
Among the salutations of the Pauline corpus this emphasis on the fatherhood of God is unique in that God the Father is mentioned three times in the opening passages of Galatians (1:1, 3, 4). In the salutations of 11 of the other epistles God's fatherhood is mentioned only once, and 2 Thessalonians has two occurrences (1:1-2).
To pursue this issue further we note that eight times in the space of the next four chapters (3:15; 4:12, 28, 31; 5:11, 13; 6:1, 18), Paul addresses his auditors as "brothers". A similar pattern can be detected in Paul's use of family metaphors. Similarly, in chapters three and four of the epistle Paul draws heavily on material in Genesis 16-21, which forms the heart of the Abraham cycle in the patriarchal stories (Gal 3:6-29; 4:21-31) — stories that speak to the theme of God's familial ties to the chosen people.
Apparently the underscoring of God's fatherhood over the Galatian "brothers" (1:2) weighed heavily in Paul's thoughts as he began his epistle. If the Judaisers questioned Paul's apostolic status and his gospel, as we have argued in earlier commentaries, then they probably also argued that Paul's gospel could not bring Gentiles into the family of God.
As Christian Jews, Paul's opponents must have noted that for males, admission to the family of God involved circumcision as an initiatory step. The clearest evidence for this is in Paul's closing remarks (Gal 6:12-13), where he directly accuses his opponents of seeking to circumcise the Galatians in order to make a good showing in the flesh, avoid persecution, and boast of their achievements (Martyn, 1997).
In support of their pro-circumcision position, Paul's opponents appear to have appealed to the story of Abraham (Gal 3:6-29; 4:21-31), in which the institution of circumcision was imposed on God's chosen people as the sign of their special kindred with YHWH (Gen 17:1-27).
In 5:2-6, Paul alludes to his opponents' pro-circumcision message by rehearsing "a litany of dire consequences" that must follow if his Gentile converts submitted to circumcision (Longenecker, 1990: 228). Paul's purpose is clearly to dissuade his readers from such a disastrous course of action. He warns them in no uncertain terms that allowing themselves to be circumcised will render Christ's salvific sacrifice impotent, thereby obliging them to embrace the whole Law. But there is for Paul an even more crucial danger.
Paul observes that in adopting Law-observance the Galatians would alienate themselves from both Christ and grace (5:2-4) — thereby placing themselves outside the family of God formed as a new creation resulting from the coming of the new Adam.
Paul, then, takes the Abrahamic tradition of circumcision and spiritualises it in such a way as to make the uncircumcised, rather than the circumcised, heirs of the promise, making the cross of Christ the divine instrument of the Gentiles' inclusion in the people of God (3:13-14).
Paul reiterates the baptismal formula that must have been current during his time as a missionary under the auspices of Antioch, which serves to remind the Galatians of their incorporation "in Christ…where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, man nor woman" (3:27-28).
Using this formula, Paul is able to twist the Abraham narrative in such a way as to outline the process by which the Gentiles are adopted into the family of God, thus becoming heirs who are able to join with other Christians in addressing God as "Abba! Father!" (4:1-7) (White, 1992).
Paul closes this attack with a catchcry that he will again echo in the closing lines of the letter: "For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (5:6); and, again, in Galatians 6:15 "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything".
The Eschatological Family...
The term Abba is used by Paul in the specific sense of Christians being "adopted" into the family of God (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) — a use that was common in the first century for slaves, employees and orphaned relatives who were adopted into families and, thereby, given the right to call the "head of the family" by the familial term "Abba" (White, 1992).
This usage apparently mirrors Jesus' understanding of the Jewish reform movement that he founded — it would constitute a new eschatological family that was defined, not by ties of blood, but by spiritual adoption. Hence, in the Gospels, Jesus can say to a gathering of his disciples that it is they who are his "mother and brothers", rather than his blood relations (Mk 3:34).
Even more pointedly, Jesus demands that his disciples must "hate" their parents and family if they are "to be worthy of him" (Matt 10:34-37); and the Twelve were called upon to leave their families, family homes and inheritance to embrace discipleship (Mk 10:9).
Very similar language is used by the Community Scroll from Qumran, where the membership was called upon to enter into what we would call a "monastic" community, taking vows not unlike the later Christian monks to eschew family and personal possessions. Where Paul differs is in the fact that he specifically attributes this gift of divine adoption to "the spirit of God's son" (Gal 4:6), as opposed to an inheritance due by virtue of blood relationship.
Beginning with Galatians 3:26 Paul makes extensive use of familial language, recognising his Gentile converts as "children of God" (3:26; 4:6-7), "children of Abraham" (3:7) "children of the promise" and "children of freedom" (3:7).
By bringing together the Abraham story and the Law-free theology in this manner Paul effectively radicalises the familial metaphors so deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition to embrace the Gentiles, who were never formerly considered family members (Roetzel, 1999: 122). A status that was considered the sole preserve of the circumcised elect of Israel was, according to Paul's reading of the Abraham story, granted to uncircumcised Gentiles. What does this mean for us?
The Eschatological Family Today...
The issues that split the early Church seem a far cry from the divisive issues we confront today. We are no longer concerned with ethnic divisions, Jewish identity or circumcision. Paul or, rather, Paul's heirs after his death, won those conflicts — eventually!
Still, the echoes of those distant battles remind us that Christianity was never intended to be a religious club reserved for those who were more "(self-)righteous" or "law-observant" than the "great unwashed", the "lapsed", the "cafeteria Catholics" or those "beyond the pale" (to bring together several adages that remain popular in the Church). Moreover, distinctions based upon ethnicity, wealth, gender, or social standing have no place in the family of God. All are "adopted" sons and daughters of God who can claim no "special status" on the basis of merit.
The Pauline communities were radically egalitarian, which Paul seemed to understand was appropriate for communities that "lived on the edge" — both in terms of the endtimes and culture. Christians were a marginal group that stood as counterculture to the dominant Greco-Roman one; and even to the Jewish community from which it grew.
In Paul's communities this view led to a distinctive lifestyle, which was expressed by the fudging of all boundaries between "slave or free, woman or man, Jew or Greek" (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Cf. Eph 6:8). Ministry was exercised charismatically according to gifts and not according to office. Women clearly held leadership roles, and no distinction was made on the basis of wealth, gender or status. The present world order was after all doomed, and a whole new deal was about to be established by God.
Clearly this sort of thinking has implication for many issues confronting us today — not least, the issue of priesthood or, even more difficult, that of homosexual relationships.
The lesson that can be learned from Paul's letter to Galatia is that we need to reclaim this sense of being communities "living on the edge". Having done that, many of our previous qualms about women priests, married priests, and even homosexual "marriage" might simply fade away.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2009 Ian Elmer