Free Indeed – Galatians 1:10-17

The gospel couldn’t have arisen from humans because humans don’t set each other free.

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Everyone wants to be free, but nobody likes freedom.

We don’t like to be compelled or constrained. Something in humans will resist external control when we perceive it.1 We’ll even do things we don’t really want to do just because someone else has prohibited it. Take for instance the prevalence of tobacco use among teens2 despite its unpleasant taste and dysphoric effects.

Even as we buck perceived authority3 we fall under the sway of cultural conformity.4 Have you ever seen a rebellious teen smoking alone? We social animals instinctively know that without these controls, our societies will go off the rails. We desperately want to be free, but we don’t want to be alone. We need to be part of a society, but society can only function by inhibiting individual freedoms.

History catalogues governments and cultures formed and punctuated by coups and revolutions. Discontent builds beneath the confines of custom. Corruption corrodes credibility. Restless new generations aspire to recast society without their ancestors’ failings. When these tensions erupt they blow apart centuries-old conventions in a matter of months. These dynamics can be assumed from an historical viewpoint, but what happens next has spiritual implications.

Every revolution enthrones new oppressors. Yesterday’s edgy fashion trend becomes today’s cookie cutter look. Today’s social justice warrior will be tomorrow’s defender of the status quo.

The Who’s Pete Townsend penned some nearly-inspired lyrics about this phenomenon back in 1971:

There's nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight5

More prosaically, the clear-eyed Saul Alinsky observed:

The Haves usually establish laws and judges devoted to maintaining the status quo; since any effective means of changing the status quo are usually illegal and/or unethical in the eyes of the establishment, Have-Nots, from the beginning of time, have been compelled to appeal to “a law higher than man-made law.” Then when the Have-Nots achieve success and become the Haves, they are in the position of trying to keep what they have and their morality shifts with their change of location in the power pattern.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (pp. 42-43)

To document this tendency, Alinsky cites two stirring examples. First, the anticlimax to Ghandi’s political and moral triumph over British colonial rule in India:

Eight months after securing independence, the Indian National Congress outlawed passive resistance and made it a crime. It was one thing for them to use the means of passive resistance against the previous Haves, but now in power they were going to ensure that this means would not be used against them!

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (p. 43)

Then, Alinsky points his iconoclastic spotlight closer to home:

Again Sam Adams, the firebrand radical of the American Revolution, provides a clear example. Adams was foremost in proclaiming the right of revolution. However, following the success of the American Revolution it was the same Sam Adams who was foremost in demanding the execution of those Americans who participated in Shays’ Rebellion, charging that no one had a right to engage in revolution against us!

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (p. 43)

All of this suggests that no matter how frequently or vigorously we shoot for freedom, our loaded dice turn up oppression. This perennial disparity seems to indicate something endemic within the human species. That we keep dismantling unjust regimes only to reinvent oppression suggests that we’re unaware of the real problem.

The church has historically oppressed the liberated.

Jesus himself came resounding through the ages with the timeless promise, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”6 His church, tasked with dispensing that freedom, shortly became western civilization’s arch oppressor.7 Earthly kings might control their subjects’ actions, but only religious leaders can presume to lay claim on their hearts and minds. Politicians might put people to death for murder or treason, but priests execute them for what they believe.

Christendom didn’t create this kind of control; it just baptized it. Early believers in Christ had to defy the Roman imperial cult to confess that Jesus is Lord.8 Through this surrender to “the obedience of faith,”9 those first Christians rose above the reach of earthly authority. Then, the annexation of the church known as The Edict of Milan, paved the way for the persecuted to become the new persecutors.

Every religion, even historic Christianity, exists firmly within the world system and operates under the basic principles of control.

But Paul insisted that the gospel demands freedom.

It must be either that Paul had engineered a bait and switch or that the church has concocted a different gospel – one that conforms to human need for control. In this post, I plan to demonstrate that Paul’s gospel precluded human power dynamics at their root. This feature of the gospel argues strongly for its divine source.

Every religion is just another context for human control.

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Paul had previously served God for human approval and became God’s enemy.

Religious activities are almost always mediated through and witnessed by other people. This feature of religion makes it hard to know our own motives. Paul begins to probe into his own history with hypocrisy in Galatians 1:10-13:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 

(English Standard Version)

Paul assessed his own goals in writing the Galatian letter. Were his words borne out of obedience to God or a desire to please people? Was he protecting the establishment or was he functioning as God’s emissary?

We may wonder why Paul bothers to address such a possibility. Surely someone claiming to serve God must be aiming to serve God. But that’s not always the case.

In church staff meetings, I’ve heard Christian leaders say, “Everyone has mixed motives. It’s best just to do the right things and let your motives catch up.” Our ministries especially to youth intentionally employed man-pleasing. The goal was to have a youth leader who possessed enough “cool” factor to attract the popular kids. Then, he or she would train the popular kids to influence the rest of the group. Our senior pastor called it, “positive peer pressure.” To the question, “Are we pleasing human beings or God?” we probably would have responded, “Both.”

Paul doesn’t allow for such equivocation. He had to pick one because the two are antithetical – “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

If you’ve had only positive church experiences and can think back over a litany of mentors in your life, you might struggle to understand how this could be so. To appreciate Paul’s absolutist position, turn your attention to that little word, “still.” For Paul, this wasn’t an axiom like, “No one can serve two masters.”10 Galatians 1:10 is the beginning of his autobiography. Paul had to repent of his group loyalty before he could serve Christ.

We might expect this sort of assessment from a former gang member, but Paul hadn’t been a part of such an openly immoral group. Skip down to vs. 13a, “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism…” Paul had been a citizen in Israel among God’s chosen people. In another place he gives his impressive religious pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

Philippians 3:4b-6 (ESV)

How many people do you know who could call themselves, “blameless”? Before his conversion Paul had lived with complete integrity. His problem hadn’t been the law11 but the method of its enforcement. Even though he had zealously followed a religious code, he had ultimately been under the world system. The difference between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle wasn’t the God he claimed to serve, the values he espoused, or even his religious practice; it was in the influence other people had over his life.

Saul of Tarsus could not have become a follower of Christ because he, though highly religious, was the slave of human approval. His religious opinions and actions, as we will see, were shaped by his group rather than by a personal response to God. It has been said that when you mix politics and religion, you get politics. Paul would say that all religion is mixed. While the world’s power brokers artfully manipulate religious sensibilities, they recoil from the true gospel of God. Why? Because the kingdom which arises from its proclamation shimmers on a hill beyond their reach.

Here’s how Christ described his kingdom to a politician who was under political pressure from a bloc of power-mad priests:

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

John 18:36

God gave the Mosaic law, but he left its interpretation and enforcement to people. And people are fallen. True to form, these lawyers manipulated the law for their own gain.12 Power corrupts and corruption spreads. Manhandled religion breeds the kind of monumental hypocrisy that killed the Son of God. And so, Paul’s “previous way of life in Judaism” consisted of “intensely persecuting the church of God.”

Paul had followed the highest possible standard taught to him by the best possible mentors and became the worst possible sinner.13 His redemption could be nothing short of supernatural.

Paul, the Jew, needed to be saved just like the pagan Galatians.

Back in verse 4, Paul wrote that he and the Galatians had both been saved from the same thing – this present evil age. But how could they both be saved from the same social environment when Jews and Gentiles maintained separate communities? The Jewish perception of the difference between the two communities can be seen in Paul’s own words to Peter in the next chapter:

We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles…

Galatians 2:15

First century Jews used the words, “sinners,” and “Gentiles,” interchangeably.

As a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul probably thought the gentile Galatians needed to be saved from their society by joining his. His encounter with the living Jesus had shown him that he needed to be saved from his society as much as the Galatians needed to be saved from theirs.

How could this be when the two cultures looked so very different?

There’s a saying that goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck.” While the logic may be questionable, the so-called duck test, often cuts through labels to practical realities. In this autobiographical section of Galatians, Paul cuts through the superficial distinctions between Jew and Gentile to show that everyone serves the same awkward water fowl. As with the metaphorical duck, the present evil age can be recognized by its patterns of behavior.

Consider how these patterns of social control manifested in Paul’s pre-Christian life as described in Galatians 1:13-14:

  • “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism…”
    • Tribalism is the foundation of social control.
    • When people identify with a group, they implicitly agree to conform to the beliefs and norms which make that group distinct from others.
    • Tribalism rewards insider compliance with guaranteed support and with affirmations of superiority over those who are without.
    • Tribalism is almost unavoidable since even the most inclusive groups will always find “bigots” to distinguish themselves from.
  • “…how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it…”
    • Coercion maintains the authority of the powerful.
    • Every society anywhere must spell out the negative consequences of nonconformity. These prescriptions are known as “law.”
    • Coercion might be as mild as the threat of financial penalty or as severe as imprisonment, torture and death.
    • Even smaller societies such as marriages, families, and institutions use coercion to maintain control.
  • “…I was advancing in Judaism…”
    • Ambition can provide persistent motivation even without enforcement.
    • This may sound like an internal motivator, but it is awakened and shaped by society’s definition of success.
    • In a religious context, I’ve been awed (in both senses of the word) by the achievement system in the Mormon Church. All Mormons, but especially the youth, know just how well they’re doing at Mormonism through clearly defined and celebrated performance goals.
  • “…beyond many my own age…”
    • What fun is ambition, though, without Competition?
    • Sure, achieving a goal can be satisfying, but it’s so much more exhilarating when we do it faster than anyone of our peers.
    • Our common association of competition with sports might be tempt us to trivialize its negative potential. But competition makes us perceive sports as anything but trivial. Off the field, competition in the workplace or for romantic attention, can crumble personal integrity.
    • We Americans have become so driven by competition that we assume it’s a virtue. I once heard a radio ad for a church-based Christian school that boasted it taught “truth, righteousness, and competition.”
  • “…among my people…”
    • Just as competition enhances ambition, so Honor and Shame drive competition.
    • An Olympic Gold Medal is worth around $900. That’s not much for all of the sacrifice elite athletes have to make to win one. So why do it? The answer is obviously for the honor of standing on that top podium. Just as ambition becomes more exhilarating in competition, so winning becomes that much more appealing in front of a huge audience.
    • As the withdrawal of Simone Biles from the competition illustrates, the avoidance of shame can be just as powerful (not to mention more prevalent) motivator.
    • The full extent of honor and shame’s power can be seen in the ritual suicides and honor killings which have historically (and also recently) taken place in eastern cultures.
  • “…and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
    • G.K. Chesterton, the brilliant author and social commentator, once said that Tradition is just democracy over time. Though he was a committed Christian, I don’t think he’d recognized that the collective opinion of fallen people is still antagonistic to God.
    • I’m all for learning from the failures and successes of previous generations, but tradition turns seniority into infallibility.
    • In my experience, tradition is more about predecessors grasping at godhood than descendants inheriting wisdom.
    • Good education says, “Here’s what we learned; now build on it.” Tradition says, “Here’s what we decided; now live by it.”

I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s enough for us to assemble an accurate duck test to recognize that the present evil age operates in every relationship, family, friend group, organization, and nation. Every person in history was born under its domain because every social system operates on these dynamics. We may resent the oppression when we perceive it, but we’ll never be able to free ourselves because there’s no place to go.

Even if we could establish a free society, it would immediately begin to spoil. Why? Because in this world-wide prison, we’re not just the inmates; we’re also the wardens. Chances are, until this very moment, you’ve probably known these control tactics by their popular designation, “social skills.” They’re not just how we get used; they’re also how we get by. Like with trustees in a concentration camp we learn to survive by siding with our jailors. In time, our complicity wins us special favors which we come to treasure more than our own souls.

Only God can set us free.

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God himself must dismantle our man-made prison.

Paul’s description of his previous way of life under Judaism looks pretty hopeless. He was an enemy of God and humankind while finding human approval and professing to serve God. The only hope there could be for such a deluded individual comes in his next three words to the Galatians, “But when God…” As with Israel in Egypt, only God could bring Paul and the Galatians out of slavery. This time, though, the Lord’s mighty hand would bring his people out from under the invisible lash of social control.

Let’s consider Galatians 1:15-17 phrase by phrase to see how God’s action through Christ liberates everyone who believes:

  • “…who set me apart from my mother’s womb…”
    • Election ends Tribalism.
    • Paul’s writings about predestination and election were more pastoral than theological. God elects individuals apart from any group affiliation.
    • According to Romans 4:17, God predestined people from many nations to become children of Abraham by including them in his covenant outside of time.
    • The doctrine of election does away with the insider/outsider distinction of tribalism because God’s kingdom includes every kind of person, even those who have yet to believe. Nobody in the kingdom knows who’s in and who’s out, so it’s incumbent on us to simply love as we have opportunity.
  • “…and called me by his grace…”
    • Grace makes Coercion obsolete.
    • I can think of no more touching illustration of grace than the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15. The first time I really contemplated this story it melted me to snot and tears. What got me wasn’t the fact that the father received the son back into his home. It was the complete absence of terms or conditions. That’s not how the world works. How could this father ensure that his son wouldn’t betray him again? Surely the son would need to suffer at least a good chewing out!
    • The paradox of grace is that it not only suppresses bad behavior, but cleanses the bad behind the behavior. Brennan Manning said it this way: “Several times in my ministry people have expressed the fear that self-acceptance will abort the ongoing conversion process and lead to a life of spiritual laziness and moral laxity. Nothing could be more untrue. The acceptance of self does not mean to be resigned to the status quo. On the contrary, the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow. Love is a far better stimulus than threat or pressure.”14
    • Now you might be all for receiving grace, but remember that grace is more than a divine disposition. It’s a new social operating system. Back in vs. 6 Paul reminded the Galatians that they had been called “to live in the grace of Christ.” We can order our relationships by a system of crime and punishment (law) or a system of grace, but not both. Much more on this later.
  • “…was pleased to reveal his Son in me…”
    • Discipleship redirects Ambition and Competition
    • The gospel gives a new goal to those who believe it.
    • Paul goes into more depth on his shift in Philippians 3:7-12: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
    • When Christ promoted us to his righteousness, he left us with nothing to chase but him. That pursuit which ends in life follows an ever descending road through identification with his suffering.15
  • “…so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…”16
    • Stewardship nullifies Honor and Shame.
    • Every child of God has been given a trust. We’re all employed in the enterprise of dispensing the word of life to everyone for whom Christ died.
    • There is no task in this enterprise that is beneath us.17
    • Any good we do, goes to his credit.18
    • He bears any rejection we face.
    • This vignette from Acts 5:40-41 illustrates the gospel transposition of honor and shame: “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (emphasis mine NAW)
  • “…my immediate response was not to consult with any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. “
    • Calling cancels Tradition.
    • The problem of humankind is people. The surest way to pervert a person’s view of God is to insert another person in between.19 The stab of instant regret prohibited Paul from repeating past mistakes. Having been yanked out of the stream of manhandled religion, he instinctively fled human involvement.
    • Conversely, the surest way to avoid tradition is to have a personal relationship with God. Notice that Paul didn’t even want one spiritual generation to intervene.
    • Here’s the kicker. Most evangelicals would defer to “apostolic authority” as given through the New Testament and expect others to do so. Paul didn’t, and as we will see, didn’t want the Galatians to do that either.20 Even if we could interpret the New Testament with 100% accuracy, we mustn’t make adherence to it an article of faith. To do so would be to place humans (admittedly exceptional ones) between us and God.
    • Upon being baptized, Paul, like Christ before him, was driven into the desert. There’s something critical about getting alone to find God as our one thing. The more involved a person has been in church, the more they probably need to pull away. And everyone needs at least a little time each day in his or her prayer closet.21

God sets us free to participate in community.

Paul fled to the desert after his conversion, but the desert wasn’t his destination. At the end of Galatians 1:17 he tells his readers, “Later I returned to Damascus.”

I don’t know how long Paul stayed in Arabia, but it probably wasn’t more than a few weeks. Luke, Paul’s biographer, reports Paul’s conversion and his ministry in Damascus contiguously in Acts 9:17-22.

The gospel doesn’t call us to abandon the world. Any old ascetic cult can do that. The gospel calls and empowers us to live free from human influence as an open community in the midst of this present evil world.

All of this may sound wonderful, but it’s also frightening. As members of the present evil age, we not only were compelled by these methods of control, we counted on them. To be freed from them, we’ve been stripped of them. Interacting with other people can feel like being sent unarmed into an active combat zone. In fact, that’s what it is –

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”

-Jesus22

You know what happens to sheep among wolves, don’t you? There’s nothing in Scripture or Christian history to suggest any exception to the usual outcome. Christ died to set us free. We too, must die to our illusions, affections, ambitions, allegiances, expectations, and even existence on this planet if we’re going to remain free. This is why humans while clamoring to be free, secretly hate radical freedom and would never think to release it upon the world.

And so we circle back to Paul’s contention that his gospel didn’t emerge from a human source:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Galatians 1:11-12

Yes, Paul received his gospel through a supernatural event, but the message he received was the exact one he passed on. The revelation was “of Jesus Christ.” Paul wasn’t given a list of moral imperatives, a sacramental system, or an ecclesiastic order. He never claimed to be commissioned to write The Bible: Volume Two. The message he got from Christ was, “I’m alive.”

Even now when the gospel is preached only the called will hear directly from Christ. What they will hear will be the same revelation given to Paul. From that moment on, they will all be taught of God.


Footnotes:

  1. We often don’t perceive we’re being controlled especially in the case of time-honored laws such as with seatbelts or in the case of social conformity.
  2. Teen tobacco use peaked in the late 1990’s but has been on the rise again in recent years. One CDC report found that “harsher parent-child communication on the rules about smoking and discipline for smoking had detrimental effects (i.e., it escalated smoking).”
  3. Dr. Stanley Milgram in his studies on obedience to authority concluded, “Submission to authority is a powerful and prepotent condition in man.” Obedience to Authority p. 123
  4. “Subjects deny conformity and embrace obedience as the explanation of their behavior.” IBID p. 115
  5. “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Pete Townsend
  6. John 8:32 (NIV)
  7. The Inquisitions of the church illustrate the oppressive potential of an institution which claims to invest divine authority into human vessels. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Roman Catholicism, either, since just mere decades after the Reformation commenced, both Martin Luther and John Calvin endorsed the killing of reformers more radical than they. Even though these instances occurred 1100 to 1500 years remote respectively from the time of Christ, they represent the full flower of second century debates over church primacy. In our own democratic society, the religious right, has worked to force non-Christians to conform to their perceived moral norms.
  8. Romans 10:9-13; 1 Timothy 6:11-16
  9. Romans 1:5
  10. Matthew 6:24
  11. In his writings, Paul repeatedly affirms the moral superiority of the Mosaic covenant such as in Romans 2:17-20.
  12. It seems that the Pharisees had concocted a system of minimum adherence which would excuse bad behavior such as in Matthew 5:33-35.
  13. As was his assessment of himself in 1 Timothy 1:12-16.
  14. The Ragamuffin Gospel p.52
  15. Christ’s trajectory in life was the polar opposite of worldly ambition according to Philippians 2:5-11.
  16. For an observant first century Jew, preaching to the Gentiles would have been a distasteful assignment. And yet, Paul boasted in it. See Acts 10:27-29 and Romans 15:15-17.
  17. Jesus upended honor and shame by becoming our royal servant. John 13:1-17
  18. Paul combats an incursion by Honor and Shame in the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 1:26-31. He begins this section by reminding them that they’d been chosen precisely because they were for the most part the dregs of humanity. He ends it with a reminder from Scripture that the one who boasts must boast in the Lord.
  19. Yes, Jesus is a human, but he’s also God. We’ll talk more about that when (if?) we get to chapter 3.
  20. The early church seems to have seen this direct learning from God as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33-34.
  21. A reference to the King James translation of Matthew 6:5-8.
  22. Matthew 10:16a

By Nathan Wilkerson

Holding on for dear life.

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