The threat to fellowship

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I used to be a primary school teacher (for a very happy period) and it was apparent to me that there were certain “fault lines” dividing the class (social, intellectual, economic, racial). And consequently, if you pressed too hard in the wrong way (too much discipline, too little social interaction etc)  then you would expose those lines and create fracture. It was quite a finely tuned social organism that needed a gentle hand to hold it all together.

When I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I think there’s something of the same going on.

I’m assuming the validity of the view that the letter was written prior to the conference at Jerusalem described in Acts 15, and that Paul is writing to Christians in the Roman province of Galatia, the towns mentioned in Acts 13 and 14, (though those two points are still open to scholarly debate, it doesn’t affect the general discussion here).

So that would mean that the “fault lines” of Paul’s “class” are approximately as follows:

First there would be a number of converts from Judaism. There were large colonies of Jews all over the Graeco-Roman world (much like the Irish diaspora of today) and those in this area had received important privileges from the Seleucid kings. The fact that they hadn’t rebelled during the Maccabean uprising meant that they probably valued those privileges and were disposed towards political compromise. Some of the hostility that Paul encountered was no doubt due to the perception that he threatened those privileges and was, so to speak, “bad for business.”

In this group -perhaps a large majority of them- would be “Jewish Christians” who adhered closely to Jewish tradition and custom and who would be more inclined to follow the lead of James rather than that of Paul.

Back in Acts 6:9, amongst those quarrelling with Stephen were those “of Cilicia and of Asia.” Since Galatia is directly between the two provinces, we may infer that there were Galatians in the squabble too. And don’t forget that Paul himself was from Cilicia. It doesn’t require much straining of the evidence to think of Paul as having been bitterly resented as a turncoat. Only gradually did those Jews  who had become Christians become dissociated from the Jews who had not been converted.

But whilst the Jewish Christians would constitute a large percentage, it’s probable that the largest group would be “God-fearing” Gentiles, some of whom would be Roman citizens. Such folk -men and women – would frequent the synagogues and would be familiar enough with the Hebrew Scriptures to follow Paul’s exegesis and reasoning.

A third group (which is much more difficult to categorise) would consist of slaves of many nationalities, and -no doubt- Phrygian countryfolk, the primitive pagan peoples of the area.

A muti-racial group of varying socio-economic, cultural, religious and intellectual backgrounds. Just like my primary class, in fact.

Such was the human material with which Paul sought to build and it was the threat to its fellowship that gives the letter its note of urgency.

Here I’m reflecting on “fault-lines” in Christian community that endanger fellowship and unity.

The issue is charted carefully throughout the early chapters of the book of Acts. The first believers were all Jewish, of course, who asked the risen Lord when he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1). By Acts 6 we find a situation where  “the Hellenistic Jews … complained against the Hebraic Jews. ”  And Stephen’s speech, (which follows in Acts 7), can be read not only as an apologia to the Jews buut as the substance of his appeal to those Christians who seemed most set on maintaining their Jewish status. Israel had been tempted to identify its salvation with histoical and earthly securities and Stephen saw the same danger among the “Hebrew” contingent of the fellowship.

In the event, persecution ensues, accentuating the latent differences. Some remain in Jerusalem and develop a modus vivendi with teeh jewish authorities. Obviosly, their stance was going to be more conservative. Those who went further afield became involved in experiences which inevitably challenged such conservatism. Acts 8 contains the stories of the Ethiopian eunuch,and a revival at Samaria. Then comes Acts 9 and the conversion of Saul. Acts 10-12 gives a long accountof Peter’s experience in Joppa and the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. The fire is spreading, but it is not difficult to discern two parties emerging at Jerusalem: those who welcome the news about the Samaritan Christians and who accept Peter’s explanations and those who secretly deplore the situation! Acts 11:18 is a temporary truce, no more.

At the time when Paul set out on his first missionary journey it seems that most Christians would see Jerusalem as the nucleus and James as the head. They would also, for the most part, be  deeply concerned to maintain their Jewish heritage.

As they reached out in ever increasing concentric circles from Jerusalem, it could be that they were looking to their Jewish brethren scattered across the Roman cities to join them in their new understanding of a Jesus-centred Judaism. But their warmest response came from not from the Jews but from the fringe of  Gentile God-fearers.It is easy to see that a development which took the God-fearers away from the synagogues would be resented by the Jews, whilst Jewish Christians  would be increasingly anxious lest Christianity should diverge from Judasm too much.

And so the table was set for the debate that is charted in the letter to the Galatians: was Christianity to become a world-faith or remain a Jewish sect?

I use the word “debate” but it is a cool, bloodless term for what is at stake here, but imagine if Paul had lost. Humanly speaking, Christianity would have lost its edge and been reabsorbed into the community from which it had arisen. That’s why Burton concludes in his commentary that “The letter to the Galatians is a first-hand document from the heart of one of the most significant controversies in the history of religion.”

To put it simply : the threat to fellowship is real whenever any custom, tradition or cherished belief takes the place of Christ at the centre. If the centre holds, then all is possible (and all kinds of belief permissible) but Christ is the only centre of unity and the hub of fellowship.

 

And Jesus prayed into that level of unity (in John 17):

 I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –  I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Lord, as we examine the fault lines, we also acknowledge your headship and authority, that in all things you may be pre-eminent.

Amen

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