Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 2 Dec 2018 20:00

The text of Mike's "Evening Worship" talk on Galatians 6

Sometimes, at the end of Paul’s letters, a carefully constructed argument appears to give way to a stream of consciousness in which Paul says all the little snippets that couldn’t quite fit in elsewhere in the letter.

Galatians is no exception and it’s easy to read Chapter 6 and, at first glance, think that Paul is keen to wrap things up and so throws a few final thoughts together. In verses 1-10 we have what appears to be four random thoughts (bearing burdens, sharing with one’s teacher, sowing and reaping, and doing good), so random that they not only seem unrelated to one another, but also unrelated to the situation at Galatia. Is that really true?

As we look more closely we find that Paul is responding to the strife in Galatia with some practical advice that reflects on his key themes elsewhere in the letter: law and faith, and the nature of Christian freedom.

Paul has already spent some time explaining the significance of freedom in Christ. The Judaisers were concerned that without law and moral guidelines the Christians in Galatia would fall into moral confusion and decay.

Paul has countered that Christian freedom is not a license to sin with impunity but an opportunity to love (see ch 5:13-14).

Now he explores, in a practical way, the relationship between mutual accountability in Christian community, and personal responsibility before God. What does it mean to live as an individual Christian within a Christian community that is guided by the Spirit?

Firstly, Paul starts by considering what it looks like to bear one another’s burdens in a community; how we might restore a Christian sister or brother who has fallen into sin. It is clearly important that in a community of followers, those who have fallen into a path of sin should be gently restored, rather than shunned or cast away. A family seeks to support those in difficulties.

It is no accident that Paul uses the phrase “in a spirit of humility or gentleness” (which is lost in the NIV). The Spirit is involved in this ministry of reconciliation and restoration.

In his book on the early desert monks of Egypt, Rowan Williams recounts a wonderful example of restoration. He tells the story of a younger monk going to see an older monk for confession.

The older monk asks how things are. The younger monk replies that all is well, thank you very much! Do you battle with fantasies? Asks the older. No, all is well, comes the reply.

That’s funny, says the older man. I am old and have been a monk for many years. Everyone tells me how holy and disciplined I am. And yet I still regularly struggle with sexual fantasies.
To tell the truth, the same is true of me, says the younger man.

And then, one by one, the older monk confesses all of his fantasies of power, wealth, status, and enables the younger man to confess his own weaknesses too.

Gently, very gently, in a spirit of humility, the old man enables the younger to confront his own reality and so restores him.

You note that Paul says in Galatians that “you who have received the Spirit” should do the restoration. As John Stott said, “One of the reasons why only spiritual Christians should attempt the ministry of restoration is that only the spiritual are gentle.”

Note here that as soon as Paul has referred to this restoration he moves straight on to focusing not on the what of restoration with a focus on the one fallen into sin, but instead he emphasises the how of restoration. He is much more interested in the person doing the restoration and their manner.

The person restoring another must “take care not to be tempted”. Some interpret this as referring to the risk of falling into the same sin that is being restored, but it is more likely to be warning against the sin of pride. How easy it is for those responsible for handling those who are sinful to compare themselves favourably and become puffed up! “All must test their own work”, that is, examine their own consciences. Am I working to heal this situation out of concern for my sister or brother, or because it makes me look good and boosts my own ego?

So we get the slightly confusing pair of phrases: we must “bear one another’s burdens” in love and gentleness (v2) but at the same time “all must carry their own loads” (v5). 

Here is the central theme in the chapter. We have mutual accountability for our sisters and brothers (we “bear one another’s burdens”) and yet, at the same time, we are all personally accountable before God for our own conduct (“all must carry their own loads”). The issue is not contradictory but two sides of one coin. Christians need to help one another in the struggles of life, but each Christian will also have to answer to God individually. Part of that individual responsibility is carrying the burdens of others. Before God one cannot look around at others and thereby find grounds for justifying oneself. That Christians will be judged by God for their works, their actions, and their motives is taught elsewhere in Paul’s letters and, notably, in James. But now is not the time to get into the relationship between faith and works!

Next, Paul brings in another example of mutual accountability: the relationship between those who teach the word and their students (v6). I think at issue here is the imperative for those who are taught the word to look after the needs of their teacher. As F F Bruce put it: “The teacher relieves the ignorance of the pupil; the pupil should relieve the teacher of concern for his subsistence.”

So again we have this relationship between personal responsibility and mutual accountability. It is from texts like v6 that we get the idea of a stipend for ministers, to enable the minister to go about their ministry without the need to worry about life’s bare necessities.

This can be a tricky dynamic. We’ve all heard stories of clergy who enjoy their stipend from the golf course 3 days a week. We’ve probably all come across churches that give the impression that their priest is a paid member of staff who is expected to do the congregation’s will – she who pays the piper calls the tune! There’s a complex relationship here. As Jason has often said, he is the servant of the PCC but the PCC is not his master.

This is why it’s so important that we are living in the Spirit. In a culture without strict rules or regulations its easy for the balance of personal responsibility and mutual accountability to get disrupted. It’s easy for individuals to take advantage of the freedom we have in Christ. We need mature Christians around who can help us navigate these dynamics in the power of the Spirit.

In verse 7 Paul brings us back to the issue at hand. God is not mocked. God is our judge and will not flinch from seeing us reap what we sow.
Far from the lawlessness and immorality that the Judaisers feared, Paul tirelessly points out that Christian freedom is highly moral in nature. We are judged on the basis of our faith in Jesus’ saving work and the surest demonstration of that faith is the way we live.

God will not be mocked by one who professes faith in Christ while at the same time acting in a way antithetical to God’s purposes for us. 

So, says Paul, let’s not grow weary of doing good. Keep at it! Demonstrate your love for God in the way you treat each other! You will be personally responsible before God for this, which requires you to recognise your mutual accountability for the wellbeing of others.

We can actually see how Paul brings together these two themes if we lay out the whole passage. Taken together with the end of Chapter 5 we capture the whole of Paul’s ethics…

This resists the temptation of a communal Christianity in which all decisions are made as a group, or the converse temptation of a highly individualised Christianity in which the primary thing is me and God.

We need to constantly weigh the relationship between the mutual and corporate against the individual and personal, under the guidance of the Spirit.
It isn’t easy, but I think it’s actually part of the process of faith. How can I be a member of the body and at the same time be a single person before God?
Let’s have a short time of discussion. With the people around you perhaps have a think about how the mutual and personal should be weighed in the contemporary situations on the screen?

**Discussion followed on the following themes**

How should we weight up mutual accountability with personal responsibility in these situations?

• The way we organise our worship
• The church's pastoral care
• Mission and evangelism
• Social action
• Controversial issues (eg. same sex marriage, abortion)

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