An Apostolic ‘Attaboy’ (Galatians, Part 15)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. 7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Remind me again why Paul is telling this story about his meeting with the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem?
Certain false teachers had come to Galatia (after Paul had come, preached the gospel, planted a church, and traveled on to preach in other areas) and said that Paul had not told the church the whole story. They said that it was not enough to repent of sin and trust in Jesus; if the Galatians wanted to enter the kingdom of God, they had to keep the law of Moses and become like Jews first. Especially important for these false teachers was that the men be circumcised. Without this, the false teachers said, the Galatians were not truly part of God’s family and could not be saved. Paul is telling this story about meeting the apostles to defend himself against the charges that he preached a false gospel when he left out the need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.
Why does Paul say about those who were influential (i.e., the leaders / apostles) that “what they were makes no difference to me”? Doesn’t he have respect for the leaders of the Christian community?
Absolutely Paul respects the leaders in the church. In fact, in one of his letters he commands the church to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Th. 5:12-13). Paul is not disrespecting the leadership of the church, but rather he is recognizing their limitations as fallen human beings who are susceptible to error.
On the one hand, Paul is defending himself by telling a story about how he laid out his teachings before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem and they gave him a ‘thumbs up.’ He says they “added nothing” to his gospel message, which means they said it was complete and right and good (including the part about not requiring circumcision from Titus and other Gentiles like him) and that he should keep up the good work. Paul uses this affirmation he received in Jerusalem as proof that he was telling the truth when he taught the Galatians that they did not have to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.
But on the other hand, Paul doesn’t want to give too much credence to the leaders and apostles, because although they may have been appointed by God to lead the church, that doesn’t mean they were infallible (as we’re about to find out when we read about Peter’s huge error in 2:11-14). Suppose the apostles had hit their head that day and said something stupid like, “Oh yeah, totally, you should circumcise Titus and all the Gentiles in all the churches. Definitely, make everybody keep the law.” If they had said that, that wouldn’t have made it true. But as it happens, they agreed with Paul (as they should have, because he was right), and so Paul uses their ‘attaboy’ (“the right hand of fellowship,” 2:9) as evidence against the false teachers who wanted to pervert the gospel of grace.