“I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!”—Galatians 5:12
The law of old making way for the Law of Love
What has gotten the Apostle Paul so angry? Why is he so colorfully describing the people upsetting the Galatians?
Paul is incensed that people in the Galatian church are insisting that Gentiles become circumcised in order to enter into the fellowship of community. Paul’s project in the New Testament, highlighted in Galatians, is to ensure to everyone that “being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” One translation says the only thing that matters is faith working itself out through love.
Paul describes the law of the Old Testament, the law of Moses, as a “mediator.” The Greek word is paidagōgos (παιδαγωγός). Paul has a generous view of the role of the law in Galatians 3 (which he begins, infamously with “You irrational Galatians! Who put a spell on you?”); to him, it’s a guide, a teacher, a custodian that helps people along their way until the Law of Christ, the Law of Love enters the scene.
Here’s how some Bibles translate it: “disciplinarian” in NRSV, “guardian” in NIV and ESV, “schoolmaster” in KJV, Eugene Peterson says “Greek tutors,” “tutor” in NASB, “custodian” in CEB. The term is used against in 1 Cor. 4:15, and in that passage there’s even less range: “guardians” in NRSV and NIV, “guides” in ESV, “instructors” in KJV, “tutors” again in NASB.
Blue Letter Bible defines it as “a tutor i.e. a guardian and guide of boys. Among the Greeks and the Romans the name was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.”
The Anchor Bible Dictionary’s entry says this: “Of special important for primary education was the paidagogos, a person whose position has no modern equivalence. The paidagogos was the slave who accompanied a child to school and his role tended to be that of a male nursemaid. It is to this custodian that Paul compared the law in Gal. 3:24. The paidagogos was not the teacher. The teacher was a grammatistes, known in Latin as litterator or a ludi magister, whose main job was teaching children to read aloud (cf. Acts 8:38, 30) and to write.”
The law prepared us for grace, for the law of Christ; if you follow the law, you will know Christ. Paul’s generous approach here changes by the time we get to chapter five (or Philippians 3:8, where he calls the law skybala (σκύβαλα) or “rubbish,” or even “shit” as some people suggest). And so Paul has a generous view of this “mediator” or “custodian,” until it becomes an obstacle for the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant. Then he gets incensed, then he suggests that the law is garbage, or that he’d rather have the people that insist on it castrate themselves.
Paul is radically inclusive and he confronts those who aren’t
Paul is radically inclusive and he reserves his harshest words for those who exclude people from the body. But for the Jewish folks, who insist on using the law, they’re not just being difficult: the radical change of the Jerusalem Council, which no longer required circumcision, was a cataclysmic shift in the Jewish community. I think it is a challenge for contemporary audiences—or even ancient Gentile audiences—to understand the significance of this shift. Admittedly, I do not fully understand it either. I simply know how it came about, according to the book of Genesis. So allow me to lay out what I do know.
When God makes a covenant with Abraham, one that assures Abraham to be the patriarch of a great nation, circumcision is the symbol that represents this covenant. “You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us.” So for the Jewish people, circumcision is what set them apart as God’s people. It represented God’s provision to them for thousands of years. It connected them to God’s promise for generations and the prospect of losing that is a big one.
From the vantage point of Paul and the other disciples, circumcision was a bizarre and unusual practice to enforce on adult Gentiles and their tradition. It was too big of a cultural leap for Gentiles to make and Paul was insistent on removing those barriers for the sake of the Gospel. Paul wanted to universalize the Gospel so he brought it to the present moment with great flexibility.
A key point to this, however, is that he did not ask the Jewish people to leave their cultural heritage, rather, he asked them to no longer impose their culture on others. And so the church was diverse, and not homogeneous, in its cultural expression. So just as Paul did not want Jewish folks to impose their laws onto Gentiles, the freedom of the Gentiles was not something that he wanted to be enforced on Jews. Mutual submission and forbearance was the key.
For Paul, his main point has huge implications, well beyond circumcision alone. “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” For Paul, now that we live under faith, we no longer are bound by law. He concludes chapter three with his magnum opus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.”
What does Paul’s teaching mean for us today?
Paul says it is no longer circumcision, or any worldly mechanism, that connects us to God’s promise, as heirs of Abraham, but through grace by faith we are free of all encumbrances and requirements. So the question for Christians today is how do we take the motif of Jews and Gentiles and apply it in our time and place. Or, in other words, who are today’s Jews and Gentiles? I do not mean to be glib when I say this, because indeed, there is Jewish persecution around the United States and around the world. What I mean to say is there are people who are excluded from the church because of how the society sees them, or because of the new laws of the church. If our law is love, what keeps people from joining us? What keeps us apart? If we are all one in Christ, all heirs to Abraham’s promise, what barriers do we still have up? What is the new circumcision, so to speak, today? What thing do we think is too precious to let go of in order to include someone else? This is an essential question for any serious Christian to ask today.
Paul’s teaching on oneness in Christ offers us a clue. He lists out gender, ethnicity, as well as socioeconomic status as what prevents people from seeing themselves as a part of the promise of Abraham, as well as being actively included in the work of the church. For starts, we must consider gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as preventers. But we also need to consider who the church has systemically excluded.
Throughout history, I think we can see this in many cases. Our church, Circle of Hope, is especially focusing on race and racism in this season. Christianity’s marriage with White Supremacy and White Nationalism is evidently a way that the church excludes people from joining. Racism touches everything in this land and we need to continually address it if we want to model the radical inclusion of the New Testament. And to be sure, the leap to include people of color in our churches is not as great as the radical action of removing the circumcision as a requirement for fellowship.
Another issue that Paul may have addressed in this day-in-age is ableism. Our churches do not often actively exclude disabled folks, but when our buildings are not accessible, when our services are not translated into sign language, and when we do not consider, especially during this pandemic, the immunocompromised, we are excluding disabled people.
I think that women have also been systemically excluded from our churches, too, not as members, but as leaders. The fact that it is still tolerable in some of our traditions to exclude women from being pastors simply by virtue of their gender is absurdly and abhorrently sexist. The fact that Saddleback made headlines last week for affirming women in ministry is showcasing how far behind the church is patriarchy and sexism. Evidently, there is “male and female,” contrary to Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:28. The scripture itself is filled with examples of women leaders: Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Junia, Phoebe. Not only is this viewpoint untenable biblically, but in our current time it is an incredible impediment.
And finally, I think perhaps the most important issue of our time to address is the inclusion of LBGTQIA people. Like including women in the pastorate before it, this view is rooted in a patriarchal view of the Bible, and for many believers, the issue rises to the “covenantal” level of circumcision, although not in any biblical way, just in a culturally Christian way. Nevertheless, the way that the church has abused and hated LBGTQIA folks in the past is, in my view, the best example of the same sort of legalistic exclusion that led Paul to become so incensed with the Galatians.
Paul offers no tolerance when it comes to the cultural exclusion of others, and I sympathize with that view. Too often we fellowship and commune with people who exclude women from leadership, who are prejudicial toward LBGTQIA folks (and not just in leadership, but simply in membership), who don’t interrogate racism, or awaken themselves to ableism. But I want to note that Paul wrote treatises explaining his position before going nuclear, if you will. I think we must use our conviction in the same way. Our passion can lead to strongly worded rebukes, but let’s remember that those rebukes come from teaching and discernment, just as the Jerusalem Council resulted in. That won’t mean our confrontations will end, but it does give us a strong basis for them.
For my part, the radical inclusion of the New Testament offers me the license, and the obligation, to radically include today. It is a matter to fulfilling the New Covenant and obeying God to me.