Prevalent in the whole of the New Testament writings is the presence of Gnostic teaching. Gnostic teaching simply has to do with the way in which we receive, project, and participate in spiritual “knowledge”. One of the key markers of Gnosticism, particularly in relationship to Christianity, is the idea of division. The self is divided over against itself (material and spiritual, human and divine) as is Christ (in being either man or God, material or divine).
Of concern to Paul is that a Christ divided leads to division within the fellowship of believers (and being divided against oneself leads to a Christ divided), which limits the work of God in the world. This is why we find Paul so “astonished” in the letter to the Galatians (1:1), spending much of his time in what is one of his most frustrated letters speaking to this division and calling for a unified body. For Paul, “to walk by the spirit (5:25)” is to not be “conceited” or “provoking to division” when it comes to the knowledge of Christ’s saving work and our belonging to it.
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (6:15)
Of primary concern to Paul is the relationship between God’s saving work and the salvation of the gentiles. In Galatians, this false teaching (circumcision only, or the Law over Christ) is pushing against the Gospel movement and using circumcision (the Law) to divide the Gospel and the body of believers against itself. To underscore this, Paul lays out a simple and concise argument in the early part of his letter to suggest what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free as a “new” creation.
Slave to Free, Free to Slave: A House Divided
Establishing the Gospel as a “gift” (1:12) through which he was “set apart (Paul’s witness) before he was “born” (1:15) and “called by grace” to live into this new creation, this is then proclaimed as Paul’s witness through which he moved from being a slave (under the law of circumcision) to being free (in Christ). The issue of a divided Gospel where circumcision (the Law) stands over Christ is that the pattern of Paul’s witness in this understanding is then reversed, leading him, them and us back into slavery.
Paul reveals the hypocrisy of living in the Darkness (slavery) while also claiming the light as theirs rather than as a light for the world. This leads him towards the question of “justification” by faith in Christ, not by works of the law (2:6). If, he suggests, I try to live otherwise (by works), of which our adherence to the Law does, it only proves me to be a sinner (3:18) and leaves me enslaved in the darkness. If we could “build on (our) own” (the picture of the spiritual house that we find 1st and 2nd Peter), we would have no need for Christ. This becomes the central force of the division Paul sees between Law and Gospel. A Gospel divided has no power to move us from the darkness to the light. I think this is why that seemingly casual line in 2:10, which admonishes them to “remember the poor” in this great reversal from free to slave, is so important. It is here that we find a world in need of the same freedom we proclaim for ourselves, and it is in seeing his own poverty that Paul’s witness is able to proclaim to an impoverished world that he has moved from slavery to freedom, and thus they can stand in the light as well. This is the great proclamation.
Paul then moves to anchor this slave-free movement in a wonderful exposition of the Jewish narrative to which circumcision belongs. Paul reminds them of Abraham and of their connection to him and the larger story of God. (3:6) This, he insists, was what was preached by the “Spirit of Jesus (the “Scripture” or stories that hold Abraham in view in their tradition) all along- an “Abrahamic” covenant for the world (3:9). And the way this happens is through Christ, whom elsewhere is understood to have been there “from the beginning” (in the blessing of Abraham for all nations and for our sake 3:14). And then in a brilliant reimagining, Paul sees the work of Christ in the offspring of Hagar and Sarah, where he sees the image of two children divided and eventually emerging in Christ as one offspring united. In this sense, Law (circumcision, or that which divides us) is in service to the Abrahamic covenant (of God for the world), which prefigures Christ (3:15-18).
Once again, “the Scripture” is the Jewish story to which they belong, in which we find the Law under which everything is imprisoned under the Powers of Sin and Death (3:22). This is what Paul wants to underscore when he describes the guardians (before Christ) as the “law” given through “intermediaries”. The reason for the Law was to hold us in bondage to the Powers of Sin and Death so that “Christ” could heal the division that the Law creates. The declaration of Paul’s witness says that we are no long under a “guardian” but rather we are “In Christ”, all sons and daughters of God, equal and not trapped in the distinctives that the law creates (slave, free, male/female, Jew/Greek) 3:28. All are under the law, all are redeemed in Christ who reveals God to us.
And yet, the source of Paul’s frustration is that they (his readers) want to turn back to the world of the law. Yet “for freedom Christ has set us free 5:1”, so why do we long for this great reversal from free to slave? The desires of the flesh that appear to long for this slavery (to the Law) reveals the sin of oppression and division, while the desires of the Spirit (Christ) stand opposed to this division “in love” 5:16-24. Which is precisely where faith, working through “love”, can lead us to righteousness (5:6). This is how God heals our division and makes us (and this world) righteous (to make right), is through one covenant, one offpsring, and one word (love) undivided against itself. (5:13). Therefore, to walk by the spirit, the same spirit that informed Abraham (5:25) is to not be conceited or provoking to division. Rather, move towards love, in which the law that revealed our need for Christ calls us towards “bear one anothers burdens.” (6:2)
Paul’s imagining of the New Creation (6:15) comes in light of a final admonishing to “Do good to everyone, but especially to those of the household of faith.” (6:10). So much of the New Testament writings speak to the importance of a house united, a house that is not divided. This is the relevance of the “spiritual building” in which Christ is the cornerstone, a truth that pulls us out of those spaces which attempt to elevate law above our witness to God’s story in Christ, which is the work that Christ is doing in the world. Although we might think that we are speaking of freedom, we are in fact taking the witness of Christ and setting it back into slavery to that which already set us in bondage to the Darkness. We create distinctions that hide the light of Christ (God) for the world, the same God that Abraham bore witness to in his obedience. This is why fellowship is such a key theme in so many of the New Testament writings. A fellowship divided cannot bear a light to the impoverished, the oppressed, the hurting, the struggling, the needy. A God who is not for the gentiles cannot reach out to all the nations of the world as His Covenant declares. And the way to unity In Christ is through love, the same love that God lavished on Paul and which brought him from slavery to freedom.