top of page

6.3 Galatians -- History of the Controversy

Paul hurries past the civilities and lets the Galatians know at once that he is upset with them.

           I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6).

          But he doesn't give any details of the problem till much later.  Instead, he gives a short spiritual autobiography, which provides invaluable material for future historians.  However, his objective in doing so is to underscore his authority and the truth of the doctrine he taught when he founded the churches in that province.  He wants them to know that he is not subject to the authority of Jerusalem, but has, as it were, a direct line to God.


In chapter 2, he says that it was only after 14 more years spent among the Gentiles that he went to Jerusalem and met those "who seemed to be leaders" (Gal 2:2).  This may very well be the church council of Acts 15.   He shared with them the message that he was preaching to the Gentiles.  At some point there arose a controversy, because he alludes to

          "some false brothers [who] had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves" (Gal 2:4).

           It is clear that the issue was the matter of obedience to Law, or at least a portion of it.  Circumcision, apparently, was a major part of the dispute:  Paul mentions that Titus was not forced to be circumcised.  But there were probably other demands as well: Acts 15 adds "obey the law of Moses."  Paul's response was:

           "we did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the Gospel might remain with you" (Gal 2:5).

Furthermore, he did not alter his message in any way: the so-called "important" men "added nothing to my message" (Gal 2:6).  It is impossible to miss Paul's cavalier attitude to the Jerusalem hierarchy.  Peter and the surviving disciples, plus James, Jesus' brother, were held in the highest esteem by the Jewish Christians: they were the living witnesses to the Lord's Resurrection.  But Paul refused to share the awe of the congregations, instead asserting his own independent authority.  Three times he qualifies his respect for the leaders:

          a.  "those who seemed to be important -- whatever they were makes no difference to me: God does not judge by external appearance" (Gal 2:6).

          b.  "those reputed to be pillars"  (Gal 2:9)

          c.  "but when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face,  because he stood condemned" (Gal 2:11).


           Paul refused to give them the deference they were no doubt accustomed to.  And it is doubtful that anyone else every opposed Peter to his face and lived to tell about it.  


The only concession he made to the Jerusalem church was "to remember the poor," and that was no concession, because Paul already practiced that.  However, the most important result of this private meeting was:

          "They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised" (Gal 2:9).

           This is a very important strategic decision, but it is a defeat for the Gospel itself.   The leadership sanctioned a racial split by making an organizational division.  It set up two lines of authority based on race, not on geography.  It absolved Peter and the disciples from winning the Gentiles who lived in Israel and those Godfearing Greeks who visited Israel during the Jewish festivals.  Paul kept trying to convince the Jews in the Diaspora that Jesus was their Messiah, but had more success reaching the Gentiles who had little understanding of Jewish history or beliefs.  This racial-religious split set a bad precedent for ethnic variations of the Gospel, which have become popular in our own time:  a white Gospel, a black Gospel, a Gospel of the oppressed, "liberation theology," feminist Christianity.   All of these share the same flaw in that they make one's cultural identity the key to interpreting the eternal Gospel.


This was the same tension in the 1st Century: the tendency of two disparate cultural groups to create a faith congenial to their own preconceptions.  And the Jerusalem leadership, instead of working through to a universal vision, capitulated to the ethnicists. They wanted a Christianity that would not offend their Jewish compatriots, except in the matter of the identification of the Messiah.  But Paul served a more radical vision.  For him, the resurrection of Jesus meant not only the destruction of the old sin nature of the Gentiles, but also of the old righteousness of the Jews.  Both alike were enemies of the Cross of Christ, and denials of the achievement of Jesus in purchasing righteousness for all men through his sacrifice.  This is why the dispute persisted for years, and could not be papered over by private discussions at the top.  Acts 15 has more about this dispute, and its apparent resolution.

bottom of page