I noticed something interesting when I was reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians recently. As you may recall, Paul seems to skip his typical introductory remarks, in which he usually praises and encourages the believers in that city. Rather, after a brief greeting, he launches into a critique of the Galatians’ recent actions.
The Galatians had allowed teachers to enter their midst who were trying to add the requirements of the Mosaic Law to the teaching of the Gospel, so that one must be Jewish in order to be Christian. In no uncertain terms, Paul decries this teaching as a damnable heresy. He says he is astonished and perplexed by the actions of the “foolish” Galatian believers. He defends his own ministry against apparent slanders and accusations meant to discredit him. Then, he argues strongly that followers of Christ are justified by the free gift of grace, made available through the shed blood of Jesus, rather than by human efforts and works of the Law. Like righteous Abraham before them, God’s people are justified by their faith in God and His promises.
In chapter 4, Paul says something striking that gave me pause. He recalls his past dealings with the Galatians, how he worked among them lovingly, and even though he suffered from physical setbacks, they cared for him and treated him with love and respect as God’s messenger.
Then, Paul asks a stunning question: “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” He argues that the false teachers were trying to build up the Galatians’ ego but weren’t telling them what they needed desperately to hear.
In the 21st-century American church, where discernment is increasingly considered divisiveness and people are quick to “judge not” but slow (if not totally unwilling) to “judge with right judgment,” it’s not unthinkable that Paul would be ruled hateful, critical, even judgmental for the words he writes in this epistle.
It’s easy to focus on Paul’s cautions and criticisms, which are vital for the spiritual lives of all believers, including the Galatians. (They’re divinely-inspired words, so OF COURSE they’re vital!) But don’t miss the fact that Paul, the champion of discernment and opponent of all who would corrupt and co-opt and contradict the Gospel, was speaking to these foolish Galatians out of an abundance of love, a depth of compassion, and a history of loving ministry. Paul calls the Galatian believers his “little children,” for whom he felt in the “anguish of childbirth” over concern for their souls.
This doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t call out false teachers and those who opposed his ministry. In like manner, we shouldn’t be afraid to address public false teaching publicly, without soft-selling or pulled punches. But when it came to fellow believers who had fallen victim to false teaching, Paul’s approach was parental and pastoral. He wasn’t a madman with a machete, hacking away at his brothers; he was a surgeon with a scalpel. When he confronted the sin of others, his blows were wounds from a friend.
The very morning that I noticed Paul’s question in Galatians 4, I had a hard conversation with a dear brother who had fallen into sin. When I had heard what was going on, I was shocked and grieved, and before confronting him, I prayed for God to soften both my heart and his. I am happy to tell you that the brother has repented and is walking in obedience, but the conversation wasn’t an easy one. He could have rebuffed my rebuke and dismissed me. I was no longer in any position of authority or accountability in his life. However, he knew me–he knew how much I have cared for him, and how much I have sought to serve him and build him up in the Lord. Because of this, he listened to what I had to say, and repented of his sin, and I praise the Lord for that.
Here’s my point: Christian, those of you who are mature are responsible before God to recognize and confront the sins of your brothers in a spirit of humility and gentleness. And I think you are more likely to be heard if your brothers know how much you care about their souls. When the time comes that you need to deliver loving wounds to your brothers, do so with gentleness, with love, with compassion. If not, your righteous judgment will sound too much like clashing cymbals and clanging gongs.