Because in Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision matters any more, but instead faith made active through love. – Galatians 5:6
Which, in turn, reminds me of:
Thus faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself. – James 2:17
It is possible that the conflict between James and Paul has been overstated.
But my key reason for pulling this text out of my morning reading, as I prepare for my online study tonight which I’ll post about later, is that it represents a broader principle. Sometimes we’re afraid to read between the lines, or better, to discover principles which apply in other circumstances.
These days, circumcision or not is a medical discussion for most people. Yes, it is still a mark of Judaism, but many are circumcised who are not Jews. So what is Paul talking about here? I believe he’s referring to the distinction in God’s favor between Jews and Gentiles. That was the church conflict of his time. Did one have to become a Jew first in order to be a follower of Jesus? Was entry to the family through circumcision?
In the prior four chapters of Galatians Paul has argued that this is not the case. Grace is open to all and is the way one becomes part of the family. Christians have read these four chapters and then either failed to continue reading, or treated chapter five as though it was some sort of advice tacked on to an otherwise theological letter.
That is not the case. The final chapters are a clear continuation of the intent of the earlier ones. My seminary class in Galatians only made it to chapter 4. We were supposed to read the rest, but we never discussed the latter part of the book in class. I don’t know if it was just time or if the professor intended it that way. But Paul wrote it as one document. For him, there was more than becoming part of the family, though that was important, demonstrated by four very heated chapters dedicated to talking about it.
Paul’s concern continued with living as part of God’s family. How do we live now that we’re “in”? That’s where we get to this verse.
Historical understanding is important. Historically this verse was about the distinction between Gentiles and Jews before God, i.e., as part of the family. (Don’t come to conclusions about other aspects of the relationship without reading Romans 1-3 & 9-11.) But it also expresses a principle.
We humans are good at creating distinctions and barriers. In fact, such distinctions are necessary to life. I hate “labeling” yet I must do it in order to talk. This post is filled with labels. If I label someone as “poor” so that I can despise that person and distinguish him from his betters, I’m creating a barrier. I might use the same label, however, to set that person aside as the one who should receive my help. The distinction between Jew and Gentile does still exist, as Paul would acknowledge. It just doesn’t mean that God loves Jews (circumcised) and hates or ignores Gentiles (uncircumcised). The distinction was necessary (and is necessary) for certain purposes (“God’s messages were entrusted to them” [Romans 3:2]), but is not to be used to distinguish those God loves and those God does not love.
Now what distinctions might you and I be using to divide people into acceptable and unacceptable groups? People loved by God and those who can be despised?
Here’s how Eugene Petersen renders Galatians 5:6 in The Message:
For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.*
Can I hear “ouch” instead of “amen”?
*Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ga 5:6). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Elements of the illustration I used were taken from OpenClipart.org.