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Fight Valiantly! Paul’s Anathemas

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 18 Mar 2019

As we continue to work through what the New Testament says about fighting heresy, Lee Gatiss looks today at Paul’s anathemas against false gospels. Watch the video podcast for today on our YouTube channel.

Paul uses a striking image of cutting people off from fellowship in Galatians 1:8-9. He says:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

There is a givenness to the gospel message which means it cannot be revoked or supplemented or enhanced or transformed by additional teaching insights, even from angels. If anyone tries to do this, they are under a curse, says Paul.

This curse, or anathema, is a curse from God which puts someone outside of God’s sphere of blessing. Paul is invoking a curse from God, or asking God to curse someone, rather than telling the Galatians what to do with the person who is preaching contrary to the gospel. He is not directly saying they should be separated from the church, as such. However, the implication is that if they are outside God’s blessing, they are outside the church, since their gospel will not lead to glory but to perdition.

Anathema is the word for the divine curse in the Old Testament, which puts something or someone “under the ban”, devoted to utter destruction. That physical destruction language cannot be literally what is meant in the New Testament, however, because the nascent church did not have the legal authority to judicially kill people for heresy, nor do we have any evidence that they ever did so. Rather, as John Stott says, the apostle “expresses the wish that God’s judgment will fall upon them. The Galatian churches, it is implied, will surely then not accord such teachers a welcome or a hearing, but refuse to receive or listen to them, because they are men whom God has rejected.”

The false gospel teachers ought to be separated from the church, since they are under eternal condemnation. There is nothing here, however, about handing false teachers over to the secular magistrate to be punished or condemned to death, such as we do find in parts of the later Christian tradition.

Paul’s contending for the gospel in Galatians also involves him in a public dispute with the apostle Peter, which he talks about from Galatians 2:11 onwards. “I opposed him to his face,” writes Paul, “because he stood condemned.” Paul felt that Peter was not living out the implications of the gospel in his behaviour towards the Gentiles in Antioch. Peter had begun to separate himself from the Gentiles at meal times, one crucial moment where togetherness or separateness is often demonstrated. He was doing so publicly and influentially, in that many were following him in this action, so Paul felt he must confront the problem publicly too, “when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) — the truth that Jews and Gentiles together are one in Christ by faith alone.

Paul shows how Peter was being inconsistent, with clear and straightforward teaching, but there is no vitriol or lack of respect in the way he recounts this episode (or in how it happened, as far as we know), which is also instructive.

Paul also speaks about the false teachers in Galatia, in Galatians 4:17, saying that “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.” There is a sense of false separation going on here, as the false teachers try various methods for making the Galatian Christians subservient to their false gospel.

So there is a right separation and a wrong separation throughout Galatians: it is wrong to separate from those with whom one is properly united (as Peter had been doing), and it is wrong to exclude those who ought not to be excluded (as the circumcision party were attempted to do); yet we ought to shut our ears to false gospels, and it is right to reckon them anathema, even if they are brought to us by angels or religiously impressive people.

Questions for Reflection
1. Is Paul being arrogant when he tries to persuade the Galatians to listen to his gospel alone?
2. When is it wrong to separate ourselves from other believers, according to Galatians?
3. When is it wrong to exclude other believers?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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