From the Letter to the Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 1:6-7 (NRSV) – January 28, 2013.)
I confess to a certain fondness for the Galatians. I’ve never been a really big fan of Paul the Apostle and I sometimes wistfully wonder how our Christian faith might have developed if he had not been its principal post-Ascension spokesperson. What if the Johanine community that produced the Gospel of John and the three letters that also bear his name had been more prominent? What if James and his insistence on works of mercy because “faith, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) had been more influential than Paul’s assertion to the Romans that salvation is “by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Romans 11:6)? Well, we’ll never know . . . but apparently the Galatians were listening to someone suggest an alternative to Paul’s understanding of the Christian gospel and, as a result, he wrote them this letter. Anybody that could so upset Paul that he would call them “you foolish Galatians” (Gal. 3:1) gets high marks in my book! That the Galatians were also Celts with whom I, as an Irish-American, share an ethnic heritage gives them additional credit.
But I have to admit that Paul does have a point about “a different gospel” and that “there is [not] another gospel.” What there are are differing interpretations of the gospel, different understandings of its import, different emphases on points of its message. What I really don’t like about what Paul is saying is the implication that his and his interpretation only is correct and that, therefore, anyone who disagrees with him “wants to pervert the gospel of Christ.” I believe it is entirely possible to have disagreement on this things, to have unity without uniformity. In fact, I would say it’s desirable, but here in his letter to the Celts of Asia Minor Paul doesn’t seem to think so.
Elsewhere Paul used the metaphor of the body when he tried to share with the church in Corinth the fundamental importance of unity. In the body metaphor in the 12th chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul demonstrates how a body is made up of diverse members: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Cor. 12:19-21) Unity among diverse elements comes through inclusion of the various members of the body of Christ in deep sharing and mutual responsibility.
Of course, Paul was thinking of varying and diverse roles within the body of a congregation – apostle, evangelist, pastor, catechist, preacher, and so forth. He does not extend the body metaphor to those with differing opinions about the nature of faith, the person of Christ, the doctrine of atonement, the nature of salvation, and so forth. How much more lively might the church be if he had? How much more lively might the church be if we would?
If instead of thinking of the church as a community in which to find “the right answers,” we thought of it as a community in which to explore questions, how much more relevant and helpful to people’s lives might it be? So long as unity is seen as uniformity, we will be stuck trying to find (or convince others of) right answers. But if we can see unity in diversity, we will be able to hear a variety of responses; some responses will be useful for some seekers, and others will be useful for others. None will be “right” and none will be “wrong,” but all will be relevant.
This must be the church’s quest in the 21st Century, unity in diversity which makes the gospel relevant in the lives of all. No longer should we hear anyone address another as “you stupid Galatian!” No longer should we hear anyone condemned as “perverting the gospel.” We are not to preach “a different gospel,” but we are to offer a gospel that, with all its varied emphases and diverse applications, makes a difference.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.