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I frequently hear of approaches used by "other" Christian preachers and groups referred to as competing "gospels", such as the "social gospel" or "prosperity gospel" (or sometimes "health and wealth gospel"). And then recently, I was reading an article on the Elephant Room controversy which in passing, referred to Bishop Jakes's so-called "prosperity gospel" as a pastoral concern, in contrast with the more substantial doctrinal concerns of the nature of God.

This got me thinking—other approaches are often labeled as competing gospels with Galatians 1:6–10 held up. But referring to this approach as a pastoral concern made me wonder it is quite what Paul had in mind when declaring his anathemas. Putting it in those terms certainly softens the blow. So here is the text:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(Galatians 1:6-10 ESV)

I suppose there are two ways I would hope to discern the apostole's intention here: it's context in the text, and the historical circumstances in light of which the text was written. One feels a bit like an eavesdropper, as this epistle apparently begins in the middle of a conversation, and Paul doesn't first take time to fill us in on the background. So what can we discern about the competing "gospel" to which Paul refers in Galatians? How would the original audience have understood it?

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Content of the Galatian False Gospel

The main feature of this other gospel in Galatians is a compulsion to be circumcised. More generically, though, it can be expressed as a requirement to adhere to Jewish customs. In other words, there was an insistence that Christians live and act as Jews in order to share in the blessings given to Abraham. More generally, Paul frames the greater issue as justification through observing the law vs justification by faith in Christ.

These three points can be observed through the text:

  • In 2:3-5, Paul explains that when he went down to Jerusalem, it was imperative to him that Titus (a Gentile) not be "compelled to be circumcised", and that he didn't want to give into this demand, "so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you." So right away we see that Paul contrasts being compelled to be circumcised with the truth of the gospel.

  • In Paul's rebuke in 2:14 we see that the issue might go beyond circumcision. Paul asks Peter how it is that he can force the Gentiles to follow Jewish customs. At the beginning of the verse he states that acting in such a manner is not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.

  • In 2:16, be broadens the point to contrast faith in Christ and observance of the law.

These same three themes are developed throughout the rest of the letter. Working backwards, first we see in chapter three Paul contrast again and again faith (as believing what was heard) with observing the law. The Spirit is received and works through believing what was heard, not through observing the law.

Second, while it is not clear beyond circumcision what exactly was required by this other gospel, 4:9-10 probably hints at other aspects, possibly involving observance of festivals.

Finally, the first half of chapter five is an argument contrasting circumcision which enslaves and Christ who brings freedom. Paul's conclusion in chapter six returns again to this theme of compelling people to be circumcised.

We should always be careful not to do a "mirror reading" and assume that every issue that Paul addresses in the letter is one which was taught by his opponents as part of their so-called gospel. Yet for much of this it is obvious through Paul's remarks that these things are being practiced in the Galatian churches. Statement like "You foolish Galatians!" (3:1), "I fear for you" (4:11), and "Who cut in on you?" (5:7) all lead us to conclude that these things were, in fact, being taught and practiced.

Motive of the Galatians False Gospel

Beyond the content of the false gospel, it's also good to observe the motives. Paul sees in this other gospel a desire to please men rather than God. In 1:10, which you quote above, Paul probably is contrasting his own actions with the actions of the circumcision group. He lives to please God, not man. The implication for the circumcision group, then is that they live to please man. This is confirmed as the letter develops. In 2:11-13, Paul talks about Peter and Barnabas and how essentially they lived in the fear of man. Again in 5:11, suggests that circumcision is being preached in order to avoid persecution. 6:12 comes out and says that is the reason, and again ties the circumcision group to the fear of man and wanting to make a good outward impression.

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@Ray I'm not sure if this gets at what you're asking. And I've purposefully left vague the term "observing the law", which might be the heart of what you're wanting to understand. Also, I did not draw out parallels/differences between this false gospel and the "social gospel" and "prosperity gospel" since you didn't ask for that. I'll be glad to amend what I've written if you had in mind a different contour for what an answer would look like. –  Soldarnal May 7 '12 at 16:16
Thank you--this is a very compelling argument that Paul had the Judaizers in mind when warning against competing "gospels". I actually appreciate you stopping short of the modern parallel; although those are the occasion for my question, I'd see it as more of an application of this text. –  Ray May 7 '12 at 16:38

I struggle a lot when trying to put Paul up against Peter - especially ... but any of the 11 disciples. They were 'with' Jesus for 3 years. Living, learning, watching, growing, understanding. Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which He (Jesus) would build His Church. What about you (Peter) - who do you say that I am ? You are the Messiah, answered Peter. Where did Jesus go post-Resurrection ? To the shore to have breakfast with Peter. So ... when Paul differs with Peter ... I must be honest ... I'm going with Peter. Paul seems quite proud of the fact that he learned nothing from the 11 and never even met them for a long time. He is proud of the fact that he learned what He knew and received what he had directly from Christ (post-Resurrection). All believers - post-Resurrection - heard from Christ through prayer as the risen Savior. Same as Paul. I'm not discounting Paul's writings nor calling him a false prophet ... but I bristle when he speaks out against any of the 11 who were actually 'there'. Was circumcision required for Salvation ? Of course not. And I don't think Peter was saying that. Peter was just ok with Jewish people continuing with their Jewish customs and festivals and such after they were saved. They didn't have to drop all of that - so long as they realized they were now under Grace and no longer under the Law. Paul was all about the Gentiles - which was fine and dandy and much needed ... but Peter and the boys had their callings as well and if/when it differed slightly from Paul's ... he seemed to get all worked up. He wanted to make it crystal clear that he was not one of them ... and that his 'enlightenment' was - in fact - superior to theirs. Maybe - just maybe - the thorn in his flesh was pride. Who knows. But I think this so-called false gospel in Galatia may have just been Christianity plus a few Jewish customs. Not a Jesus Plus that is required for salvation ... but a Jesus Plus that is much like our modern day denominations.

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