Driving down Interstate 40 east of Memphis I always think about the car accident that changed my life. I can still visualize the moment of impact when my mother hit the car stopped in front of us waiting to make a left-hand turn. On that day in late November 1964 we had just started down the old highway from my aunt’s house on our return trip to Little Rock. From that moment nearly everything changed as I went to live with my father and stepmother. Today I am a Nazarene instead of a Southern Baptist because they attended Little Rock First Church of the Nazarene where I became a member 51 years ago this May. I recently looked at the certificate of membership. A warm caring atmosphere drew me into the life of the local church. Wednesday night suppers, Sunday school class, spirited worship services, softball and basketball games, youth trips to Six Flags and General Assembly, district camps, and activities led by our new youth minister filled the years before I left to attend Bethany Nazarene College. For years I observed the close relationships between church members of my parents’ generation and appreciated the interest they expressed in my life when I returned for a visit. In v. 2 of our lectionary passage, Paul calls the Galatians to “fulfill the law of Christ,” to be understood in light of 5:6 “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” and 5:14 “for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” I cannot travel down I40 without thinking about the accident and the love I found in my new church.
In Galatians 6:1-5 Paul gives some clues as to what it means for communities to live on the basis of love. First, he calls them to restore those caught in sin “in a spirit of gentleness.” Next, they should share each other’s burdens. However, Paul’s letter reveals the negative as well as the positive of community living in v. 12-13. Caring for each other with gentleness goes a long way in creating an atmosphere of love. Finally, Paul balances his concern for helping others carry their heavy burdens with an admonition to carry our own load, described as a soldier’s pack in v. 5. We should be faithful to our own responsibilities.
Paul identifies one of those obligations as sharing with your teacher, v.6. We are to share our wealth. In the New Beacon Commentary on Galatians, George Lyons explores issues of wealth and stewardship that could flow from the passage. Do we share our wealth with those in need? What is the priority of our spending? Do we indulge our appetite for entertainment of the flesh more than supporting the ministry of the Spirit through giving to our Church? Paul cautions us about growing weary in doing good and reminds us of the coming harvest: “we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up, v.9.” When we have the opportunity we should work for the good of all people, v.10. Lyons explores Wesley’s admonition of gaining, saving and giving found in his sermon “The Use of Money.” A writer in the Methodist Review of 1914 used a similar analogy in his article “Serving in Earning Money and in Giving Money.” Those who give to charity should first examine how they make their wealth. For an example, he cited how a manufacturer giving to the YMCA had “great numbers of the workingmen in his plants … toiling twelve hours a day, seven days in the week, with dark periods of unemployment, under working conditions both harmful and dangerous, and at wages scarcely provid[ing] a decent standard of family life.” He concluded that men and women “ought always first to serve in earning the money; and after that in the giving of it.” What harvest will come from both the earning and giving of our wealth?
In closing remarks found in v. 11-16, Paul restates his main theme that one is a Christian because of the grace of God and not through one’s efforts or status. Yet, for a tradition that emphasizes salvation by faith through grace Paul often calls believers to action. Remember in 5:6 he stated “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Furthermore, we are to live and be guided by the Spirit, v. 25. In 6:4 “all must test their own work” so it “will become a cause for pride.” And, in 6:16 he refers to those who “follow this rule.” Does the Holy Spirit gift a Christian to live automatically by this Spirit standard or do men and women have to take some action? Do we become a new creation simply through divine action or does transformation have any connection to works? What place do rules and standards play in a community where salvation is based upon grace?
Similar to a Jewish Talmudic tradition of relating the law to everyday living, Wesleyan communities have sought to translate the gospel into daily living by mandating rules. John Wesley understood the nature of creating community. He formed small groups for the care and discipline of the body of Christ and imposed his “Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies” (1743) on Methodists. He even dismissed people for failing to follow the standards if they did not repent of their ways after being admonished. He structured his general rules around ‘doing no harm,’ ‘doing good,’ and ‘attending upon all the ordinances of God.’
A hundred years ago, the Methodist Episcopal Church discussed whether doctrine and church rules should be requirements of membership in addition to religious experience. One General Conference voted one way on the issue, then turned around a few days later to vote the other way. The 1908 Discipline contained “Special Advices” on slavery, dress, marriage, divorce, amusements, temperance, and tithing. From the 1870s to the 1920s one finds Methodists presenting their viewpoints on amusements in the Methodist Review and The Christian Advocate. Why discuss and formulate a group policy on amusements? Is the process part of what it means to live by the Holy Spirit or how one becomes a new creation? Such debates did raise the question of what expectations one would have of fellow members and why. For example, I hoped the parents of my children’s church friends would live by the standards of the church. How do our expectations affect our fellowship? What do our attitudes convey about Christian Faith towards those outside of or new to our communities?
In the Galatian church, some compelled Christians to be circumcised according to Jewish law, v.12. Some interpreters explain that circumcision meant that the Christian believers would fall under the category of Jews to the Roman government thus excluding them from having to participate in the rites of emperor worship. Hence, the believers would be protected from one form of persecution. However, Paul calls into question the demand for Christians to be circumcised. One, the rule does not save. Two, he impugns the attitude of those imposing the rules, v.13-14. What is our motivation when we call people to obey the rules of the church?
Nazarenes patterned their rules after the general rules of Wesley and the “Special Advices” found in the Methodist Episcopal Discipline. Early Nazarenes understood that living by certain standards identified them as a Christian and facilitated spiritual growth. My current students often have a totally different approach to rules seeing them as a basis for exclusion rather than as a sign of Christian identity or a means to spiritual growth. As a later generation they have been asked to simply follow the rule without being given the context or reason for it. The rule may originate from an understanding of how a Christian should live. Or, it may merely be the way a community wants to live. Without understanding the historical context for the rules or their role in spiritual formation one can often view following rules as mere legalism similar to that of Paul’s opponents in Galatia who wanted to force circumcision as a basis of salvation.
What rules bind our communities together? Why do we impose them? How do we pass them down to future generations? What responsibilities do we have to each other to follow the rules? What spirit should we have when we call for compliance? Adherence to rules or standards of conduct should not be viewed as the price of salvation, but living by the standards of the Spirit do become a sign of conversion. Christian practice becomes a means through which transformation takes place. Paul would remind us that gentleness should be found in how we relate to one another in community. Whether our local church is in Galatia or Little Rock we should be characterized by the commandment of love and our living should result in acts of love towards God and each other.