Gal. 5:15 warns the community of believers at Galatia that “if you bite and devour one another, watch out in case you are destroyed by one another,” while 5:26 urges them to “not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
These bookend phrases, including a list of vices and virtues in between, are good evidence of (the author) Paul’s knowledge of a specific situation happening among the community. Paul’s employment of strong language, and even the use of his own handwriting (6:11), indicates a sense of urgency that he seems to be writing with…all of this taken together to build the case that he was fervently working to dispel controversial issues that were threatening to tear apart the young church.
Paul’s communal context suggests that these virtues (or, the listed “fruit of the Spirit”) cannot be developed in isolation, but will be brought about in us, by the power of the Spirit, through relationship with others. We can’t bear fruit if we are outside of the body–we need each other to grow in the measure of Christ we take hold of and exhibit!
This is easy for us to talk about; difficulty comes when the actual living begins.
At the time that I’m posting this, there is a theological controversy spreading across social media because of an unkind (and theologically contested) comment someone in church leadership made about another believer and minister of the gospel. I can’t help but ponder how this modern situation would be addressed by Paul, especially with the tone of his exhortation (and rebuke!) of the Galatians. I think he would certainly have some things to say about “biting and devouring one another” and not being “full of empty glory, provoking one another, envying one another.” Peter Oakes’ commentary on Galatians points us in the right direction with the observation,
“Instead of moving upward to virtue via education, the Christian moves downward to virtue through identification with the dying Christ…of abandoning a former life and social connections in favor of the humble life of the house church.” (p 177)
To live in community as believers means to prefer the other before our own pride, to maintain (and fight for) unity through the power of the Spirit, and to abide in the humility of Christ. Where doctrinal disagreements arise, may we never abuse our freedom in Christ but instead serve each other in love, remembering to love our neighbor as ourselves.
None of which is possible by our own strength, by the way, but only by the Spirit’s help and guidance.