Dividing the unity, splintering the connections: more ACC agitation

Recent posts from the warriors of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations suggest that they have been hard at work in Tonga, lobbying support for their retrograde sectarian minority opinion. The matter revolves around the decision of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. The posts emanated from the Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, meeting in session over the past week.

A proposal went to the Conference, “That the conference of the FWC of Tonga suspend its formal relationship with the Assembly of the Uniting Church Australia until such a time as she repents of her apostate decision to approve its secular doctrine on diversity and same-gender marriage.” It was posted with the implication that this was adopted by the FWC. I don’t believe that it was.

In fact, the General Secretary of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has issued a statement strongly affirming the relationships that the FWC has with the Uniting Church in Australia. Dr Tevita Koloa’ia Havea has said that “There is no change to the relationship between the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and the Uniting Church in Australia.”

The statement continues, quite pointedly, “Please disregard the rumours, regarding the termination of the relationship between our General Conferences and the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.”

You can read this at http://fwc.to/

Meanwhile, the Uniting Church website reports that the President and General Secretary of the Assembly have issued a statement celebrating the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

“The Uniting Church in Australia and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga have a partnership that is strong, and grounded in our shared life in Christ, the honouring of and respect for our expressions of ministry and mission and our proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. The formal relationship between the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga remains strong. May God bless our churches with wisdom, grace and peace as we seek to serve our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ with joy and love.”

 

The statement was issued over the names of Dr Deidre Palmer, President, and Ms. Colleen Geyer, General Secretary of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.

You can read this at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3033-blessed-by-our-joyful-partnership

There can be no doubt that the tactics of the sectarians in the ACC are retrograde, divisive, and disturbing. Far from affirming “the faith and unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” (as the UCA Basis of Union declares), the ACC has acted to divide the unity of the church, challenge the commitment to holiness manifested in lives working for justice, splinter connections across worldwide church through agitations with a partner church outside of the regular lines of communication and fellowship, and turn away from the church’s commitment to “the discipline of interpreting [the apostolic] teaching in a later age.

That is a poor witness, acting in ways that were clearly not envisaged in the faithful work undertaken to form, and then strengthen, the Uniting Church, over many decades. The theme of the last Assembly was “abundant grace, liberating hope”. It would be good to see some grace and hope emanating from the ACC …….

also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/26/human-sexuality-and-the-bible/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/26/once-again-affirming-our-diversity-celebrating-joyous-marriages/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/15/when-you-suffer-the-whole-body-of-christ-suffers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/26/marriage-of-same-gender-people-a-gift-to-the-whole-church/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/09/19/discernment/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/abundant-grace-liberating-hope/

Human sexuality and the Bible

The recent Israel Folau controversy has highlighted various issues: freedom of expression in modern society, the place of religion in Australian society, the ethics of professionalism … and questions of biblical interpretation.

For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.

A number of passages are regularly cited in relation to matters of human sexuality, and particularly homosexuality. We need to think about those sections of scripture in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.

Elizabeth and I have written a brief discussion of the texts most often cited when “homosexuality” is debated by Christian people–especially conservative Christian people. It is an expansion of our earlier blog post (noted below).

A longer discussion of these issues is now posted on the Uniting Network website (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf) as part of a collection of resources for Open and Affirming Churches (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/open-and-affirming-project/)

LGBTIQ+ people often refer to these passages as the “clobber passages”, since they are regularly (mis)used to “clobber” people who identify as LGBTIQ or other related designations.

These texts were originally written either in Hebrew or in Greek, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it.

Scripture does not include anything relating to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. So we need to take care when we use these “clobber passages” in our discussions. None of them should actually be used to criticise LGBTIQ+ people.

Alongside these passages, there are many sections of scripture which provide a more positive outlook on human sexuality. So we have offered a short reflection on a number of the key affirming and inclusive verses.

Our discussion of these passages can be read at

http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf

Geoff Thompson has a careful consideration of the cluster of issues in the Israel Folau scenario at https://theconversation.com/amp/why-christians-disagree-over-the-israel-folau-saga-118773

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/26/once-again-affirming-our-diversity-celebrating-joyous-marriages/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/15/when-you-suffer-the-whole-body-of-christ-suffers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/26/marriage-of-same-gender-people-a-gift-to-the-whole-church/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/09/19/discernment/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/abundant-grace-liberating-hope/

Freedom and unity: themes in Galatians

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery … For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters” (Gal 5:1, 13).

Paul’s letter to the Galatians continues in the Revised Common Lectionary for a number of Sundays. This Sunday, the focus is on freedom.

In last week’s reading, we saw that the gospel which Paul proclaims has the capacity to make believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). 

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that they want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes that they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13). 

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12). 

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Phil 3:5 (a fact which he omits when he rehearses his past at Gal 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant? 

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts. 

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage which lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law. 

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, which secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law. 

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens “(6:2) and “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel which brings liberation in community (3:28) will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom which it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

Image: Painting of Paul from Cave of St. Paul in Ephesus c. 450 AD

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

Providing for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them: lay people presiding at the sacraments in the Uniting Church

The Uniting Church has a firm commitment to being part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. This is affirmed in our Basis of Union as well as in many places in liturgies and papers written on various topics.

Belonging to this body, along with many other denominations—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and others—means that we seek to find the things in common, that we hold across the denominations. As members of that one body, we share many beliefs, practices, customs and commitments.

From time to time, however, one of those denominations will make a decision or implement a policy that sets it apart, in some, from the others. This process of differentiation is perfectly normal and quite understandable. Human beings are all different from one another. We have many things in common, but some things that set us apart as different.

The matter of presiding at the sacraments is one such case in point. For twenty-five years, now, the Uniting Church has authorised lay people to preside at the sacraments. In many denominations, this role is the preserve of the clergy who have been ordained, set apart for a priestly role, which includes presiding at the sacraments. So, for the Uniting Church to introduce the practice of authorising lay people to undertake this role, is a distinctive feature.

Of course, there are other practices within the Uniting Church which differentiate us from other members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Ordaining women is one such practice; it is not done in many denominations around the world. Permitting ministers to be married is another; some denominations do not have such a practice. The ordaining of a person to the ministry of Deacon, a ministry that is equal in status and equivalent in function alongside the Minister of the Word, is another Uniting Church distinctive.

Despite these distinctive, we still maintain cordial and respectful relationships with other denominations where those practices are not found. We recognise that it is possible to be different within the one body. Diversity is not division, and unity is not uniformity. We co-exist in our diversity within unity.

We need also to note that, within the Uniting Church, authorising lay people to preside at the Sacraments is understood as being faithful to our commitment in the Basis of Union. In that document, the church affirms that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and then declares that the Uniting Church will … provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them (Basis of Union para 13). Leading a gathering of faithful people in a celebration of one of the sacraments of the church is one such gifting, for which appropriate provision has been made.

Four four days over the last two months, Elizabeth and I have been working with a group of lay leaders from across our Presbytery as they prepare to fulfil this ministry within the community of faith where they worship and serve. It is always an inspiring opportunity, to work with committed people who are equipping themselves for new forms of service.

We take four days, across two weekends, to explore the Biblical passages relevant to the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, as well as the relevant paragraphs from the Basis of Union, which sets out the theological understandings held by the church in relation to these sacraments.

We spend some time exploring the structure of the liturgy for worship in Sunday services, where each sacrament “fits” within that structure, and what the component parts of each sacrament are. We look at the role of symbols, in life in general, and in worship in particular, and explore the various symbolisms inherent in each sacrament.

There are case studies and role plays included in the resources for the group to use. This helps participants to “get inside” the role of Lay Presider, both in the worship itself, and in the times of preparation for each sacrament, such as the pre-Baptism interview with candidates or parents of the child to be baptised.

We spend each Sunday morning attending the worship of a local congregation within the Presbytery, where Holy Communion is being celebrated. This gives participants an opportunity to experience worship led by an experienced minister (either ordained or lay), and then to reflect on the experience with critical insight.

Finally, there is a session for each sacrament devoted to the various practical considerations associated with each sacrament. Each member of the class takes a turn in leading a part of the liturgy, and we discuss matters such as voice projection, eye contact with the congregation, gestures, actions integral to the worship, and so on.

To complete the requirements of the course, participants seeking to become lay presieers must submit four written assignments followed by the conducting of a service with supervisory assessment of the candidate by an experienced Minister or Lay Presider.

In undertaking this course, we demonstrate the way that the Uniting Church works. Every one of the four councils of the church plays a role. We follow the national Assembly guidelines for Lay Presiders, using the educational resources provided by the Synod. The Presbytery (the regional body) offers the training. The local Church Council designates the candidate(s) for this ministry, who must share in the pastoral oversight of the congregation or faith community, and requests the Presbytery to approve them once they have completed their assignments.

The final step is for the Presbytery to approve for the conduct of Sacraments by the authorised Lay Presider within the designated congregation. Authorisation is for a designated period of time, and must be reviewed before it can be renewed, if appropriate, at a later time.

The process is relatively slow and complex, but that is to ensure that not just anybody can perform this role; those who do so must be recognised as gifted for the role, then trained and equipped for the role, before they are authorised.

In part, this is because the Uniting Church takes seriously the process of appropriate equipping people for ministry. In part, it is because of our ecumenical commitments, and sensitivities to how presiding at the Sacraments is understood and practised in other denominations within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

And that is something for which, I believe, we ought to be most grateful.

The photo shows participants in the course, Understanding the Sacraments, held mid-2019 in the Canberra Region Presbytery.

For the Assembly guidelines on lay presidency, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/ASCMinutes/2013/July/13.07Minutes-Attachment_A-_Lay_presidency_Guidelines.pdf

The DNA of the UCA (part II)

Two years ago, for the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, I prepared a resource exploring the key characteristics of this church. This week, for the 52nd anniversary, I am reposting those thoughts. Here is a second set of five key characteristics.

VI A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel.

In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians.

VII In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.

The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are currently 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.

Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 different languages, not including the many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church.

Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.

VIII Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.

In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.

Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making. Let us hope that this trait stays firmly embedded in the DNA of the UCA.

IX The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.

The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues.

A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.

X In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle.

Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the DNA of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.

Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat.

So, many congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.

For the first five key characteristics, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

So: these are ten strands to our DNA, as far as my thinking is concerned. What about you?

Would you add anything? Take anything away?

What do you think are the essential aspects of our UCA DNA?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

The DNA of the UCA (part I)

Two years ago, for the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, I prepared a resource exploring the key characteristics of this church. This week, for the 52nd anniversary, I am reposting those thoughts. Here are the first five characteristics.

I When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.

Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our DNA as a Uniting Church.

We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.

Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. We are an ecumenical church.

II The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.

Throughout the last 40 years, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins.

We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.

III The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry.

Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers,
Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women.

In this our 40th year, lay and ordained women serve in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church from Presbytery Chairpersons to Moderators to the Assembly General Secretary. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our DNA!

IV Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God.

We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.

The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.

V Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.

Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.

This, too, is integral to the DNA of the UCA.

For part two, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Harness the passion, but restrain the rhetoric. Musing on the role model which Paul offers in Galatians.

For the next few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary includes sections from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I am interested to explore this text in relation to our contemporary context, and particularly consider what sort of role model Paul offer us, as he writes this short but potent letter.

The letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. There can be no doubting the passion that is driving Paul as he writes (or, more likely, dictates) this message to the Galatian believers. The very way that this letter starts is instructive.

Almost all of his letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes. Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians, with the wordsI am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you …[that you] are turning to a different gospel … [that] some are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

In quick succession, he criticises their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads (1:6-9). That is quite a dramatic opening section! As the letter proceeds, he accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Greco-Roman society—which would have included Paul. Many of the techniques taught in those schoolrooms are in evidence in the letter to the Galatians.

Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia, to expose his concerns, and to articulate his point of view. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings which apparently had been so effective amongst them. 

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatia, 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter; “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited. So the specifics of the origins of this letter are not entirely clear.

Nevertheless, the dynamic that we can perceive within this letter, between its author, Paul, and the disciples in the region of Galatia, are quite interesting. Perhaps, even, disturbing. Certainly, to be sure, challenging. Not only with his dramatic language at the start, but also in the middle of the letter, Paul is in full flight: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:1, 3).

And towards the end of the letter, he launches into the Galatians yet again, providing a long list of “the works of the flesh”, those negative things that they are doing (5:19-21), and then seeking to persuade them to change their behaviour , “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” (5:26).

The letter is peppered with such robust, assertive, even aggressive polemic.

In the church today, as in the wider society, we regularly encounter similarly robust conversations, in which aggressive name calling and simplistic sloganeering abound. In the Uniting Church, debates over sexuality have, for decades now, often lapsed into accusations of heresy, advocacy of progressive views, reinforcement of allegedly orthodox stances, and charges of being inspired by Satan. Such is the way of our discussions together, sadly.

In reflecting on such discussions in the context of this letter from scripture, I think we can validly affirm the model that Paul provides, at least in this: articulating what we hold as important, in ways that are clear, through advocacy that seeks to be compelling, in terms that aim to be persuasive. We all need to implement this in our lives. Be clear about what we believe, stand firm for what we value. Those are valuable elements in the model that Paul provides for us.

At the same time, I want to quarrel with the apostle in terms of the manner by which he does this. Aggression which feeds conflict, confrontational polemic which becomes vituperative hate speech, serves nobody any good. Let us not take this element of the model that is provided in Galatians; let us steer away from personalised name-calling and theological sloganeering wherever we can.

Was Paul effective and successful in convincing the saints in Galatia to turn from the pathway they were travelling, to adopt new practices and implement new patterns of discipleship? We don’t actually know. We have his powerful words of persuasion as a testimony to his passion, but no follow-up communications indicating how the Galatians responded.

I suggest that it is good for us to hold to that passion which Paul exhibited, but we need to work hard to ensure that our discussions remain constructive, that our debates demonstrate respect for the other, that our words to one another will build up rather than tear down.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/