Galatians 1:9: Condemning Opponents?

Paul's curse in Galatians 1:9 is a hard saying for two reasons: it does not seem to be in agreement with some other statements of Paul, and it seems diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus with regard to our attitudes and actions toward those who are opposed to us.

In Romans 2:1-4 Paul lays down the principle that judgment passed on others is in some sense "reflexive"; that is, when we pass judgment on others, we condemn ourselves at the same time. For only God knows the truth about us, and only he is able therefore to pass judgment. We are mere creatures, limited with respect to both the truth about others and the truth about ourselves. We, like all others, are sinners (Rom 3:23); that is the ultimate reason we ought not to pass judgment.

This same sentiment is expressed again in a context where there is mutual judging going on within the congregation (Rom 14:1-13). Here the admonition not to judge others in respect to certain practices and beliefs considered inappropriate or wrong is based on the assertion that each disciple is accountable ultimately to the Lord (Rom 14:4), and all will equally "stand before God's judgment seat" (Rom 14:10). The larger perspective which ought to guide Christians' attitudes toward opponents is derived by Paul from the teaching of Jesus. Thus, echoing Matthew 5:44, Paul says, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" (Rom 12:14). Our task as Christians is to "overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21).

The overall teaching, attitude and life of Jesus stand also in apparent conflict with Paul's word of condemnation. Jesus' radical imperative on the matter is "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged" (Mt 7:1-2). The reason given for this imperative is that our own vision may be so impaired that it is sheer hypocrisy to try to remove the sawdust particle in the other's eye (Mt 7:3, 5). The proper response to those who are opposed to us is to love them and pray for them (Mt 5:44). Beyond these words, Jesus' entire life is a demonstration of his words' validity. He did not come into a world opposed to God to condemn it but to save it (Jn 3:17). Because of his deep compassion he weeps over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41), the city that kills the prophets and those (like Jesus) sent to it (Lk 13:34). To the adulteress he speaks the word of forgiveness rather than judgment (Jn 8:10-11); to the criminal hanging on a cross next to him he speaks the word of grace (Lk 23:39-43).

As Paul's words against judging seem to stand in conflict with his harsh words in Galatians 1:9, so the larger picture of Jesus' teaching and life, characterized by love and compassion, by humility and forgiveness, stands in apparent conflict with another dimension of his life. Jesus' words and actions could be uncompromisingly harsh toward those who opposed him and his ministry and whose "piety" excluded the redemptive work of God. He calls the religious leaders of his own people "sons of the devil," whose desire they carry out (Jn 8:44). Those who oppose his ministry of releasing the possessed from bondage are called "an evil generation" (Lk 11:29 RSV), who will be judged and condemned (Lk 11:31-32). Those who oppose the work of the Spirit of God in and through his life (Mt 12:28) will be condemned eternally; for them there is no forgiveness (Mt 12:31-32). Words of bitter denunciation are spoken against the teachers of the law and Pharisees, whom he calls "child[ren] of hell" (Mt 23:15 RSV), "blind fools" (Mt 23:17), "whitewashed tombs" (Mt 23:27), "snakes" and a "brood of vipers" who cannot "escape being condemned to hell" (Mt 23:33).

When we carefully compare this radically harsh tone in Jesus' teaching with that strand in his life which exudes compassion and forgiveness, we recognize where the essential difference lies. He came as the incarnation of God's redemptive love, and wherever there is openness to it, forgiveness is given, grace is experienced, sin is overcome. But where there is absolute rejection of that redemptive love, where the work of God is identified as demonic, where truth is trampled underfoot, there condemnation is pronounced. It is within this latter context of the rejection of God's redemptive love that this hard saying must be understood.

In Paul's epistle to the Galatians, the central issue addressed is this: the core of the gospel which Paul had preached and on which their faith was based is that we are justified, brought into a right relationship with God, solely by his grace and through faith, not by gaining a standing before God on the basis of obedience to the law (Gal 2:15-21). That gospel was being challenged by the so-called Judaizers; namely, Jewish Christians who demanded that Gentile Christians observe the Mosaic law, including ritual observances such as special days, kosher foods and circumcision (Gal 3:1-7; 4:8-11, 17, 21-22). Those who respond to their teaching, who are led away from the truth (Gal 5:7), who now seek "to be justified by law, have been alienated from Christ" and have "fallen away from grace" (Gal 5:4).

For Paul the conflict between the gospel which he preached and the teaching of the Judaizers is a life-and-death struggle. Why? Because legalistic obedience, life before God based on religious achievement, does not bring one into right relationship with God (Gal 2:16; 3:3) but to alienation from him (Gal 5:4), to rejection of God's grace (Gal 2:21), to a life of legalistic bondage (Gal 4:9, 21; 5:1), to the curse of death (Gal 3:10-13).

Those who teach this way are "false brothers" (Gal 2:4) who oppose the "truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:5, 14), confuse the believers (Gal 1:7), "pervert the gospel of Christ" (Gal 1:7), bewitch the saints (Gal 3:1). Therefore, let anyone who does this "be eternally condemned" (Gal 1:8-9). This strong language shows how serious the matter was for Paul. George Duncan puts it well when he calls these words "an imprecation such as we cannot imagine him using had it been merely his personal prestige . . . anything, in fact, but the gospel of Christ which was at stake."

It is clear then that Paul is not calling for the condemnation of his opponents (that is, the Judaizers) because they are opposed to him, but rather because they are enemies of the gospel. That gospel is of divine origin, not of Paul's invention (Gal 1:11-12). Therefore, those who pervert it subvert God's redemptive purpose. On those who thus act and teach, the judgment of God is justly pronounced. Thus there is here no real conflict between Paul's general call for a nonjudgmental spirit and his strong word of judgment here, just as there is no real conflict between Jesus' teaching on love for one's opponents and his words of judgment. In both cases, where the work and truth of God is at stake, those who reject it stand under judgment.

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George S. Duncan, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1934), pp. 18-19.