Galatians 2:6 and Ridiculous Individualism

saint_paulBeing your own person is a good thing.  Not being swayed by others is also good.  Having a faith that is your own is essential.  But I am amazed at how many people take the concept of individualism in the Church to ridiculous levels. For justification of their ideas, they will turn to verses like this:

The influential leaders didn’t add anything to what I was preaching—and whatever they were makes no difference to me, because God doesn’t show favoritism.

Paul is retelling his trip to Jerusalem to “confirm” his Gospel preaching.  I have seen people use this verse of Paul’s to defend their own disregard for anyone else’s teaching on a particular topic or biblical passage.  The objection usually runs something like this: “All we need is the Bible.  People who think too much about these things usually go down wrong directions and teach wrong things.  God is no respecter of persons, anyway, so if God wants me to know something about the Bible or the Faith, he’ll reveal it to me.”

At first glance, this verse from Galatians seems to corroborate that idea, but it does not.  First of all, if Paul really did not care who these people were, why would he have sought their approval of his message?  This is more bravado than anything.  And that is proved by reading a little further in the chapter.  In 2:9 Paul writes:

James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who are considered to be key leaders, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me. So it was agreed that we would go to the Gentiles, while they continue to go to the people who were circumcised.

Paul’s emphasis that he and Barnabas were seen as equals with the three pillars of the Church–James, Peter, and John–betrays his thinking that he really did see them as leaders in the Church.  Beyond this, verse 9 also reminds us of another key point to keep in mind.  Paul and Barnabas may be equal with James, Peter, and John, but they do not have the same role or mission in the Church.  Equality before God does not mean everyone is exactly the same in the Body of Christ.

In the case of this situation, God called and empowered the three apostles in Jerusalem to preach and evangelize primarily Jewish people, and God called and empowered the two others to preach and evangelize primarily Gentile people.  They were equal before God in their need for his grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but the equality ended there.

When well-meaning Christians take this verse out of context and apply it to justify being radically independent from any other person or teaching within the Church, they are not being faithful with the biblical text.  Not to mention they are not being faithful with the entire message Paul lays out in numerous other letters about how all Christians are knit together in the same Body, each mutually dependent upon one another.

God may be no respecter of persons when it comes to sin and the need for repentance, but God gives different gifts to different people within the Church.  Not everyone is a teacher, or even a faithful interpreter of the Bible.  For people to shun informed teaching of Scripture or theology because “God doesn’t show favoritism” or “God is no respecter of persons” is short-sighted and even a little arrogant.

God intentionally did not give any one person all the gifts necessary to be the Church by himself or herself.  We would be a much stronger witness of the power of God in the world if we remembered that we need each other, and individualism is fine, but not ridiculous individualism.

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