Contradictions – Paul & Burdens

The next in the list of alleged Biblical contradictions is the sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church.  Verses two and five are allegedly in contradiction with each other, as in v. 2 Paul admonishes to bear one another’s burdens, while in v.5 Paul insists that each one will have to bear their own burden.  Important to resolving this is tracking the flow of Paul’s thought and expression.

Towards this end, we need to remember that the chapter and verse designations in the Bible were added much later.  They are not part of the original documents or the earliest copies.  The Jews had their way of dividing chapters and verses for what Christians call the Old Testament, and while Christians by and large have maintained these there are some slight variations, particularly in the Psalms.  The first organizing divisions of the New Testament were evident by the fourth century (called kephalaia), though they don’t match the chapter divisions we have today.  Be careful if you’re Googling Kephalaia – the most prominent hits are related to a Gnostic, non-Christian text from the fourth century.  Modern chapter divisions come from a system derived by Archbishop Stephen Langton in the 13th century.  Verse divisions derive from the 15th century work of Robert Estienne.

All this is to say that to show that the verses in Galatians don’t, in fact, contradict one another, we need to start reading in Chapter 5.  Paul is writing on the larger theme of how Christians should treat one another.  We are not to trust our own feelings and ideas, but rather seek to conform ourselves to the Holy Spirit, something we would say happens when we are in God’s Word and allowing it to show us how to be, rather than determining what we want to do and say for ourselves.  In Galatians 5:16-24 Paul illustrates this basic distinction.  When we do what we want, rather than allowing God to guide us, our behaviors are destructive and dangerous to ourselves and others (vs.19-21).  When we are guided by God’s Word to us, our behavior is far different (vs.22-23).  This is the theme that Paul is continuing into what we now look at as Chapter 6.  The chapter divisions and headings are sometimes helpful, but at other times they lead us to treat the material in a given chapter as a discrete and self-contained unit of thought when it really isn’t.  Such is the case here.  Chapter 6 is a continuation of Paul’s larger theme about how Christians deal with themselves and one another started in Chapter 5.

In 5:24, Paul also warns against allowing our faith in and following of Jesus the Christ become a point of spiritual pride and comparison.  Nor are we to envy in an unhealthy way those who have greater insight, training, education, or experience in the Christian life or the Word of God, the most reliable expression of the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Such attitudes might lead us to gloat when a brother or sister falls into sin (6:1).  Rather, the opposite should happen!  Christian community exists to help sustain and uplift one another.  Sin and failure will happen, but such situations are always to be treated first and foremost as an opportunity to glorify God by the restoration of the fallen brother or sister.  We don’t look first for opportunities to exclude, but opportunities to come alongside one another to encourage and lift up.

At the same time, we have to watch out that we are not tempted into sin ourselves.  If your weakness is alcohol, you aren’t the best person to go to the bar to attempt to bring out a brother or sister who is struggling with alcoholism.  We all have our weaknesses, and knowing this, we should always be ready to stand with and alongside one another, bearing up one when she is weak, and ourselves being borne up when we are struggling in weakness.  This is a fulfillment of what Jesus the Christ intends for his followers.  While there is no specific statement of Jesus to this effect recorded in the Gospels, it likely flows from Jesus’ repeated admonitions to love one another.

Contrary to this desirable, beneficial, and commanded relationship of mutual support and encouragement is the ever-present temptation to spiritual pride.  I don’t need such support.  I am strong enough in my faith that I do not need others to support me.  Such an attitude might extend even further – If I am strong enough, others should be as well.  If they are not, they are lesser Christians, or perhaps not even Christians at all!  Such an attitude is dangerous, and Paul hints that it likely is never appropriate.  Far more likely is the situation where one person considers herself to be stronger than she really is.  In which case, she has convinced herself of something that isn’t true, and it will be only a matter of time until this becomes a source of stumbling for her.

Rather, we should measure and test ourselves, probing and uncovering our weaknesses and vulnerabilities where we might be tempted to sin.  Then we will have a better assessment of ourselves.  We can give thanks to God, for example, that we are not tempted to alcoholism, rather than gloating or lording over the brother or sister who does have that weakness.  The word boast used here can be either a positive or a negative sense of the word.

Ultimately, we each must bear our strengths and weaknesses.  We can be assisted, encouraged, prayed for, mentored, and nourished by brothers and sisters in the faith, but ultimately we are responsible for ourselves.  We bear the actual responsibility for our walk of faith.  Nobody else will be held responsible for our failure to do what we know to be right.

So Paul is not actually contradicting himself here if we are willing to take the time to examine his flow of thought.  In Christ we are bound together, all seeking to follow the same Lord to the best of our abilities, which will differ from person to person.  As such we walk together, bearing up one another and ourselves being borne up.  But ultimately we are responsible for our own walk.  We won’t be able to claim that we were sinful because nobody was there to help us, or didn’t help us enough.  Our sin is our own.  Even more reason to give and receive help!





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