“When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting them or keeping them ‘in their place.’” Those are the opening words of Eugene Peterson in his introduction to the book of Galatians, and they do a great job of capturing the problem that Paul is going to address in this book.
From the beginning Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free…” In the very next verse, he adds “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, then, is a Gospel of freedom and grace—not control or manipulation.
Paul will have harsh words for those who distort the Gospel and seek to use it for their own ends. But he also has harsh words for those who allow themselves to be used in this way. He wants them to know that there is only one Gospel, and he wants them to return to it. He wants them to live free and gracious lives.
It is interesting that this book does not follow the pattern of Paul’s other letters in that rather than beginning with thanksgiving for the church to which he is writing, he opens with a rebuke instead. I think this in itself tells us something about how serious this issue is.
Though it is a trite saying, it is nonetheless true: Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Religions are based on rules and regulations, rituals and ceremonies, all designed to force people into a certain box whether they like it or not. A relationship is very different, giving others the freedom they need to grow out of the box, and the grace that will keep them secure in the knowledge that they loved while taking the risk to do so.
May our lives and our churches be marked by nothing less. For Christ’s sake. For ours.