Forming Faith Blog

Bad Theology (May 9, 2021)

A fountain pen on paper. Paul's Letter to the Galatians is his angry words against teachers of bad theology.

This week in the Narrative Lectionary, we move from the narrative of the Book of Acts to the epistles, specifically the Letter from Paul to the Galatians. However, we do stay close to the topic of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15): the relationship between circumcision (following the Torah) and following Jesus.

The Jerusalem Council, with testimony from Paul and Peter, agreed that circumcision and other distinctive Jewish customs required by the Torah are not required of Gentile believers. In other words, Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to join the Church, the Body of Christ.

Different Story?

Paul is writing a letter to a set of churches he began in the region of Galatia in Asia Minor. He’s telling a slightly different story than the one found in Acts, though I don’t know if it’s necessarily contradictory. He writes emphatically that he’s not a second-hand apostle, but one chosen by the risen Christ and given the gospel as a divine revelation. He is, I’m assuming, establishing his credentials against the teachers who have taught this “different gospel” he is railing against.

Comparing this with the story in Acts, these teachers are the Pharisee believers whom Paul and Peter are arguing against at the council. It’s important to me to note that—although we often read the Gospels as stating that the Pharisees are the “villains” of the story—these are Pharisee believers. They do follow Jesus and are trying to be the best disciples they know how to be. Being wrong doesn’t mean you are evil, despite how much Paul is vilifying them here. These teachers could be actively trying to sabotage the gospel, but I doubt it.

Paul v. Peter

In the second section of our reading in Galatians 2, Paul recounts an incident when Peter (Cephas) visited Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were. Presumably due to his experience with Cornelius (Acts 10), Peter felt comfortable with the gentile believers and the grace of God to put aside some of his distinctive Jewish practices. But old habits die hard, and peer pressure is a very real thing, even for apostles. When some of the “pro-circumcision” folk arrived, Peter drew back from the Gentiles, causing others to follow his example. Paul, who seems to have a fiery temper, calls out Peter for this hypocrisy.

Not Just Inclusion

Last week, I looked at the story of the Jerusalem Council in terms of exclusion and inclusion. One faction saw the church as a Jewish movement, and so if Gentiles wanted to join, they first had to become Jewish. This set up some significant barriers for these Gentiles. Paul and Peter, on the other hand, testified to the inclusive work of the Spirit, who was empowering both Jews and Gentiles alike. The council found this the most compelling and decided on removing the biggest barriers.

In this letter, Paul declares this pro-circumcision teaching to be anathema—a perversion of the true gospel and a rejection of Christ. This is not just a wrong, exclusionary teaching, but an active threat to the grace of God. What is at stake, though? Would wrong theology break our relationships with God and cause us to “lose our salvation” (the understanding of which is dependent on your theological tradition)? My—possibly wrong—belief is that not even wrong theology can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). The problem isn’t from God’s end of the relationship, but from ours.

The Power (and Limits) of Belief

It’s too broad of a statement, but belief doesn’t change reality. I have a severe fear of heights. Once, on the observation deck of the Space Needle in Seattle, I truly felt that the floor was tilted down and outward. My fear (belief) distorted my perception of reality, but did it change reality? Nope, thank God. I don’t have that kind of power. What it did is to take away any enjoyment of the magnificent view and make my visit into a horrible experience. It’s the same way with bad theology. Bad theology cannot negate the work of Christ or the grace of God. But it can warp our perception of both and the world around us, causing fear and anxiety rather than joy and peace. That’s powerful stuff. But God is more powerful still.

Not only can bad theology cause fear, anxiety, anger, and other harmful internal realities, but it can make people run away from—not toward—God. In that way, bad theology can be exclusionary. Jesus’ work (and the Spirit’s) was and is to remove barriers that separate us from God. The good news is that God loves you no matter what. And it’s not just a feeling on God’s part, it’s an active, vital relationship. The gospel is the ultimate message of inclusion.

Rejecting Bad Theology

It’s undeniable that people are leaving Christianity and fewer are joining in the so-called Western world. It’s a very complex issue, but one major reason is bad theology and bad Christians. Many churches may preach God’s grace, but fall short of inclusive grace in word, belief, and action (especially action). I think that would make Paul very mad indeed.

Free Activity

Each week I offer a free activity for congregations to use for faith formation. This week’s activity “Mixed Messages” gives participants a fun demonstration of the problems of competing voices with different messages, like the Gentiles were receiving from Paul and the “circumcision faction.” This activity was written for our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th, NL) product. It wouldn’t work well in worship, but it would in most contexts with kids and youth (and playful adults).


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

You can also check out what I wrote on this passage four years ago: Church Leaders at Odds.

2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources

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