Exploring Galatians: A Matter of Conscience

There is a division in the Body of Christ that we’re going to explore. It may make some of you uncomfortable or even angry. But this topic is really just an extension of the very same spirit Paul was confronting in his letter to the Galatians.

Paul writes, “However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:8–11, NASB95) Essentially the Galatians were slaves to their old gods, became sons through Christ, and now sought to become slaves all over again. Paul’s example of this return to slavery is the legalism of observing days, months, seasons, and years.

Observing days in the sense of Paul’s text is not the passive notice of what day it is. It is the ritualistic keeping of certain days and times. The most prevalent example being the keeping of the Sabbath. For observant Jews, keeping the Sabbath and the rules around it is vitally important. The Law of Moses provides very strict guidelines on what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. This is the kind of “observing” that Paul has in view.

Now, we all have special traditions around certain days. Most of those traditions are harmless. The difference between a harmful tradition and a harmless one is the consequence to me and others if that tradition is not kept. Wearing green on St. Patrick’s day is a harmless tradition unless someone loses a job over it. I believe that Paul is saying celebrate certain days, just don’t become a slave to them or judge people concerning them. We are free in Christ to celebrate Christmas or to ignore it.

In both Romans and Colossians, Paul considers the keeping of days to be a matter of conscience and not a matter of Law. To the Romans, Paul wrote, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5, NASB95) To the Colossians, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16, NASB95) These are matters of personal conviction and not matters to divide the Body of Christ over. But that is exactly what some have done.

Are we to gather in worship on Saturday or Sunday? Interestingly the New Testament doesn’t say one way or the other. The Jewish tradition is that the sabbath day is sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday. The Law also indicates in the Ten Commandments, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.” (Exodus 20:8–10, NASB95) Here’s the question, is it the day that is important? Do we even know that what we call Saturday is directly in line with the seventh day of creation? The point of the law was to set aside one day out of seven for rest and worship.

There are some of you reading this who gather for worship on Saturday – which is fine and fantastic. There are others of you reading this who gather for worship on Sunday – that is also fine and fantastic. And there may be some who, because of life-giving work or other circumstances, gather in some way on another day of the week – that too is fine and fantastic. If you are convicted that Saturday is the day, then God bless you; I will not judge you or divide with you over it. And, since I’m a Sunday kind of guy, I trust that you will not judge me or divide with me because of my conviction or practice.

We can take this even deeper and consider what that day should look like. What do our gatherings entail? Even here, there has been division. Some avoid singing or instruments while others embrace them. Some are formal and liturgical, others are less formal, and some are rather casual in their gatherings. When it comes to church, name anything you’d like, and someone has divided over it. How fancy or plain is our building? Is there even a building, or do we meet in homes? What adornments are permitted? Should there be a clock? How is the room arranged? How long does the service last? On and on and on it goes.

Here’s Paul’s point to the Galatians and for us. When we allow any of these matters of conscience and conviction to divide us, then we are living as slaves instead of as sons. There are some concrete things which we must agree on, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus. But much of the other stuff that seems so important in the heat of a moment are really matters of personal conviction. They are the stuff where grace lives. In love, let us all extend grace to one another instead of the bitter fruit of judgment.

Dale Heinold
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