Exploring the book of Galatians and Paul’s frustration with a different or distorted Gospel
Since its inception America has purported an affinity and commitment to Christianity. So much so, that many consider America to be a “Christian Nation.” A melting pot of cultures, languages, and religions, America is still perceived to be a nation that subscribes not just to Christianity, but the ideals of the Christian Bible.
Reflecting on how “In God we trust” is printed on all US currency, how citizens boldly declare in the pledge of allegiance that we are “one nation under God”, and how founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson penned, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with these unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” causing America to possess several references to this Christian God in our constitutional documents, on the surface it appears that America is a Christian nation.
Interesting enough, Historians and scholars are challenging this notion suggesting that America is not a Christian nation and has never been. Instead, they suggest that America is a capitalist nation committed to manipulating Christianity to promote and protect its economic, political, militaristic, and social agendas. What is clear in both the history and within Scripture, America is preaching a distorted Gospel.
Frederick Douglass and America’s Distorted Gospel
One of the first historians to articulate such a belief was Frederick Douglass. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass this former slave recounts “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy; is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other” (100). The author continues declaring with vehement conviction the anecdotal evidence that proves his proposition: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Douglass 100).
Such an experience is not articulated with cursory reflection. In fact, Douglass further illuminates the irreconcilable duality of American Christianity declaring,
we have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me…The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, – sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate (Douglass 100-101).
For Douglass, it is not just that the Christianity practiced in America is a poor representation of the Christianity of the Bible, but that the Christianity of this land is the primary vehicle that the American institution of slavery arrived upon. In other words, the Christianity of this land, particularly during the time of slavery, purported a severely distorted Gospel.
A Distorted Gospel Produces Problematic Politics
Such historical realities are what cause Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, author of Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective, to ask a critical question: if racism is a product of cultural factors, and particular theological traditions are necessarily part of the cultural matrix that generates racism, to what extent do deep theological commitments foster or resist racist worldviews” (Rodríguez 5)? Rodríguez asks these questions because he knows that at the heart of America’s race issue is an issue of theology.
Even Kevin M. Kruse relays this in his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. In his book, Kruse draws a seamless historical line from the 1930s and 40s all the way to the present, revealing the ways in which piety and patriotism were intentionally connected as a means of opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt, an explicitly Christian man in his beliefs and speeches, purported a responsibility of the government to “love God and [not] forget your neighbor” (Kruse 4). This brought on what many call the Social Gospel or a kind of Christianity that was “concerned less with personal salvation and more with the public good”(Kruse 5).
Kruse records how this distorted gospel rooted in American capitalism goes on to create a politics that has no regard or concern for the disinherited, the vulnerable, or as Jesus identified them, “the least of these.” In the 1950s James W. Fifield Jr. met with several politicians, clergyman, and business owners and together they determined that government involvement in the care and uplift of the poor, vulnerable, and socially disenfranchised was problematic. Kruse writes, “in a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the Social Gospel, they argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified such values, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise” (Kruse 7).
Furthermore, Kruse writes, “they built a foundation for a new vision of America in which businessmen would no longer suffer under the rule of Roosevelt but instead thrive – in a phrase they popularized – ‘one nation under God’”(Kruse 8). Fifield and others went on to become extremely wealthy as businessmen and clergy persons purporting this Christianity that prioritized individualism and the acquisition of wealth regardless of the ways in which that wealth was amassed.
In other words, from the time of Slavery, America has practiced and purported a kind of Christianity that institutes chattel slavery and sanctions the wholesale violence associated because of the inherent economic value of it. After the constitutional abolition of slavery America simply reinvents their approach to amassing wealth through exploitation, but continues to justify such through perverted misinterpretations of Christianity and Scripture. America and the Christian church’s inextricable bond in their efforts of socio-political and economic exploitation remains the central beating heart that prevents either from extricating or dismantling the structural and systemic racism that exists within them.
This complicity with racism Jemar Tisby suggests is what permits such injustice to continue. In his book The Color of Compromise Tisby writes, “the refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression” (Tisby 15). Put in the simplest of terms, America’s distorted gospel produced a problematic politics that to this day turns a blind eye to racism, violence, war, and greed. America is a nation that is preaching a distorted gospel.
Paul’s Letter to Galatia on a Distorted Gospel
The American Christian church is not the first to struggle with the promulgation of a distorted Gospel. We often enjoy quoting Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes, “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus,” but we must understand that Paul wrote those words within the context of the Christian church in Galatia preaching a distorted Gospel. And if we’re going to address the fact that we currently reside in a country, in a church, in homes, and in families that have embraced a distorted gospel; a gospel that sanctions the separation of families at the border; a gospel that sanctions capital punishment; a gospel that prioritizes law and order; a gospel that preaches prosperity and selfishness; a gospel that justifies the deaths of people like Ma’Khia Bryant, then we must wrestle with the distorted gospel of the church in Galatia.
In the book of Galatians Paul is writing to several churches across Galatia and he finds them in a tumultuous time. In fact, he writes in verse six of the very first chapter, “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Paul is so opposed to any distortion to the Gospel that he writes to them in verse nine, “As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!”
Wow! What is this contrary, distorted, and different gospel that Paul is talking about?
In chapter two Paul writes of a hypocrisy that is happening between Christians who joined the faith by way of the Jews and those who joined the faith by way of the Gentiles. Paul has gotten word that the Jewish Christians are trying to force the Gentile Christians to be circumcised. They are suggesting that unless the Gentiles participate in this Jewish custom as a sign of fidelity and belonging then they cannot fully be partakers and participants in the family of God. This was causing Jews and Gentiles to not even sit and be in one another’s space. Paul writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”
In other words, Jews were separating themselves from Gentiles and they did not want to be seen interacting with them because they were refusing to be circumcised. These are not unbelievers. These are not men and women of heathen faiths. No, these are Christians who simply will not engage in the Jewish cultural customs demanded upon them. And Paul writes, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul very explicitly rejects such teachings and has to remind these Christians that because they are no longer under the law but free in Christ by faith not only are they no longer subject to the ceremonial laws of Moses, but neither is anyone else, especially those outside of the Jewish cultural community.
This is critical to understand because white American Christianity has put forth not only a justification for slavery, economic exploitation, violence, and capitalistic gain, it has also suggested that there is a certain way that is most acceptable for any Christian who wants to come to Jesus Christ. They have privileged white, Eurocentric worship styles and theological doctrines demonizing Black and Brown expressions to and explanations of God. And what Paul is writing to us in the book of Galatians is that we have to be careful that we are not distorting the message of the Gospel in favor of our cultural customs or even because of our bondage to certain religious beliefs. In fact, Paul declares in Galatians 1:9 that anyone who distorts the Gospel by adding burdens and standards that prevent people either culturally or spiritually from coming into reconciliation with God, “a curse be on him!”
The Consequences of a Distorted Gospel
American Christian churches must wrestle with the fact that the startling data from Gallup revealing that “47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, [went] down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999” because we are preaching a distorted gospel. Rather than preaching to people the unfiltered life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than preaching a Gospel that declares our freedom from all social and spiritual bondage by faith and thus our access to eternal life in Jesus Christ, we have preached a distorted gospel that actually adds social and spiritual chains to people in ways that the Gospel was never meant to constrain them.
It is essential that if we are going to do the work of the kingdom of God, if we are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then we must openly reject and rebuke the distorted gospel of this land. We must teach that “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message [ministry] of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). Sin has produced separation between humanity and God, men and women, various races and ethnicities, as well as separation between humanity and the earth. As disciples of Jesus we must reject any distorted gospel that seeks to maintain that separation, for as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In order for us accomplish this we must “walk by the Spirit and [we] will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
The Fruit of the Spirit Resists, Rebukes, and Rejects a Distorted Gospel
What’s fascinating is that Paul then tells us in Galatians 5:22, “but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” So often, we believe that within these verses Paul is writing to us about a personal piety that must be maintained. We teach that we must walk in the Spirit and produce the Spirit’s fruit for our individual behaviors and spirituality. And while this is partially true according to Galatians 5:19-21, we must also read and understand Galatians 5 within the context of Galatians 1 and 2.
We must see that Paul is declaring to the Christian church in Galatia that in order to reject and rebuke a distorted Gospel, in order to promote true unity amongst races, genders, and religions, in order to engage in the true ministry of reconciliation for all Creation, we must walk in the Spirit and allow the Spirit the produce fruit within us. If the contemporary Christian church does not commit to rejecting and rebuking this distorted American gospel in its preaching, teaching, and actions, then it will continue to struggle to see the growth, restoration, healing, and maturity promised.
Therefore, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).