The difficulties that each Pauline church faced, in the early Christianity, remind us of the challenges that our churches face even today. In these two communities, we see both struggles over authority and teaching from within and social pressures for conformity from without. Upon Paul’s return to the region of Galatia, one of the most apparent sources of conflict stemmed from the considerable differences in the teaching of the gospel that has arisen from the teachings of other missionaries to the area. These men, thought to have been from the church in Jerusalem, sought to encourage adherence to traditional Jewish customs to a population of pagan converts to Christianity.
More specifically, these people of Galatia had not grown up with Jewish law, but came to Christianity through the word of the Gospel. In being told that they now also had to follow Jewish law, they might begin to question both the teaching of Paul as well as their own salvation. Even though Paul quickly affirms that he speaks the truth of the gospel through revelation (Gal 1:12), he also finds it imperative to assert that his mission had received the approval of the “pillars” of the church. This was indeed a concern for Paul, for if the people questioned his teaching authority then his desire to spread the gospel might also become ineffective.
Why then was there inconsistency in the message now being heard in the gospel spread by the new missionaries to the area?
In Galatians 2:11 we learn of an open disagreement by Paul with Peter’s decision to withdraw from eating with Gentiles because they are uncircumcised. One explanation offered by Galatians is seen in a group from James, who may have persuaded Peter to stop the practice, perhaps out of fear from the circumcised Jews in the area. Likewise, if Peter was eating with Gentiles, then perhaps there was a concern that the gospel message would not be listened to as readily by the Jewish population. However, Peter’s model of separation from the gentiles is being followed by other Jewish Christians, and missionaries. In spreading the gospel, the question becomes whether to preach only to a Jewish population, and if so, is there also a true need to adhere to traditional laws and customs of Jewish law.
Likewise within our church today, do we preach only to those who are like minded like us, or do we understand the broad intention for the gospel?
Paul seems quick to remind Peter that the gospel was not intended strictly for a Jewish audience but for everyone. For Paul, it isn’t a matter of whether or not laws have been needed in the past, but if they interfere with the true message of the gospel in the present then they should be done away with. Paul reminds the Galatians, that their salvation came through faith, having been born of the Spirit through Christ, and not through adherence to Jewish law. To do otherwise, is risking the premise of their salvation through Jesus.
In Thessalonica, in an area of Greece whereby there were a plurality of religions, Paul through Timothy learns of the church facing opposition primarily from their fellow citizens (1Thess 2:14). While he feels it necessary to remind them of their conversion, he also strengthens them with words of comfort, prayers, and praise. Obviously, Paul understands their struggle having faced it not only from the gentiles but also from the Jews . However, in calling them to remain steadfast he also emphasizes the need to be “gentle” in their approach, as he was, in growing the church. Paul also realizes the difficulty in establishing and maintaining a church that is distant and encircled by those that live amorally.
Therefore, Paul calls the Thessalonians to holiness, to resist the “tempter”, and continue to follow the Christian moral path. Even if they had followed the guideline for Christian living, they were to “do so even more”. Furthermore, he encourages them to come together as a Church to help one another in charity and thereby avoiding potential business entanglements which might compromise their commitment to Christ. Likewise, Paul recognizes that many within the early church are anxious and expectant for Christ’s return and are concerned for those who have died before the second coming. Paul offers consolation that they too will be raised, but to be alert and ready, keeping true to the way of Christ for the day of parousia. He understood that living in a state of expectation is difficult, and it’s all too easy to let standards down when the day doesn’t come in a timely manner. Moreover, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to see that they had strength in each other, despite his absence, and the world around them.
Within the church of Galatia, Paul understood that the message of the Gospel was what needed to be emphasized, encouraged and affirmed. In the renewed spirit of evangelization occurring presently, we like Paul, are calling those Catholics home that have felt estranged or left the faith. In doing so, we are pressed to live true to the heart of the gospel to be that persuasive “gentle” call, rather than promoting division. In Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, he encourages the Church to find support in one another in enduring the trials that life and the communities around them present. With an ever growing homeless problem, drugs, alcohol, and terse home situations and we can quickly understand Paul’s message to the Thessalonians in the world around us. We need a to be a community of faith that is able to be both present and responsive to a continually changing economic, racial and socially diverse people.