One of the questions the U.S. has faced since its founding is “Who belongs here and who doesn’t?”
One of the criteria for determining the answer has been a person’s willingness to follow the law, or a set of rules. Unfortunately, the church has faced the same question and given a similar answer.
In a sense, portions of Galatians seek to push back against this approach. One of the primary ideas Paul was dealing with in the letter was whether non-Jews could, or should, be counted as equal members in the Kingdom of God. Paul thought that the answer was yes.
In Galatians 3:21-29, Paul stressed to his readers that their ability to follow the rules (the law) wasn’t the defining factor for being welcomed into God’s kingdom because following the law couldn’t make a person acceptable before God.
If rules could make people right with God, then those who had made it their life’s mission to follow those rules would already be perfect. There wouldn’t have been a need for Christ to come and die in the first place.
Instead, the law was a tool to help people focus on God until they could understand what was available to them through faith.
The law was only a temporary tool that served a specific function. It was to be like a guide that directed people as they journeyed through the process of learning more about God and God’s desires.
The word that Paul uses to describe the law is “pedagogue.” A clearer translation would be custodian or guardian.
During Paul’s time, a pedagogue wasn’t a teacher but instead was a slave or employee that led children to and from school. Their job was to make sure that their master’s children made it to and from school every day.
In a similar sense, the law served to protect and guide God’s children until they could comprehend God’s bigger plan and purpose of restoration and relationship for all through Christ.
And now that the bigger purpose and plan had been revealed, they no longer had to depend on the law.
If I understand Paul’s words correctly, he’s saying that following the law is not what changes a person. Following the law only shows you what you can’t do on your own.
Focusing on Christ and following his teachings and life example are what make us acceptable to God. Christ’s imprint on our lives is what pleases God.
Like Paul, I’m not against rules or traditions. But I do have concerns that are similar to Paul’s.
I’m concerned about our human tendencies to use laws and rules as a way to make sure that people are the same or as similar to us as possible.
I’m concerned about our habit of using laws and rules as a way to keep things from changing so we don’t lose our personal power or influence.
I’m concerned about our practice of using rules and regulations to keep the focus on fulfilling our personal desires and preferences instead of fulfilling the common calling we share.
We see this play out in so many arenas of our country and culture. Whether it’s during an election cycle where we see people attempting to control the rules in order to serve their own self-interests and keep things the same as they have been, or in churches where, based on our personal preferences, we try to categorize people so they can be pigeonholed and controlled. That’s not the purpose of the law or God’s love.
In Christ, we are all free to be ourselves and to still be confident that God is with us, regardless of external criteria.
God doesn’t restrict God’s love for people to one ethnic, racial, social or political group that follows a set of rules or views life in one particular way. Access to God and God’s love is open to everyone who is willing to accept it.
Our standard isn’t a political, social or economic philosophy. Our standard is Jesus, who was the fulfillment of the law and all of the rules that were given in the first place.
He said that all of the law and the commandments were summed up in two rules: Love God. Love others. That is how you fulfill the law.
I hold out hope that more people will begin to see life this way.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles for the World Day of Social Justice (February 20). The previous articles in the series are:
Why Social Justice, the Kingdom of God Go Hand in Hand by Colin Holtz
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.