In his 2005 book Velvet Elvis Rob Bell argued that the church has a problem because we think of theology as like a brick wall - rigid and systematic, whereas we should look at our theology as being more of a trampoline - flexible and in which some of the springs can be safely removed. The analogy seems really attractive, though it's pretty flawed - not least because you could removed more bricks from a wall than springs from a trampoline before everything would fall apart... but beyond that it's also woefully ignorant.
In writing to Galatians Paul wont have any of this anti-doctrinal faith. He tackle gospel denial and says it's Father-desertion... he speak of gospel truth and it's about the Father's revelation of the Son. It's life-filled, relational, and write-down-able. And accuracy matters - because it's curse-worthy to believe a different gospel, and to teach others to hope in something contrary to Christ. Theology is about the knowledge of the Father and his Son by the Spirit - it's not cold and rigid, but without accuracy we're not talking about the same God, just a similar one. Or in Galatian language "a different gospel that is no gospel at all... a perversion of the gospel."
But, some things are flexible and some things aren't. The gospel can't be up for grabs, a lot of other stuff must be - at least when it comes to ministry practice.
In Galatians 2 Paul tells one of three stories to his Father-deserting friends that build his case that they should get back to where they began rather than heading off in a different direction. He tells that he went to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel for them (2v5). It's worth a big detour upstream to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel in Turkey - just as later it's worth a big detour to to Jerusalem to maintain the unity of the Jew and Gentile churches in Rome.
Though there were false brothers in Galatian - counterfeit-christians - the church itself hadn't lost the plot and they recognise that "God who was at work in Peter... was also at work in Paul" and "they recognised the grace given..." to both Paul and the Jerusalem church. One gospel.
What's curious is the test for finding out whether Jerusalem is true to the gospel.
- Paul takes Titus in the expectation that gospel loss would mean he'd be compelled to be circumcised (v3). Meanwhile, in Acts 16v3 (possibly around the same time, depending on how you date Galatians), Paul gets Timothy circumcised so he can take him with him. To be clear: If the Jerusalem church compels Titus to be circumcised that's evidence that the gospel has been lost, but when Paul gets Timothy circumcised that's the gospel advancing.
- Likewise, in Paul's next story - Peter stands condemned for putting himself back under food laws, and in effect saying to his Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch that they're not welcome unless they take on the food laws too. But in Romans 14v21 Paul says it's best not to eat if that'll cause problems for your brother or sister from a Jewish background.
Context and motive call for different practices. It's a recipe for inconsistency but necessary for the inclusion of diverse peoples and for taking the gospel diverse peoples. And it works because, the gospel isn't a matter of out conformity. Habits, festivals, food laws and bodily markings aren't the issue. Loving the church and reaching new people require different approaches at different times and in different places. What would we need to flex to ensure that the only obstacle is the gospel?
Paul embodies this by being prepared to become all things to all people to win some... and by his substantial detours - twice to Jerusalem - to demonstrate bond between the Gentile and Jewish churches.
The real mark of the gospel isn't what we wear, eat or celebrate. It's the Spirit of the Son indwelling the believer by faith and enacting our adoption. All else is flexible. Sadly churches fall out over loads of things, but a true gospel priority should mean most of those things - important as they are - are matter over which we're more than happy to flex, to serve other believers and to reach those who aren't yet believers. Sadly, we tend to hold on to things for the sake of having church how we want it to be.
If I get this then I'll be radically committed to welcoming any other believer and removing things that are obstacles for their conscience out of the way, and to welcoming those who don't believe by changing anything at all - apart from the gospel. If I get this I'll be incredibly flexible and inconsistent in my view of almost everything in church life... though that'll look messy, I suspect the gospel shines brighter against that messy backdrop.
Image - Creative Commons - Missle