“But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:15).
What is the apostle Paul referring to in this verse? Paul was writing to the churches of Christ in Galatia. The Galatians were a high strung, Celtic people. False teachers (commonly referred to as “Judaizers”) had inflamed these Gentile brethren claiming that one needed to keep the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ – the gospel. This “leaven” had infected the church and caused the brethren to forget brotherly love and to be bitter against one another. He was afraid that their mistreatment of each other would destroy the church.
For over a generation religious liberals within the church have misused this verse to castigate conservatives who scripturally point out their error. “The witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). In return, liberals often resort to “ad hominem” attacks or attacks against one’s character or person. As the old saying goes, “attack the messenger rather than the message”. The Lord’s critics in His day resorted to such name calling when they could not refute His arguments, calling Him “a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).
Lately some brethren who like to think of themselves as “sound” have resorted to such tactics as well. If a brother rebukes them for fellowshipping marked false teachers or fellowshipping those who do they pull out Galatians 5:15 and accuse them of being “mean spirited” and “divisive”. They seem to desire to compromise the truth of the gospel for the sake of “friendship” or old school ties or family ties or even, God forbid filthy lucre’s sake.
Sometimes we must get a bit rough with God’s children to get their attention and perhaps save their souls. I am reminded of Nehemiah the governor of post-exile Jerusalem in the 6th Century B.C. When he discovered that some of his Jewish brethren had married foreign women and had families by them contrary to the Law, he did not hold back in his rebuke. “And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves” (Nehemiah 13:25).
I am not suggesting we should use hair pulling or physical force with brethren. Yet, was Nehemiah “unloving” in his rebuke? Did he seek to “bite and devour” his brethren? No! He manifested a zealous love for God and his nation. I imagine he lost quite a few friends but gained favor with God. “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh.13:31).
Was Jesus “mean spirited” when he called His fellow Jews “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:15) and a “generation of vipers” (verse 33)? Was He being overly aggressive when he TWICE drove the money changers out of the temple? No!
When the apostle Paul confronted Barnabas, the Jewish brethren, and Peter at Antioch for not eating with the Gentile brethren and “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11), was he seeking to “bite and devour” them? Of course not! He knew that the “truth of the gospel” (verse 14) was at stake.
Brethren, we must treat each other respectfully and with brotherly kindness. But we must not presume that our brother/sister should be allowed to proceed down the road to Hell in a good humor. The bond of fellowship between brethren is a most precious thing. It was made possible by the precious blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28). It should be fought for and defended with all the “tough love” and courage we can muster. It is far preferable to upset them in this life, where they have an opportunity to repent, than to have them upset on the Day of Judgment with no chance of repentance.”Open rebuke is better than secret love” (Proverbs 27:5).
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