Spiritual Abuse and the Book of Galatians




Reflections on How Paul Confronted a Corruption of the True Gospel Among the Churches in Galatia

The Contaminating Power of a Corruption of the True Gospel 


Galatians is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Paul’s writing is straightforward and precise. Although Galatians initially appears to deal with legalism, Paul is actually zeroing in on the fundamental error of an altered Gospel. There are things to be learned from this New Testament book regarding deviant theologies and questionable practices–that are based on a faulty foundation, rather than the true Gospel of Christ.

Paul takes aim and fires at the defective belief system that was gaining ground in the churches in the region of Galatia. Paul was perplexed and grieved by what he labeled as: ‘a different Gospel.’ What may initially look like a works-based legalism that was filtering into the churches, it was more complex than that. What was rearing its head in this region of the early Church was not so much the need to confront aberrant teachings—that is, deviations from what was orthodox and acceptable, but an altered Gospel altogether. This current persuasion was a syncretized belief system of mingled Jewish traditions with the new Christian faith. As Paul strongly argues, this combination belief turned out to be no Gospel at all! Though it promised salvation—it really couldn’t deliver.

Therefore, though Galatians initially looks like it is dealing with legalism in the Christian churches there, what Paul was correcting was a far deeper problem—an entirely erroneous belief that was fraught with the potential to undermine the true Gospel of Christ. Once the reader of the Book of Galatians grasps what the main issue at stake was, then this book will hold a far richer understanding. From that key perspective, the idea of church leaders ‘changing’ Christian beliefs today, by adding or subtracting from the true Gospel message, can be followed with interest. The need is to question if there is anything that would lead a follower of Christ away from sole reliance on him as Savior and Lord. This would gauge if a belief system is sub-Christian and, therefore, would need to be condemned.

 As a researcher on the topic of spiritual abuse, I have been exposed to many painful stories from Christians who got caught up in following a recast version of the truth of the Gospel. They became prime candidates for spiritual abuse. So many believers have been stifled in their Christian walk by what they had been taught or not taught in their former churches. Many have been spiritually undernourished in understanding the whole Gospel message. Christians, who had blindly followed what their leaders had taught them, without personal examination, later found out that they were beguiled and that they did not get the ‘full meal deal.’ Spiritual abuse had taken its toll.

Paul didn’t waste any time getting to the point in his Galatian epistle. It was one of his earliest letters to the growing Christian communities. In stark contrast to the Gospel that Paul preached, zealous Judaizing Christians held that the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament were still valid and that any deviation from this accepted tradition must be examined and then jettisoned. It was apparent to them that the Old Testament religious practices were still binding on Gentile Christians. Paul vigorously challenged that assumption. Urgency was paramount. A Gospel founded on grace, mingled with Old Testament Law, was no Gospel at all.

In Paul’s absence, these Judaizers claimed that Paul was not a ‘real apostle’ and that he was watering down the real message so that it would have appeal for the Gentiles. Paul also responds to this further challenge in his letter.

Grasping the message that the Apostle Paul plainly articulated in the Book of Galatians can set believers in Christ free to serve him more passionately–because they are no longer weighed down or enslaved to a flawed model of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Though the apparent foundation of the Gospel may remain intact among diverse groups today, the additions to this Gospel–the keeping of endless rules, whether spoken or unspoken rules–creates a church culture that is weak and dependent. Those in modern church cultures, who hold to an elaborate or a more simplistic form of legalism, can run the risk of spiritual fatigue among those who adhere to its various forms. The book entitled: Tired of Trying to Measure Up encapsulates the weariness factor among so many of God’s people today.

 People, who value Paul’s exhortations to the believers in the churches in Galatia, are intentional about living up to their full potential in Christ by walking in the liberty they have received through him. For those who have rested from their own labors and who have fully put their trust in the finished work of Christ–are those who follow the Gospel that Paul preached and modeled–and no other!

Gleanings from Galatians

In Paul’s introduction, he identifies that he is not alone in sending greetings, since his letter includes “all the brothers with me.” Though Paul had apostolic authority to address issues in the various churches and could speak as an apostle, leader, and evangelist to these Gentiles, Christian community was also represented by this letter. 

This letter was not addressed to a single church community, but to all the churches located in Galatia. This was a far wider reach than many of his other letters. Galatia was in Asia Minor, also called Anatolia. We know it today as the Republic of Turkey.

Paul acknowledged Christ’s substitutionary death in order ‘to rescue’—this rescue was inclusive of all believers, from ‘the present evil age,’ in the here and now (1:3). Paul makes it clear that he is astonished about two main things in their reworked Christian belief system: 1. Their desertion from the One who had called them and 2. They were turning to a different Gospel. The end result of these two actions he distinctly names as: “Confusion and Perversion” of the Gospel. Paul’s precise assessment of their corporate belief system now pointed to the fact that they were teetering on the verge of heresy, or perhaps, they were already there![1]

Paul uses strong words to arrest their attention. Essentially, Paul affirms that any other Gospel was not only worthless, but the one preaching it was to be considered “eternally condemned.” The apostle verifies that he was not a man-pleaser since, if that were the case, then he would not be pleasing Christ or serving him with undivided motives.

Paul challenges these Christians with this sentiment: “Get a grip here, guys, you know that the Gospel that I preached is NOT something that man made up!” If Paul could be maligned in his presentation of the Gospel, his authenticity and motives could also be questioned. This apostle was put in a position to both defend the Gospel and himself for preaching the Gospel–exactly how God intended it to be proclaimed.

Serious things were on the line here. Paul declared that his understanding of the truth of God’s message was based on the fact that he received it by revelation from Christ and not from man. He backs up this contention by giving a brief look back at his own life before his encounter with the Risen Christ. Since Paul, formerly Saul, was a poster child for Pharisaic Judaism, it was appropriate that he factually declare how this change in traditional Jewish belief unfolded for him. Yahweh’s intervention in his life made all the difference to his understanding of redemption and how to walk that out in his daily life.

Paul’s quest for understanding this revelation took a turn toward the desert of Arabia to ponder his traditional beliefs, in light of Christ’s direct appearance to him. He, like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, could ponder “all that had happened recently in Jerusalem.” Later, Paul returned to Damascus. A period of three years passed before he made contact with early Church leaders in Jerusalem. At this time, he got acquainted with Peter and also with James, but apparently he did not visit with any of the other apostles. Paul carefully recounts these events in his life for the Galatian Christians–to verify that he was on track.

Paul established that:

1. He was called by God—that is, through the direct presence of the long-awaited Messiah–the Resurrected Christ.

2. That he shared with the Apostles the very Gospel message that he was preaching to the Gentiles.

3. That he and his message were accepted by the Apostles in Jerusalem without any reservations.

4. Furthermore, though he took Titus along, Titus was not compelled by anyone there to be circumcised, even though he was Greek.

Interestingly, Paul refers to “some false brothers” who had “infiltrated” with a goal to spy on their freedom in Christ and to make them slaves. Even though difficult and with extreme pressure from those determined ‘to keep things orthodox’ brigade, they did not succumb to their tactics. 

This former persecutor of the Church was now recognized as the very one who was “entrusted by God with the task of preaching to the Gentiles, as Peter to the Jews.” Not only was Paul called to preach to the Gentiles, he was given the message by the special revelation of Christ, himself. All in all, it was evident that God was at work in both Peter and Paul’s lives and ministries. Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the pillars of the Church, James, Peter, and John, since they all recognized the grace given to Paul. With Paul’s affirmation documented by the leaders in the early Church now in place, he tells a story—it is about a major encounter with the Apostle Peter. This encounter took place around the time that Peter came from Antioch. Paul found himself opposing Peter, a fellow apostle, with much intensity. 

In Galatians 2:11-21, we read this stirring account of this event. 

“1 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” 

How to deal with a crucial theological issue with a fellow apostle in the early Church was modeled by the Apostle Paul. When it came to the critical issue of the basics of the Gospel, Paul took action. The beliefs and practices of both leaders were brought forward publicly. Paul respectfully, but directly, challenged Peter’s recent behavior. Paul’s course of action was not only demonstrated between them, but was also presented before the Christian community for their consideration, examination, and affirmation. 

One element was the fact that believing in the grace of God for one’s eternal salvation was just “too good to be true”! The beliefs of Judaism had portrayed a religious lifestyle in order to obey Yahweh and to be a nation set apart in the pagan cultures of the Middle East. So, although many individuals and families, in a multitude of people groups were now turning to Christ, those who had a Judaizing belief system had evident struggles with how to synthesize faith in Christ with the faith of Abraham and Moses. They were assuming that the Gentiles who believed in Christ alone had an inferior faith and that they, of course, had gotten it right. These Judaisers were endeavouring to persuade those listening to them that in order to be acceptable Christians that it was necessary to be circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses

The strength of their long tradition and that which was culturally comfortable to them put a strain on accepting the Gospel message as it had been declared–without adding any of the richness of their cultural heritage to it. These Judaizing Christians influenced the Gentile believers who had come to Christ through Paul’s evangelism there. Although the intention to follow along with this persuasion of their Jewish brothers seemed orthodox, the Galatians were unaware that this synthesized belief was not only completely erroneous, but that it was harmful to everyone’s spiritual life. It was not the essence of the true Gospel. The corporate impact of the Gospel of Christ on the pagan culture, as the united people of God, was now in jeopardy. 

In Chapter 3, Paul rigorously challenges the main elements of this belief structure that was unfolding there. He is direct in his choice of words: “You foolish Galatians!” They had not discerned that what they had confidently believed in, in light of the true Gospel, had fooled them—they were captivatedby it and now they were captive to it

Paul exhorts them by reminding that: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse!” Simply put, if their trust was in the law, then their belief was not based on faith.

 On the contrary, the facts of the ‘real Gospel’ include: 

1. Christ redeemed his people from the curse of the Law.

2. Christ redeemed his people in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ. 

3. By faith, believers must receive the promise of the Spirit.

It is either one or the other. If the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on promise. Bottom line was that God, in his grace, gave it to Abraham through Promise. Therefore, the purpose of the law, according to Paul, was to lead people to Christ—to be justified by faith. This meant that since faith had come, then there was no longer any reason to remain under the supervision of the law for their salvation! Yet, the law was still in effect for right living and ethical principles.

Paul’s key points to the Christian believers in Galatia were:

  • You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (3:26)
  • For all of you who were baptized into Christ have ‘clothed’ yourselves with Christ. (3:27)
  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female   =  All ONE in Christ Jesus. (3:28)
  • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the Promise.

The underlying question was: were they still, only children–which equaled being a slave, even though the child technically owned the whole estate? Paul was trying to get through to these early Church believers that YES, they now had the full rights of sons! The rights of sons included intimacy with the Father.

Paul reminds them that because they were sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, and they could express that relationship by saying: “Abba Father.” Not only did they know God, but they were known by God.

Paul rehearsed to them the realities of their new status with Yahweh:

1. You are no longer a slave, but a SON.

2. Since you ARE a SON, God has made you an HEIR. 

What was perplexing to Paul, and maybe to anyone else, who reads this letter, was: Why did they wish to be enslaved—all over again?? As a parent, longing for more for their children caught in a dilemma, we hear Paul emphatically groaning within: “Why? Why? Why?!”

Again, as a brother to his dear brothers, he entreats them by stating:

“I plead with you brothers . . .” and “What has happened to all your joy?” The motives of those who were zealous to win them over and to alienate them from Paul and others in the community needed to be examined. Although it is not wrong to be zealous about a good thing, it is dangerous to be zealous about things which add to or detract from true and wholesome Christian beliefs and practices.

In the first verse of chapter five, Paul heralds the truth of the ‘true Gospel’:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!”

He urged them to take some action for themselves:

a)  To stand firm         and

b)  To not allow religious slavery to subtly take them over ever again!

Paul also exhorted them that there is offense to the preaching of the true Gospel (5:11). If Paul avoided offending people, he would definitely not be representing the Gospel which included the message of the cross. He summarizes two related thoughts: Brothers, you have been called to be freeand your freedom is an opportunity to serve one another (not to indulge in the sinful nature). In fact, the law can be summed up by stating: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:14). 

In conclusion, Paul reveals the motives of those who were trying to dictate to them how they should live. These people were really trying to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ! 

**The whole point of our Christian life is not that we ‘camp around’ the fact that we know that we are sinners–that is certainly obvious, since we needed a Savior–but that we move into our permanent residence by recognizing that we are redeemed and that we are under the roof of God’s grace-full hospitality. It is from this vantage point, or better, from this ‘spiritual dwelling place,’ that healthy Christians work out from.



So my questions are also:  Why? 

* Why, after all the centuries since Paul and the New Testament writers taught and informed Christians about the way of Christ and the liberty found in the Gospel of Christ, are there so many Christians who still don’t understand the freedom that comes by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross?

* Why are so many believers enslaved to legalism and suffering from the inevitable consequences of a flawed and tiring works-based belief system? 

Paul challenged the believers in the churches in the region of Galatia to recognize that:“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!” Maybe those of us, today, who accept the teaching of God’s amazing grace, provided through Christ’s finished work, can be faithful to share this missing piece of information with others who need to hear it—those both inside and outside of the Church.


* * * * *


For further study: The NIV Application Commentary is a good series. 

For this article, I referred to: The NIV Application Commentary on Galatians authored by Scot McKnight and the New International Biblical Commentary: Galatians by L. Ann Jervis.


© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min · ChurchExiters.com™


[1]  Heresy can be defined as: that which is not orthodox (orthos “straight” and doxa ‘belief”).