In his long introduction to the letter to the Galatians, in chapters 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul recites his credentials as an Apostle and explains why he is writing the letter. In short, there was a division in the Church between Jewish Christians and the growing group of Gentile Christians, over whether the Gentile Christians were required to adhere to all aspects of the Jewish Law, including the requirement of circumcision. As Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul argued that the Gentile Christians should not be subject to the requirements of the Jewish Law (Torah). In fact, throughout the Pauline corpus of the New Testament, Paul’s treatment of the Torah is far more subtle than a simple dichotomy of Torah against Grace — it is a narrative of completion and fulfillment and not one of opposition and supercession — but that is a bigger topic for another day. In any event, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to have it out with the leaders there, including Peter, who were siding with the Jewish Christians.
There are so many remarkable comments and asides in Paul’s introduction that it’s hard to single one out. Today, this one struck me: “But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me.” (Gal. 2:6 (NASB)). Paul is speaking here of the leaders in Jerusalem.
I am easily impressed by pedigree and reputation. If Professor So-and-So or Reverend Whoseiwhats agrees with me, I feel more confident; if Professor Such-and-Such or Reverend Whichisthat disagrees with me, I worry.
There is a degree to which this is appropriate. If I really know and respect someone’s work, it is wise for me to take his or her opinion seriously. Even more so, if I am under someone’s authority in a work or ecclesial setting, I may be required to take another person’s opinion seriously.
But Paul is not speaking here about well-earned or institutionally necessary deference. He is speaking about reputation-as-reputation: mere status, not substance. Here, Paul is unsparing: it makes no difference to him at all. Paul is confident to brush aside mere reputation because he knows that finally all people stand equally before God on substance. We each are naked before the creator and judge of the universe. Now that is both a humbling and a liberating thought.