Paul: Not A People Pleaser

Galatians 1:1-10

1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 as well as all the brothers who are with me,  to the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 the one giving himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

6 I am amazed that you have so quickly turned from the one calling you in the grace of Christ to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another, but some are troubling you and wishing to twist the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim a gospel to you besides the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, and again I am now saying: If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one you received, let him be accursed. 10 Am I now trying to win over man or God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

The Accusation Against Paul

The fundamental problem that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatian Christians is what he considers their departure from the good news of Jesus to some pseudo gospel. What we learn later on is that the Galatians’ departure from the good news has to do with taking on traditional Jewish practices – such as circumcision and dietary restrictions – and adding them to the Christian gospel. In the early Church there were a number of Jewish Christians who taught that certain traditional Jewish customs, whose origin was in the Law of Moses, were necessary further steps for Gentile Christians to become fully righteous. Faith in Christ was just the beginning, the entry point. Paul, on the other hand, taught that adherence to Jewish customs were no longer what defined the people of God. Rather, it was faith in Jesus alone. This issue was the first major controversy within Christianity.

Anything by Timothy Keller is good, but this is an especially useful popular introduction to Galatians.

Paul himself founded the church in Galatia, so one would expect to find an especially close relationship between Paul and the Galatian Christians. Instead, we find that Paul’s Judaizing opponents were slandering him and had successfully swayed public opinion against him. The substance of their attack on Paul was twofold: (1) Paul’s gospel message was man-made, because if it had been from God it would have included obedience to the Law of Moses; and (2) Paul is a people-pleaser, meaning that by proclaiming his Law-free gospel message he is essentially telling people what they want to hear. In short, Paul’s gospel message is too easy, and it’s designed to be appealing to disobedient sinners specifically to gain Paul notoriety.

– Paul’s opponents were saying, “Paul is a heretic. Salvation isn’t that easy.” –

This is the same kind of accusation we saw him mentioning in Romans 3:8 – “And why not do evil that good may come? – as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” Paul’s opponents were apparently going around saying something like, “Paul is a heretic. He is preaching a false message that you don’t have to abide by the righteous requirements of the law of Moses. Salvation isn’t that easy. Paul is telling you it’s easy because he wants to be popular.”

So in the first part of Galatians, Paul is concerned to defend the exclusively divine origin of his apostolic call and gospel message (hence verse 1’s “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”) and to show that the characterization of him as a people-pleaser is ridiculous. This is why Paul says in v. 10 of our text today “Am I now seeking the approval of man or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were trying to please man I would not be a servant of Christ.” In other words: “Clearly what I am saying here shows that I am not aiming to be a people-pleaser. If I wanted to be a people-pleaser, I certainly wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.” In fact, the way he begins Galatians is far from people-pleasing – it’s confrontational, abrupt, and borderline rude. Galatians famously is missing a part of the typical epistle structure: the thanksgiving section. After his greeting, instead of politely thanking God for the Galatians, he goes right for the throat. Clearly, he says, a people-pleaser wouldn’t skip essential epistolary pleasantries, such as the missing thanksgiving section, and then say “I am astonished that you are so quickly turning away from God to this false gospel.” A people-pleaser would have started his epistle with something more like, “I thank God for your intelligence and wisdom, as well as for your trusting and kind spirit. These Judaizers have taken advantage of your kindness, but I know that your wisdom will win out in the end when I have clarified the gospel that they have so cleverly obfuscated.” Instead, Paul practically says, “Your gullibility and faithlessness astounds me” – hardly the very image of tact.

What People-Pleasing Is … And Isn’t

People-pleasing, Paul says moreover, is not compatible with being a servant of Christ. What does he mean by that? We can understand it by looking at two kinds of extremes. First, what do people-pleasers look like? Unfortunately, there are some people who claim the label Christian who are so interested in being respectable that they are willing to give up beliefs that are at the very core of our faith, most especially that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Worried that someone might think them backwards or foolish, they seek a place of compromise. Now I do think that there are some issues that we can think critically about and still legitimately claim the label Christian. These issues include things like: (1) how much of the Old Testament is literally historical and how much is holy legend; (2) did Paul actually write everything that is attributed to him in the New Testament; (3) how are we to understand the biblical position on women in positions of authority in the Church when we have texts that seem to be at odds with one another. None of these issues undermine the core of our faith. The Christian faith is actually built rather simply on a very few statements concerned primarily with Jesus, and then on that foundation we can have what I call in-house discussions on other matters. But people-pleasers are willing to sacrifice even those core statements of faith for the sake of respectability. As far as Paul is concerned, you can’t be a servant of Christ and be willing to capitulate an essential portion of the gospel the moment someone scoffs at it.

On the other hand, every so often I have encountered a kind of self-proclaimed “hardliner” Christian, someone who takes pride is “just saying it like it is” and not caring what people think. Admittedly, some Christians who say these things are in reality loving people. But there are some who in “just saying it like it is” are actually just extremely rude, and they mask their rudeness with a theological veil, claiming that they are just speaking the truth and are not concerned with pleasing people. But really they are just hateful, self-centered people. Paul here tells us that people-pleasing is not compatible with being a servant of Christ, but he is also the one that tells us in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to speak the truth in love. Later on in Galatians, Paul identifies kindness and gentleness and fruits of the Spirit, so generally speaking politeness would be a characteristic of the Spirit-filled believer. I think Paul would be in agreement with me when I say that for the Spirit-filled Christian there is no excuse for hatefulness in our conduct toward anyone at any time.

– It is Paul’s love the Galatians that makes him so plainly spoken –

Douglas Moo’s BECNT commentary on Galatians is an outstanding, up-to-date volume from a respected commentary series.
So what does he mean then, when he says, “If I were trying to please man I would not be a servant of Christ.” Here, specifically, he means that his being a servant of Christ makes him too invested in the purity of the good news of Jesus not to call out in the strongest of language this Judaizing corruption of that good news. But it is his love for the Galatian Christians and his dedication to the Lord Jesus that make him so plainly spoken here, not any kind of haughtiness. By contrast, the sort of people I was referring to earlier are plainly spoken because they are full of pride and a sense of superiority. Paul isn’t berating the Galatians because they overcooked his filet mignon.

If we want to be plain spoken and unconcerned with pleasing men in the Pauline sense, what that means for us is that we should be bold in proclaiming the good news that Jesus has died for our sins and has been raised from the dead for our salvation. He is Lord of all creation, and he will return to at last bring all things together in submission to God. This gospel, when apprehended by a heart that has been prepared by God’s Spirit should bring joy, but we all know that the world has an unreasonable hatred for its Creator and Savior. Because we are Jesus’ followers, Jesus told us that we will share in being the object of the world’s hatred, but it is still our duty to speak prophetically the truth in love.

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