But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another (Galatians 5:15).
It has been reported that if a chicken develops an open wound, other chickens will relentlessly peck at that wound on that chicken until it grows very weak or dies.
Likewise, it is now being reported that allergies have arisen precisely because humans have eliminated or reduced contact with many forms of harmful bacteria. Apparently the human immune system feels compelled to keep busy and attack something; if there is nothing truly harmful then it begins to treat an otherwise harmless substance as a threat and thus the allergic reaction.
Groups of people can act in similar ways. If a group member displays some form of weakness, sensitivity, or problem not suffered by others, the group may attack that point of weakness or problem and it may lead to the end of that person’s association with the group. People seem to need something or someone to be against; if they cannot find or cannot properly identify a real threat they will likely find something that is not really threatening and treat it as if it is a threat. We may call this “shooting our own,” an image taken from the battlefield when members of an army turn on each other as opposed to maintaining their focus against their enemies.
Paul is very concerned about these tendencies playing out among the Christians in the churches of Galatia. Paul’s main purpose in writing is to rebuke and exhort a good number of the Galatian Christians for allowing themselves to be so quickly persuaded to consider observing the Law of Moses and accepting circumcision even though they were called to Christ as Gentiles (Galatians 1:6-7, 3:1-5). He speaks quite strongly about the danger of what they are doing and wishes for the emasculation of those “Judaizing” teachers causing this dissension (Galatians 1:6-9, 5:1-12). Much is at stake; those who remain grounded in the truth of the Gospel as revealed to Paul by the Lord need to defend it and remain firm!
Yet how the faithful Galatian Christians would defend that Gospel is exactly what leads to Paul’s concern. He wishes to remind them that Christ has called them to freedom, that the whole law is fulfilled in loving one’s neighbor as himself (Galatians 5:13-14; Leviticus 19:18, 34). As he would remind the Corinthians, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); such is a concern in Galatia as well. He thus warns the Galatians about the dangers of what they are or might be doing in Galatians 5:15.
On a strictly literal level it would seem that Paul would be giving license to a bit of biting and devouring one another: “if you do it, be careful that you do not consume each other.” On the other hand, we could understand the verse as placing the emphasis on the negative conclusion: if you bite and devour each other, beware! You will end up consuming one another. The danger inherent in the outcome remains regardless; if the Galatian Christians are not careful, they will end up destroying each other in their disputations about the faith, just like the chicken with the open wound, treating each other as the enemy as opposed to keeping focus on the Enemy of us all, directing the firepower which ought to be used against the forces of evil against one another, thus doing the Devil’s work for him!
Paul’s warning remains appropriate to this day. It is true that the Apostles warn about false teachings coming from among Christians and even those who serve as elders (Acts 20:29-30, Jude 1:3-23). When such people arise, their doctrines must be exposed for what they are. Yet it seems that some Christians devote themselves to biting and devouring one another, actively seeking out ways to disagree with fellow Christians, to smear them as “the other,” and act as if they are now in Satan’s service, and thus shoot their own and prove quite willing to destroy a part of Christ’s Body because they needed to find something or someone to attack. Likewise, there are times when Christians fall into flagrant sin or completely forsake the truth without repentance; in such cases disassociative actions ought to be done (1 Corinthians 15:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Yet there are many other instances when Christians are actually weak, not as strongly connected to the Body of Christ as they should be, and in dire need of love, strength, and care, and yet they are treated like the wounded chicken and “shot” by their own, disciplined and disassociated from as if they were flagrant sinners. It is as if an army would just shoot their wounded as opposed to giving them care and rehabilitation to be made well!
Even though Paul was zealous for the truth and stood firm against the forces of error he always remembered that Jesus came to save people, not condemn them (Luke 19:9, 1 Timothy 1:12-15). Jesus did not need to find ways to condemn people; people do that well enough on their own. If Jesus was only about pointing out sin and actively working to destroy those who sin, He would have no need to die on that cross, to suffer terribly as He did. Does Jesus’ Body have this same mentality as Jesus? If the Body of Christ mercilessly tears into their own if they expose wounding or weakness, are they reflecting Christ? Should the “immune system” of the Body of Christ go haywire and start attacking that which is really harmless because it is not properly discerning what is truly harmful? Should the Army of the Lord do Satan’s bidding and turn their guns on one another, either firing on each other on the same line or for those in the rear shooting the advance guard because the latter “looks like the enemy” because they are the ones at the fore most actively taking the fight to the enemy? Whatever happened to building one another up or strengthening one another?
We are rightly disturbed at the behavior of chickens who would destroy the weak among them. We would be horrified to learn that a unit of the U.S. Army decided it was best to kill all their injured comrades because they were not getting up on their own and pressing forward. Those who suffer from allergies know the misery and pain that comes when the immune system goes haywire. Should we not show equal distaste when such behaviors are manifest in the Lord’s body, the church? Should we not be grieved in pain when and where this occurs? We must defend the truth. We must stand firm against the forces of error. But we must also love our neighbor and not bite and devour one another. We must always remember that flesh and blood are not the enemy, but the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). Let us stand firm against the Evil One, love one another, encourage all men, and seek to find ways to strengthen one another in the truth without shooting our own!
Ethan R. Longhenry