Ἀδελφοί, ἐὰν καὶ προλημφθῇ ἄνθρωπος ἔν τινι παραπτώματι, ὑμεῖς οἱ πνευματικοὶ καταρτίζετε τὸν τοιοῦτον ἐν πνεύματι πραΰτητος, σκοπῶν σεαυτὸν μὴ καὶ σὺ πειρασθῇς. 2 Ἀλλήλων τὰ βάρη βαστάζετε καὶ οὕτως ἀναπληρώσετε τὸν νόμον τοῦ Χριστοῦ. 3 εἰ γὰρ δοκεῖ τις εἶναί τι μηδὲν ὤν, φρεναπατᾷ ἑαυτόν. 4 τὸ δὲ ἔργον ἑαυτοῦ δοκιμαζέτω ἕκαστος, καὶ τότε εἰς ἑαυτὸν μόνον τὸ καύχημα ἕξει καὶ οὐκ εἰς τὸν ἕτερον· 5 ἕκαστος γὰρ τὸ ἴδιον φορτίον βαστάσει.
6 Κοινωνείτω δὲ ὁ κατηχούμενος τὸν λόγον τῷ κατηχοῦντι ἐν πᾶσιν ἀγαθοῖς. 7 Μὴ πλανᾶσθε, θεὸς οὐ μυκτηρίζεται. ὃ γὰρ ἐὰν σπείρῃ ἄνθρωπος, τοῦτο καὶ θερίσει· 8 ὅτι ὁ σπείρων εἰς τὴν σάρκα ἑαυτοῦ ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς θερίσει φθοράν, ὁ δὲ σπείρων εἰς τὸ πνεῦμα ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος θερίσει ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 9 τὸ δὲ καλὸν ποιοῦντες μὴ ἐγκακῶμεν, καιρῷ γὰρ ἰδίῳ θερίσομεν μὴ ἐκλυόμενοι. 10 Ἄρα οὖν ὡς καιρὸν ἔχομεν, ἐργαζώμεθα τὸ ἀγαθὸν πρὸς πάντας, μάλιστα δὲ πρὸς τοὺς οἰκείους τῆς πίστεως.
1 Brothers, if a person be detected in some transgression, you who spirit-people restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, keeping watch on yourself lest also you are tempted. 2 The burdens of one another, bear, and thus fulfil the law of Christ. 3 For if someone seems to be something, being nothing, they deceive themself. 4 Let each person put their own work to the test, and then only unto themself alone he has an object of pride and not unto the other [person]. 5 For each will bear his own load. 6 Let the one being instructed in the word share with the instructor in all good things. 7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows, this also they will reap. 8 Because the one sowing unto their own flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction, but the one sowing unto the spirit, from the spirit will reap life eternal. 9 Let us not become weary, doing the good, for in the proper time, being unwearied, we will reap. 10 So then as we have occasion, let us do the good to all, yet especially towards the members of the household of faith.
Building on what Paul has just been writing concerning community life, v1 shows community life in action. In the case where someone in the community has some aspect of sin come to life, the other believers (you spirit-people, often translated as “you who are spiritual”, but the force of πνευματικοὶ has less to do with more ‘spiritual’ than others, and rather more connection with simply being people who are indwelt and transformed by the Spirit) are to restore that person, i.e. undertake a process of spiritual rehabilitation to help the sinner overcome their sin. This in particular is to be done with a “spirit of gentleness”: tender consciences are generally to be treated gently, not with harshness. And furthermore with vigilance, so that responsibility to care for sinning brothers and sisters is matched with accountability to watch over oneself.
This community care is broadened into a more general principle in v2, with the call to bear one another’s burdens. This is framed as fulfilling the law of Christ. Again, as part of Paul’s radical re-situation of the Law of Moses, the Law of Christ functions to replace any notion of Law as Moral Standard, even as Paul himself employs the Law of Moses as part of his ground-source of ethical material.
Our understanding of v3 in part hinges upon whether we understand δοκεῖ in the sense of ‘seem’ (as per our translation) or ‘think’ (taking a reflexive meaning – seems to themselves). While in our translation we have preserved some element of ambiguity, the following “they deceive themselves” indicates that the ‘seeming’ cuts both ways. As a community, or a family, does not engage in other-deception within the community, false evaluation of oneself is both self- and other- deception and has no place in this community. Instead of this practice of deception and comparison, we have v4 – a call to self-appraisal (and honest appraisal) of one’s own deeds. The arena of ‘boasting’, or perhaps less prejudicially, ‘pride-taking’, is in relation to one’s own deeds and before God, not in relation to others and their deeds.
How does this fit into broader teaching about not boasting, and boasting only in the Lord? We take it that in light of an honest self-appraisal before God a person may have a sense of ‘job well done’, neither a grounds for pride before God, nor of self-promotion in the presence of others, but rather satisfaction in the Lord. The Christian life is not one of endless self-despisal and deprecation, as some have mistaken it.
Verse 5 suggests some unity to the mini-unit of 2-5, though the word for load differs from that for burden in v2. Most commentators thus suggest a different meaning, given that v2 calls for bearing one another’s and v5 calls for a shouldering of one’s own. But is φορτίον automatically more bearable than τὰ βάρη? A burden does not necessarily imply that it is unmanageable, and in different circumstances what was a load can become a burden, and vice versa. Our capacity to bear the difficulties of life varies based not only on those difficulties, but our very selves and the community around us.
Paul’s injunction then, may be seen as a non-reciprocal command, or an expectation of non-reciprocity. “I, for my part, try to bear my own load, and have a sharp eye out to help carry other’s.” Such a pro-active ethic of taking on one’s own responsibilities and others’ echoes the pro-active version of the Golden Rule of Jesus = an ethic that is not first grounded in expectation of reciprocity may in fact provoke grace all the more.
Reading vv2-5 as a whole, we see that Paul turns the whole ‘boasting’ game on its head. Against a cultural world in which boasting was an extra-familial affair, and the place that isn’t for boasting is the home, Paul’s communitarian ethic establishes the church as that kind of place – a place not fit for boasting. Boasting and honour-games within the family have no place. And yet, outside this new community, we boast in the cross, the most shameful object in the ancient world. O Christians glory in their shame, to steal Paul’s words from Phil 2:19 and turn them on their head!
In verse 6 the focus shifts to the relation between teachers and the taught. Specifically, Paul has in mind instruction “in the word”, i.e. teaching of the Word of God as revealed in the Scriptures and focused on the Gospel. While verse 6 itself seems to centre on those who are being instructed, the following verses may be read with particular application to those doing the teaching. Although it has been typical to read these verses as a set of more generic moral exhortations, their application to teachers of the Word is worth pondering.
Verse 7 then, gives us a series of three statements:
Do not be deceived
(why? In what regard?) God is not mocked
(Grounds) For whatever a person sows, this also they will reap.
Paul has already made reference to self-deception in verse 3. Seeing truly is a basis for right action, and in this case it is having a right understanding of the relationship between act (sowing) and effect (reaping). In particular, we are to have a right understanding of how our actions within the community (and without) interact with God. It is a deceived person who things that God can be mocked and the consequences will not be negative. Paul then moves to the more general principle ‘what is sowed will be reaped’.
This general principle is elaborated and specified in verse 8. The possible options are dichotomised (compare Paul’s approach to flesh and spirit in chapter 5) into flesh and spirit, with the attendant consequences destruction and eternal life.
For the teacher of the Word this raises specific questions of application: how are you investing in the community. Is your teaching (as sowing) in accordance with the Spirit and directed towards producing eternal consequences? Or is it according to flesh and directed towards fleshly gain (but then ultimately destruction)? The same questions can be asked more generally of the community but with reference to teaching.
Verse 9 goes on to exhort perseverance in Christian life, but perhaps in the ministry of the Word in particular, for it is a wearying profession (cf. 2 Cor 4:1, 16). Where do those in ministry gain their support and sustenance? Is it not in the mutual bearing of burdens of the community, the sharing of good things from those instructed, the community of love that is to exist within the Spirit-people of Christ?
Verse 10 helps emphasise the focus in this section on the engagement of the community within itself, though not necessarily only to itself. Firstly, we note the phrase “as we have occasion” – not a restriction to lessen the possibility of doing good to only when circumstances arise in which it is possible, but rather a promotion of the very possibility of doing good. Secondly, ‘to all’ is probably to be understood as ‘all without distinction’ rather than ‘all without exception’ (the latter being our natural tendency for ‘all’, but the usage of πᾶς aligns better the former). Some are wont to read μάλιστα δὲ as “namely” in place of “especially”, which would act to restrict the scope of this injunction to the church community. This translation seems indefensible to me, but neither is this verse a proof text for the broader scope of the church’s ministry of good deeds and social justice in the world. The Scriptures build a strong enough case for an ethos of mercy and justice more broadly and in other passages, there is no need to rest it on this slender pillar. Rather, verse 10 functions to summarise the call to right action within the community, without distinction, and beyond.