The Agora
Biblical Fellowship

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44. “I Would They Were Even Cut Off” (Galatians 5:12)

The “cutting off” here has absolutely no relevance as a popular catchphrase to justify wholesale excommunication. In the first place, Paul displays a marked reluctance to be more drastic in action than necessary: “I would ...” is about as far from a peremptory command as can be imagined. Coupled with v. 10 — “He that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be” — this passages presents the picture of the inspired apostle as being far from in a hurry to apply the surgical knife — and this to one person! Where the rest are concerned, there is no hint of drastic discipline.

What would Paul say if he were to view the drastic and unwarranted “cutting off” from fellowship performed by some “purists” today? Might he not say something like this?: ‘I would they would completely cut off everyone, and then the rest of us might have some peace for the upbuilding of the ecclesias.’

But all of this is more or less beside the point, for it is almost certain that this verse has a very specialized meaning. The word “cut off” is apokopto, which means “to cut away”; it is so used of members of the body: “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off” (Mark 9:43,45); “Then Peter... cut off his right ear” (John 18:10,26). In Galatians 5:12 the verb is in the middle voice, thus signifying one of two things: either (a) to cut oneself off, metaphorically, from the “body” of Christ, or (b) literally to mutilate one’s own body, by cutting off one’s members.

The second of these two possibilities is favored by numerous versions:

“I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves” (RSV).

“I would they would even mutilate themselves” (RV margin).

“As for these agitators, they had better go all the way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (NEB).

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, has been denouncing those who would make circumcision a “test of fellowship” (vv. 1-4,11).

“Why do they not, says Paul, since they have such faith in the knife, practice the complete mutilation which was common among the devotees of Cybele? In modern times this interpretation has been rejected on the grounds of coarseness, but if we remember that in turning to Judaism the Galatians were virtually turning back in principle to the rite of the nature worship of their pagan days... then Paul’s words practically mean that if the Judaizer were leading them back, then let him consistently go the whole way and in mutilation of self exhibit in symbol the destruction of self in the complete sense” (John Carter, The Letter to the Galatians, p. 123).
So Paul here is not referring to withdrawal of fellowship, but to castration! (If the idea still seems far-fetched, let it be noted that an early Christian “bishop”, Origen, in an excess of zeal, did this very thing!) An angry Paul, reserving his harshest language for those who would add new criteria for fellowship, is deriding the negative and destructive policy of “salvation by cutting-off” in the strongest possible terms. We do well to remind ourselves that the philosophy of “salvation by separation”, in one form or another, has been practiced throughout the ages. It is not newly sprung up in the twentieth century.

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