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
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
“I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate
“I would they would even mutilate themselves”
“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.
“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.
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.