I knew I was in trouble when I saw the Scripture chosen for the header at the top of this pastor's blog: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be anathema" (Galatians 1:8). Without reading a single post, I accurately predicted what its contents would be -- tirades against all the ways mainstream evangelicalism had gone "liberal." I was actually honored to be included with the many wonderful godly leaders and scholars who were attacked, including former teachers and colleagues, current peers with whom I went to school, and leading pastors on the American evangelical scene.

The blog was extreme, but the use of Galatians 1:8 was not unusual. There is a large segment of very conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism that regularly appeals to the seemingly harsh language of the New Testament in combating false teachers, whether in Galatians, or in 2 Corinthians 10, or in Philippians 3, or in 2 Peter 2 or in Jude 1 to justify using harsh invective against those with whom they disagree. How can anyone object? They are following inspired, inerrant models!

One can and should object for at least five reasons. First, such rhetoric was more common and acceptable in the first century than it is today. Read the Old Testament prophets, the diatribes at Qumran, or the full text of the Hippocratic Oath and Paul seems almost mild in comparison. Yet this language was understood as neither ad hoc nor ad hominem but conventional, culturally acceptable ways of strongly disassociating oneself from certain perspectives.

Second, even in Paul's world one had to balance this text against his quite different command in Galatians 6:1-"if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently."

Third, as I showed in a paper published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2002, the harshest, condemning language in the New Testament is consistently reserved for those who challenge the very heart of the saving message of Jesus Christ. Unless a false teacher's beliefs or behavior, if imbibed, would prove so damaging that a person would actually be lost who adopted them, then the inspired authors' tones remain quite different.

Fourth, even when it is a core doctrine that is at stake, it is those who have distorted the gospel in an overly conservative, legalistic, works-righteousness direction who come in for the strong denunciation, not those who are flirting with "left-leaning" boundaries.

Finally, the only acceptable reasons for such rhetoric can be the sincere hope that it will win the offending person or persons (back) to the Lord and/or keep others from following suit. In today's Western world, the latter almost never occurs when one replicates such harsh tones. Indeed, one's opponents are simply alienated even further and their antagonism is reinforced. Increasingly, especially among those not yet middle-aged, even Christians recognize that this flies in the face of the centrality of the command to love one's neighbor and even one's enemy. Those who weren't in any danger of doing so become likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject Christianity altogether when they observe Christians who are characteristically combative.

That ought to be more than enough to warn all of us who care about what God thinks and wants in this world to be extremely wary of ever sounding like Paul in Galatians 1:8--except, ironically, in the occasional need to censor people like the writer of the blog I stumbled across, since his legalistic theology actually turned out to be a close replica of the Judaizers Paul censored in Galatia!

He or she who has hears to hear, let them hear...