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New Testament Words and Verses
Galatians 5:20, Violations of Worship and the Law of Love

Scholars have scratched their collective heads wondering how to divide up or categorize the fifteen vices listed in Gal. 5:19-21; the fourfold categorization I listed in the prior essay identified sexual sins (the first three); then violations of Christian worship (the next two) and violations of the law of love (the next eight) before ending with sins of intemperance (the last two). As I study the lists I am not convinced that there really is much difference among many of the words, but we just have a kind of huge scream against all this immoral activity. 


But as we push ahead today to violations of Christian worship (two) and of the law of love (eight), I do so in the context of preparing lists of Biblical Hebrew words based on Obadiah.  In that connection, the tone of Obadiah is all about destruction and clobbering people.  And, as we turn to the works of the flesh, Paul calmly tells us that those who do these things won’t inherit the Kingdom of God.  More clobbering of people. The deeper one enters the sacred texts of the West, the larger seems to be the themes of judgment, destruction and clobbering all kinds of folk. Makes you sometimes long for a bit more trenchant and perceptive analysis of life. . .


                                                            Violations of Christian Worship

The next two terms from Gal. 5:20 are:


εἰδωλολατρία—idolatry, idol worship, image-worship

φαρμακεία—sorcery, magic, potions or drugs of some sort


As mentioned in the previous essay, Col. 3:5 uses the word εἰδωλολατρία but connects it with “greed,” which seems a bit of a stretch, and this equation  is picked up nowhere else in the NT. In addition, a few characteristics are taken from our “list of fifteen” in Gal. 5 and put together in different contexts, so that in one you might have sexual immorality and idol worship, while others may have sorcery and licentiousness.  Kind of a mix and match approach to things that will keep you from the Kingdom of God.


The danger of εἰδωλολατρία was that it not only related to formal worship services in which other gods were recognized but to more informal practices, such as festivals or holidays that honored a particular divinity. Sometimes these traces of former allegiances would be almost impossible to break, so deeply embedded were they in the culture of practice of a place.


Though φαρμακεία is usually translated as “witchcraft” or “sorcery” or the “practice of magical arts,” the root of the word emphasizes the use of drugs or stimulants to aid in getting one into a certain religious “mood.”  It is interesting that the LSJ dictionary emphasizes the drugs as a kind of “poison”—i.e., primarily abortifacients— that would aid in that practice. So, the objection to this practice in Gal. 5 might not be a generic, ‘Don’t use drugs to get religiously high’-type of advice, but could include specific rules against using these drugs to induce abortions.  Don’t know.


                                                Violations of the Law of Love


Who knows how to characterize the next eight words of Gal. 5:20-21?  Even basic translations of them aren’t alway that helpful, and we don’t know if this basically is just literary piling on or the author intended for us to take the individual words seriously. But let’s make an effort at least to translate them:


ἔχθραι— hostility, enmity, hatred

ἔρις—strife, contention

ζῆλος—jealousy, rivalry, fervent emotion (could be positive, based on context)

θυμοί— rage, wrath, fury (but can be also something just—the wrath of God)

ἐριθεῖαι—rivalry, self-seeking and self-serving ambition, strife, contentiousness

διχοστασίαι—dissensions, divisions, factionalism

αἱρέσεις—factional choice (“heresy”), parties, sects

φθόνοι—jealousy, envy.


It just isn’t clear how some of these are to be distinguished from each other, nor how some of them should be defined.  For example, not a smidgen of difference can plausibly be seen between “jealousy” and “envy” (ζῆλος/φθόνοι).  I also am not sure I can distinguish between a “division” and a “party” or between διχοστασίαι and αἱρέσεις.  Care doesn’t seem to characterize the list, and for us to try to make granular distinctions in order for us to feel good that we have distinguished between the two seems a bit strained.  In addition, sometimes a word can be positive in one context (like ζῆλος), but negative in another. θυμοί is not an attractive human characteristic but, as the Book of Revelation points out, is pretty prevalent in the work of God. So, depends, again, on the context—which is often characteristic of Greek nouns and verbs far beyond this list. Finally, sometimes it isn’t clear what a word actually means.  The word ἐριθεῖαι looks like ἔρις, and thus many people want to read it with a strife-like meaning, but its original meaning in Aristotle was solely in connection with a person’s attitude or action as he tried to get elected to office—an unhealthy ambition. If you think about it for more than a split-second, you see that ambition and strife have nothing to do with each other, even though if you were creative enough you could argue that one leads to the other—but that is hardly a lexicographic exercise.


So, my comments in the preceding paragraph seem to have compromised most of the list, and leave us grasping (and gasping) to try to figure out who exactly won’t be inheriting the Kingdom of God. It seems that since exclusion from the Kingdom of God is a pretty severe penalty in the eyes of the NT writers that one would take inordinate care to be clear enough so that readers would wonder if they were in the category.  For example, in our world, if someone was to win the lottery, you can best be sure that they would want to have clear instructions on what to do to identify and cash in on the winning ticket. Conversely, if you are going to be excluded from the Kingdom of God, you might want to have a sense of why—before you find yourself weeping and gnashing your teeth in the outer darkness.




The works of the flesh may be “plain/manifest/evident” (the first word of 5:18) to the writer, but he hasn’t succeeded in making them plain to us. But, then again, perhaps the readers were, in general, so convinced that they couldn’t be excluded from the Kingdom of God that they just used the list as a way of identifying the bad folk—out there.  Don’t have to worry if you are safely inside. But for those of us whose fate is in the balance, just a bit more clarity might have been helpful.

Galatians 5:21

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