Formations 10.22.2017: Morality and Conformity

Galatians 5:1, 16-26

Frans Francken the Younger, Allegory of Generosity, 17th cent.

A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden, has demonstrated what many of us already know intuitively: that our view of what is morally right or wrong is shaped by how widespread a particular behavior is. These findings come from a combination of behavioral experiments, mathematical models, and computer simulations.

The experiments focused on games that provoked a choice between altruism and selfishness. Players are given a sum of money and then choose how much to invest in ways that benefit the entire group and how much to keep for themselves. Principal investigator Andreas Olsson reports, “Tolerance of selfish behavior increased when the majority of the players kept the money for themselves.”

The study points to the relationship between social conformity and moral decision-making. This social dynamic was almost certainly in play in Galatia, where preachers from outside the congregation called for strict adherence to the Law. The more people bought into this vision of the Christian life, the more acceptable it seemed to everyone else.

But Olssson observes—and Paul would certainly agree—that, “The fact that a behavior is common doesn’t automatically mean that it’s right—this idea is based on flawed logic that confuses facts with moral values.” Or, in the words of mothers everywhere, just because “everybody else is doing it” doesn’t make it right.

In fact, any human source of moral guidance is bound to break down eventually as culture shifts to one extreme or another. What was once forbidden becomes commonplace; what was once normalized behavior becomes the height of depravity.

And sometimes, we must acknowledge, the trends shift in the wrong directions.

Rather than touting Law-observance, Paul urges the Galatians to be guided by (v. 16) and live by (v. 25) the Spirit. In this way, we calibrate our moral compasses based on something outside of human drives or inclinations and yet deeply personal and fulfilling. This, he says, is the true way toward life-transformation.

“Behaviour Is Considered More Moral the More Common It is,”, 12 Sep 2017 .


• When have you noticed your moral behavior changing—for good or ill—because of what people around you did or said?
• How might strict adherence to religious rules be an expression of “the flesh”?
• In practical terms, what does it mean to live by (or be guided by) the Spirit? How do we know if we are doing this?
• How is Paul’s advice superior to the clear-cut instructions of his opponents to look to the Law for moral guidance? How is this advice more challenging?
• What might Paul say to Christians today who base the authenticity of their faith on compliance to religious rules?

Reference Shelf

The Spirit’s Presence

The presence of the Holy Spirit in a human life is not characteristically evidenced in some exotic way, like speaking in tongues, but in inner qualities of character and outward ministry. The fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22). Where the Spirit is there is freedom (2 Cor 3:17), love (Rom 5:5), peace and joy (14:17), hope, joy, and peace (15:13). The work of the Spirit is known in the fellowship of the church (2 Cor 13:14). It is by the Spirit that we know the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10-13). In scripture, those who “spoke from God” are ones “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20ff.). Being “filled with the Spirit” is evidenced not in self-serving ways but in ministry to others. When filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah preached (Luke 1:67). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Barnabas sold a field and gave the money to care for the poor (Acts 4:36ff; 11:24). Stephen, “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), gave his life for his witness to Christ. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers are to be his witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). With the Spirit upon Jesus, he proclaimed his vocation in terms of ministry to human need at every level (Luke 4:18ff.), inclusive of persons as far away as a Sidonian widow (4:26) and a Syrian leper (4:27).

Frank Stagg, “Holy Spirit,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 385.

”Good” and “Bad” People

Christians don’t always remind people of Jesus by the way we live, but Paul insists that even the most demanding set of rules would only clean us up on the outside. To be truly trans- formed requires a work of divine grace on the inside. Our character improves to the extent that we give the Spirit permission to change us.

Living by the Spirit is a struggle, however. It doesn’t come naturally to anyone—obviously! Paul is quite candid about the opposition that exists between what the Holy Spirit works to produce in a believer’s life and where our natural impulses, oriented to self rather than God, tend to lead us. We cannot, therefore, divide the world into “good” people and “bad” people. All of us are a mixture of both. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lamented,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Those who perform the works of the flesh “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). Again, we hear the language of inheritance Paul developed in great detail in chapter 4. There, the matter of who inherits turns on one’s relationship to God through faith in Christ. Here, the matter of who does not inherit at least includes the factor of how one acts. One’s behavior does, after all, figure into God’s judgment for Paul (cf. Rom 2:13)—only not the way the Galatian Torah observers have been taught.

Paul’s admitted reservations about the Torah are not meant to be a permission slip for immorality! “For freedom Christ has set us free” (v. 1), but Christ didn’t set people free so they could behave however they please. As Paul has already discussed, the purpose of freedom is love. Christ has set us free from the cultic obligations of the Law, but he has also set us free for loving our neighbors as ourselves within a community. Simply following the Law is a grave danger to faith; so is license.

Marion L. Soards and Darrell J. Pursiful, Galatians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015) 299–300.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email