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Friday, August 4, 2017

How important is your reputation? (Luther's comments on Galatians 2:1-10)

The issue of reputation in Scripture can be a little confusing...  Ecclesiastes 7:1 says "a good name is better than a good ointment" and 1 Timothy 3 says church leaders "must be above reproach" (v. 2) and "must have a good reputation with those outside the church" (v. 7)  But Jesus Christ "made himself of no reputation" (Phil. 2:7), was "despised and rejected by men" (Isa. 53:3), and taught us that our union with him means that we will inevitably experience the same things (Matt. 5:11, John 15:18).

So how should we navigate this matter?  Well, the apostle Paul gives us some insight in Galatians 2:1-10, and the great Reformer Martin Luther supplies some more in his commentary on the book.

Paul has been defending his apostolic authority (and more importantly the gospel he preached) since the middle of chapter 1 (see my last blog post), and he continues in these verses with a special emphasis on the issue of reputation.

Reputation is overrated

As usual, Paul seems uncomfortable defending his own reputation, and he even seems reluctant to talk about the reputation of others.  He is obviously only doing it because he has to, as evidenced by his wording about the other apostles:  "those who seemed influential" (vv. 2 and 6), "who seemed to be pillars" (v. 9), and "what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality" (v. 6).

Luther explains well Paul's ambivalence toward how much respect one has from others:

What could Paul say to that [the fact that he had less reputation than the other apostles]? He answered: "What they say has no bearing on the argument. If the apostles were angels from heaven, that would not impress me. We are not now discussing the excellency of the apostles. We are talking about the Word of God now, and the truth of the Gospel. That Gospel is more excellent than all apostles."

Least we attach too much importance to the person, God leaves with important persons offenses and sins, sometimes astounding shortcomings, to show us that there is a lot of difference between any person and God. David was a good king. But when the people began to think too well of him, down he fell into horrible sins, adultery and murder. Peter, excellent apostle that he was, denied Christ. Such examples of which the Scriptures are full, ought to warn us not to repose our trust in men.

We all have our sins and weaknesses, and when they're exposed some people will make us seem even worse in their thoughts and words.  (Within the same Psalm David often expresses regret for his own sins and also complains of unjust judgments and slanders against him...Psalm 94 is a good example.)  That makes our reputations quite precarious.  Like shifting sands, one's character might be esteemed highly at one moment and reviled the next, often by the same people. I've had people tell me I shouldn't be a pastor because of sins that I've committed in my past, and I've had others tell me I'm better equipped now because of them.  (I have no desire to be a pastor anytime soon, if ever, but it illustrates my point about the subjective nature of reputation.)

Any pursuit of universal acceptance and esteem is truly futile...even the most highly respected Christian leaders all have numerous detractors who think they're not qualified for this or that reason, or label them as false teachers.  A brief online search of any of their names will reveal as much.

Reputation is a means to an end

Paul knew how subjective and situational reputation is, so he didn't place much stock in it.  He even told the Corinthians, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court...the one who examines me is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4:3-4).  But he addressed the issue when he believed that he had to, because the ministry of the gospel was at stake.  This is illustrated in some of Luther's comments on the text:

The opinion that obedience to the Law was mandatory unto salvation was gaining ground. Paul meant to remedy this evil. By this conference he hoped to establish the identity of his Gospel with that of the other apostles, to stop the talk of his opponents that he had been running around in vain.

Paul refused to circumcise Titus for the reason that the false apostles wanted to compel him to circumcise Titus. Paul refused to accede to their demands. If they had asked it on the plea of brotherly love, Paul would not have denied them. But because they demanded it on the ground that it was necessary for salvation, Paul defied them.

Some secular writers put Paul's boasting down as carnal pride. But Paul had no personal interest in his boasting. It was with him a matter of faith and doctrine. The controversy was not about the glory of Paul, but the glory of God, the Word of God, the true worship of God, true religion, and the righteousness of faith.

So our conclusion should be similar to the one we reached regarding the previous passage in Galatians... our reputation should not be built up or defended for its own sake, but only for the purpose of being able to better minister the gospel to others.  That's the reason it's important for all believers to seek the best reputation possible--"so that the Word of God will not be dishonored," as Paul says in another context (Titus 2:5).

Don't be overly concerned about your own reputation, and don't be too impressed with that of others.  Walk with God, seek to do the right thing before him, and if a situation arises where the gospel is being hindered by what people are thinking or saying about you, then address it if you have to.  But always remember that "God shows no partiality," as Paul says in verse 6.  We are all undeserving sinners with an audience of one, so we should "make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 5:9).

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