During our time as missionaries in Lesotho, Natasja and I were involved in outreaches to the remote mountain village of Hajobo. These outreaches were part of a long-term strategy to establish a church there. The village was only about twenty kilometres from our base, but it could only be reached by foot. This would have been easy enough, were it not for the several valleys and mountains that lay between us and our destination and the fact that we had to carry all our supplies for the outreach ourselves.
But on one of these outreaches, we had to take a group of first year students from a missionary training school, on an exposure trip to the village. We weren’t far from our base when one of the female students started complaining that her bag was too heavy. Even though he was carrying most of the food already, one of the students volunteered to carry her bag as well. After an hour or so, he looked like he was about to die, so I offered to carry the bag with all the food (along with my own). But just like him, I soon realized that I had overestimated my own stamina, and soon felt close to the point of death myself. Eventually we both concluded that if we were going to make it to Hajobo, we would have to share the burden by taking it in turns to carry the food. Our mutual burden-bearing was crucial to the outreach, not only because it enabled us to finish the journey, but also because it meant we would not hold up the rest of the group.
Paul had a very similar idea in mind when he exhorts the Christians in Galatia to this same duty: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
A few verses later he will say that: “each will have to bear his own load” (v.5). The Greek word used there refers to something like the “kit” Roman soldiers carried. This can either refer to the work God has called every individual Christian to do, or the fact that each man will have to give an account personally for what he has done in this life and cannot appeal to how much better he did than his neighbour as a defence (see Gal. 6:3-4).
But when Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens, he uses a different word altogether. It’s a word that refers to a weight that brings a man low, and it is used in Scripture to refer to that which we are duty bound to do as those who profess faith in Christ (See Acts 15:28; Rev. 2:24). One could refer to it as the burden of righteousness. This is the first indication that this verse is probably not concerned with material burdens, but with the burdens that come from life in a fallen world – burdens which arise as we wrestle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But notice the context in which our exhortation is found.
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:1-3).
Our burden-bearing relates to our response to those believers who have been drawn into sin by Satan or the desires of their flesh. In the previous chapter, Paul lists the well-known fruit of the Spirit, which stand in stark contrast to the works of the flesh. Believers, says Paul, will display the fruit of the Spirit, but unbelievers walk in the works of the flesh. But what happens when someone who once walked in the fruit of the Spirit, now starts walking according to the works of the flesh?
Paul’s answer is that those who are spiritual, ought to come alongside the fallen brother, and in humility and gentleness restore him. They are not to boast over his fall, as if they could never be caught in the same sin, nor are they to leave him to his own devices or treat him like an unbeliever. They must act for his good by restoring him to where he was before he fell.
A few things need to be clarified here so there’s no confusion about what this means. Firstly, this does not mean that the church should never excommunicate anyone. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is horrified that the church has not acted to excommunicate a man who claimed to be a brother, but who was involved in sexual immorality. Jesus too rebukes the morally and doctrinally compromised churches in Asia minor for their tolerance of sin and error (Rev. 2-3). However, the process of excommunication must only be initiated after multiple attempts to bring the guilty party to repentance (Mt. 18). And, as we see in 2 Corinthians 2, even in the process of excommunication, the intention is that it would lead to restoration and the readmission of the fallen brother into the church.
Secondly, this text is clearly a warning against an arrogant self-confidence among those who hear of the brother’s sin. Sadly, this is exactly what often happens in the church. Instead of saying, “there but by the grace of God go I,” we say, “that will never happen to me”. As the apostle Peter found out the hard way, that kind of pride often comes before a fall. Notice that those who are spiritual are to restore him in a spirit of gentleness – in other words, our correction must be gracious and kind, not harsh and judgmental. We sin if we don’t speak the truth, but we sin likewise if we don’t speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Too often the saying is true, that the church is the only army in the world that shoots it’s wounded. We ought to be battlefield medics, treating the wounds of the fallen, knowing that we too may one day need the same care. None of us are bulletproof, we all need one another. The church should not be a place where people are too scared to tell others that they’ve been wounded. True, we are not innocent victims of our sin, and are responsible for the actions that lead us into sin. But I’ve never heard of an army medic refusing to treat a soldier because he was dumb enough to get himself shot by not following orders.
Thirdly, this text teaches us that inactivity and indifference towards the sins of others in the body is inexcusable. God has brought us together for our mutual spiritual good, and we cannot simply opt out of this duty because of a fear of giving offence, or because we don’t like conflict. “Not my monkeys, not my circus”, may work when other people’s children misbehave on the beach, but it does not work in the church.
Finally, we need to understand that this burden-bearing duty is not something we are called to only in extreme instances of sin. It’s not just remedial, but constructive and pro-active. At the risk of getting ahead of myself in this series, we are called upon to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). There is to be a continual sense in the local church that we are in this together. We’ve got one another’s backs. We want to see each other grow in knowledge, maturity, and fruitfulness. This is what meaningful membership is all about. Let’s pray that this will increasingly be evident in the life of our church family, for the glory of God and the good of his people.