Once upon a time in my teaching, I would conduct an exercise in reading in context; it was a quiz of sorts. I’d have everyone open up to Galatians 6:1, which in the NIV (almost guaranteed to be the translation of choice amongst the group) reads: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Then I’d ask them to define “spiritual” for me.
Depending on what your Christian background is, you may understand “spiritual” to be any number of things. Since I come from a charismatic background, I would receive answers something along the lines of: someone who is full of the Spirit, someone who “hears from the Lord,” and so on. Naturally, these types of answers beg for further clarification, since they can be understood in many different ways, some of which may not be anything close to what Scripture teaches.
The problem, of course, is that we often import our own meanings into the text, assuming that Paul must have meant what we understand a word to mean. More often than not, this is not a conscious decision- we assume our definition is determined by Scripture. But the best way to figure out what a word means is in the context. In this case, it’s not all that hard to understand what Paul means by “spiritual.”
Immediately preceding this verse, Paul contrasts what it looks like to live by the Spirit with living by the “sinful nature” (Gal 5:16-26). “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious”, Paul says, yet so are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How do you know if someone is living by the Spirit? They exhibit these traits in their lives- not just on their own, but in community as well (after all, most of the evil and good acts in these verses necessitate others).
So, when Paul says “you who are spiritual” should restore someone who has fallen into sin, he isn’t bringing up a new topic or moving on to a different understanding of what it looks like to live by the Spirit- despite the chapter break. The spiritual person of Galatians 6:1 is the person who exhibits the fruit of the Spirit given in 5:22-23. The context defines the word for us, we don’t need to search far to understand Paul’s meaning.
This isn’t everything Paul has to say about living in the Spirit, of course; there’s always 1 Corinthians 12-14, Eph 5:18-21, and others. But the Galatian readers didn’t have those letters available to pull in different connotations of “spiritual,” their main referent was the letter right in front of them, specifically the words they had just read.
So does this make a difference practically speaking? I think it can, and I’d invite others to share why they think it might. I’ll give one reason why I think this can be important, given the charismatic circles I run in. There can be a tendency amongst charismatics to elevate certain people based on gifting and perceived spiritual awareness. There can be, though this is not always the case, gradations of spirituality based on these criteria. Paul, however, is often more practical than we are. Paul, and other biblical writers, wants hard evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. A person ought to be changed completely, including (especially) their behavior, when the Spirit is working in them. After all, what’s the benefit in “hearing from the Lord” if you’re still a jerk? Remember- Paul once wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).
Those who are “qualified” to help restore a fallen brother or sister are not necessarily those who are first deemed “spiritual” by our own criteria. By Paul’s criteria, those who are in the best position to help a person fight off sin are those who are now living by the Spirit in a way that shows they have defeated the sinful nature.