|Vol. 12 No. 11 November 2010||
“But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:15). “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (NIV). “Bite” and “devour” are present tense verbs, indicating continuing action. This biting and devouring is not a one time or even an occasional episode, but a habitual activity.
The prominent words in this verse of Scripture are “often used together of wild animals, or like cats and dogs” (Robertson’s) or “of animals of prey” (Liddell, H.G.), and so this context describes Christians who act toward each other, howbeit figuratively, as ravenous, mortal enemies in the animal kingdom. Christians are not supposed to act like “wild animals in deadly struggle” (Wuest). This type of behavior is as remotely removed from the ideal of the preceding verse as one could possibly imagine, which reads, “…You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).
“Bite” literally refers to “with the teeth” (Thayer’s), but metaphorically, it means, “thwart” (Strong’s) or “to wound the soul, cut, lacerate, rend with reproaches” (Thayer’s). Vincent’s portrays divisive parties within a congregation thus: “Strong expressions of partisan hatred exerting itself for mutual injury.” Lipscomb depicts this hostility as “combative temper.” Clarke’s sees in Galatians 5:15 “continual altercations” and then comments: “Nothing is so destructive to the peace of man, and to the peace of the soul, as religious disputes; where they prevail, religion in general has little place” (emphasis added). “Bite” refers to “backbite the character” (Jamieson), and Romans 1:30, 32 teaches that “backbiters [slanderers]… are worthy of death.” As bad as capital punishment is, this Romans passage (1:18-32) speaks of sinners who, if they do not repent, will be eternally lost – suffer “the second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). “Backbiters” (Romans 1:30) or those who “bite” (Galatians 5:15) other Christians are in danger of losing their souls!
“Devour” literally means “to eat down” (Strong’s), and the 15 times the Greek word for “devour” occurs in the New Testament, also translated as “eat up,” it is used in various contexts respectively both literally and figuratively. Metaphorically, “devour” means “to ruin (by the infliction of injuries)” (Thayer’s). To devour is to persist or persevere in biting (Jamieson), and Shepherd notes that “devour” suggests the destructive end of biting (Lipscomb). “Devour” conveys the idea of ‘swallow up’” (Arndt).
“Consumed” means “to use up” or “destroy” (Strong’s), even “to destroy completely” (Louw, emphasis added), and it can carry the idea of “annihilation” (Arndt). Of “consumed,” Vincent’s says, “Partisan strife will be fatal to the Christian community as a whole. The organic life of the body will be destroyed by its own members” (emphasis added). Robertson’s illustrates: “There is a famous story of two snakes that grabbed each other by the tail and each swallowed the other” (emphasis added). What better way to demonstrate the absurdity and catastrophic outcome of Christians biting, devouring and consuming each other?
The particular controversy disturbing the tranquility of congregations throughout the province of Galatia was the ongoing debate over the attempt to impose the Jewish rite of circumcision on converts to Christianity (Galatians 5:11). However, irrespective of the issue, wrangling among Christians is not only unwarranted, but all those involved therein are in danger of losing their souls, as well as damaging the souls of others – Christians and non-Christians alike. Rather than allowing division to go unchecked within a congregation, the church has the responsibility of stopping it through discipline if necessary (Titus 3:8-10). Otherwise, brethren need to develop the prime characteristic of Christians, which is also the badge of discipleship – love (John 13:34-35; Galatians 5:14; 1 John 2:10-11; 3:10-11; 4:20-21).
Whereas division between the righteous and the unrighteous may be unavoidable (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; Ephesians 5:11; 1 Timothy 1:20), division over opinions, personalities and willfulness are culpable and inexcusable (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Even when the complaint over which tensions arise is most certainly a doctrinal matter or a salvation issue, faithful Christians must control themselves. “Sometimes we can be doctrinally correct and yet sinful in our attitude. We should never allow our zeal for the truth to be overshadowed by an unchristian disposition. We should always speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)” (McWhorter). “It is sad to see congregations self-destruct because of hatred and malice. They are not torn apart by outside forces, but it is a matter of biting and devouring each other” (Smith).
…the spiritual injury causes hard feelings and discouragement. It alienates brethren and causes division. It takes the heart out of the zeal the church would otherwise have for evangelizing. It saps time, energy, and resources away from preaching the gospel, to supply fuel for the contentions. Besides, onlookers outside the church see a poor model of the church and are disinclined to be persuaded by its attempts to convert them. All of this certainly hinders the growth of the church. (Rickett)
Sometimes otherwise good brethren, sound in the faith and in agreement in virtually every area of primitive Christianity, permit their fervor to outrun Scripture in their earnest but misguided castigation of fellow Christians.
Sadly, some brethren, no doubt thinking they are doing right, are ready to accuse, debate, and withdraw fellowship from any brother who differs with them, not on matters of faith or obligation, but on matters of scruples, judgment, or option (positions which are not essential to and do not affect salvation). That we all have struggled, or do even now struggle, to understand fully in these areas, most would agree. That we must proceed with caution and longsuffering, we must also agree. We need to read again and take to heart Paul’s grave warning: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15). (Liddell, Bobby)
Who are these Christians who bite, devour and consume? Truly, any of us can become adversarial and propel a congregation’s self-destructive bent through internal division. “Without a doubt, some in our midst display a caustic, sour, negative, arrogant, ‘bite and devour’ (Gal. 5:15) spirit. Some speak the truth, not lovingly, but contentiously” (Miller). Franklin Camp identified the persons described in Galatians 5:15 as fleshly or worldly. “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).
Living according to the flesh is a mental attitude. The mind is set on things of the flesh. Living is self-centered instead of Christ-centered. Such individuals are governed by self interest. Here is the source of biting and devouring one another. The cause of brethren biting and devouring one another is letting the flesh control their thinking. (Camp, emphasis added)
The tragedy of the church today is that brethren cannot get along with brethren. More congregations have internal trouble than have real peace and harmony. Ironically, it is the brethren who demand “Bible Preaching” who are involved in most of the turmoil and division… They do not practice what the Bible preaches about brotherly love (I Cor. 13:1-7; I Jno. 4:7-21). They fail to bridle their tongues (Jas. 1:26). They speak evil of and judge their brethren which is condemned in James 4:11. (Also, compare Jas. 2:13). They are self-centered rather than Christ-centered, contrary to the Bible (Phil. 2:1-5). (Hicks emphasis added)
Yet, any of us can become amicable coworkers, joining hands of fellowship for the common good of the congregation and the cause of Christ. Every child of God ought to pursue with fervor sweet fellowship with fellow Christians (1 John 1:3).
If all parties would agree to play nicely in the proverbial sandbox, abiding by the highest principles found in the Gospel, thereby elevating Christians from the lowly, sinful world, then partyism with its despicable damage to the cause of Christ, within and without, would evaporate as rapidly as the afternoon sun dissipates morning fog. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Adam Clarke’s Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. CD-ROM. Bellingham: Logos Research Systems, 1996.
Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994.
Camp, Franklin. “If Ye Bite and Devour…” Alan Highers, ed. Spiritual Sword, Jan 1990: 12-15.
Hicks, Tommy J. “Let’s Practice What We Preach!” Thomas B. Warren, ed. CD-ROM. Spiritual Sword, Jan 1984: 36-37.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Liddell, Bobby. “There Is One God.” God the Father. Bobby Liddell, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 2003: 113-134.
Liddell, H.G. A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. CD-ROM. Oxford: Oxford University P., 1996.
Lipscomb, David. Gospel Advocate Commentaries. 2 Corinthians and Galatians. J.W. Shepherd, ed. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2005.
Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2nd ed. New York: United Bible societies, 1989; Bellingham: Logos Research Systems, 1996.
McWhorter, Jane. “Friendships During Troubled Times: Troubled Friendships Today.” God Hath Spoken, Affirming Truth and Reproving Error. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 1999: 930-942.
Miller, Dave. “Jesus Shows Love in Strongly Rebuking the Pharisees.” Thomas B. Warren, ed. CD-ROM. Spiritual Sword, Jul 1989: 15-16.
Rickett, Marvin. “Church Growth Jeopardized by Biting and Devouring One Another.” Church Growth: Man’s Ways or God’s Ways. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 2000: 577-582.
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft & Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1997.
Smith, Foy L. “God’s Great Scheme of Redemption as Revealed in Galatians.” Studies in Galatians. Dub McClish, ed. CD-ROM. Denton: Valid Publications, 1986.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2000.
Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Wuest, Kenneth S. Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament. CD-ROM. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.