Galatians 5: 20 “ idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions”
Paul continues with his specific description of the “acts of the sinful nature” or “flesh.” The word Paul uses for “acts” in verse 19 is translated in the King James Version as “works,” which seems to play on the concept of “works of the law, as in “observing the law" (see Galatians 3:2). In the previous verse, Paul described all manner of sexual sin (summing it up in 4 words or terms in the original Greek, but translated as three English words in the NIV). He leaves sex behind in verse 19 and moves on to other matters.
“Idolatry” This literally means the worship of false gods. But even in the original Greek, the context goes beyond simply sacrificing to idols and false religions, bad as those concepts are by themselves. It also means avarice – an insatiable greed for riches; or an inordinate, miserly desire to gain and hoard wealth. This is beyond greed – it’s the worship of riches, an all-encompassing obsession with money. Obviously, in our modern age, ambition, a lust for power, and an obsession with popular culture would fit in here as well.
“Witchcraft” As with the word “idolatry,” there is more to the original meaning than the basic English translation can convey. Of course, this refers to sorcery, the magic arts, and other occult practices. But the first definition in my Greek lexicon for the original word is “the use of or the administration of drugs,” followed by “poisoning.” So, while gluttony and over indulgence aren’t specifically on this list, the things that lead to addiction – particularly drugs and other material that alters the consciousness or leads to serious health issues (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, overeating, other obsessions) could be covered here. The fact that the NIV pairs this word with the previous “idolatry” indicates how they work hand in hand – not just false religion linked with the occult arts being used to manipulate and control people, but also greed and obsession being twisted and amplified into societal forces that will also manipulate, control and destroy.
“hatred, discord, jealousy” The next three words are translated quite literally from Greek into English. The Greek word for hatred here is very strong – this isn’t just strong dislike, it’s downright enmity. “Discord” means strife, contention, or wrangling. It boils down to being argumentative, I suppose. “Jealousy” is interesting. It literally means “zeal,” that is, excitement of mind, ardor, or fervor of spirit. This could be zeal in a positive sense, but the stronger notion is a sense of fierce indignation, or punitive zeal. I suppose this is hatred with passion. The secondary meaning involves envy, contentious rivalry, and basic jealousy. It think it was Paul’s intent to emphasis the indignation part, as in “righteous indignation.” Its easy for anyone to allow offenses of all kinds to take root, and when we justify our hurts in our religiousness or self-righteousness, it turns to envious or hateful zeal. We can be our own advocate, or take on the offense of a friend of loved one, in a negative comparison or the desire for what someone has, their talent, or their position.
“fits of rage” The King James Version translates this as “wrath,” the New American Standard as “outbursts of anger,” the Amplified Bible emphasizes “ill temper.” The original Greek word here emphasizes passion – hot, boiling anger that comes in waves. The secondary meaning involves the “wine of passion” or “inflaming wine,” which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength (implying a secondary connection for this kind of rage to alcohol or drug abuse, though such a connection for this kind of rage is obviously not necessary). This is truly the kind of anger that is so deep it leads to destruction.
“selfish ambition” The literal meaning of the original language here is to “electioneer.” That is, to put yourself forth in a conniving way – it implies all the intrigue of a hotly contested election. Thus, this is factiousness at its peak. The King James Version translates this as “strife,” the New American Standard says “disputes,” the Amplified says “selfishness.” It means a bit of, or all of these things. This is more than mere ambition in the sense of furthering oneself by advancing one’s career (although an over emphasis on that concept could lead to what Paul is talking about here), but seeing division and using it to your own advantage, setting things up with the sole purpose of advancing oneself. “Blind” Ambition, perhaps? Merciless ambition to be sure. This was an extremely rare word in Paul’s day. Aristotle used it to describe a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair or unscrupulous means. In other new testament letters, we are exhorted to avoid this mindset and not selfishly put our own ambitions forward. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:3, James 3:14). Selfishness and self-promotion are heart attitudes.
“dissensions” is translated in the King James Version as “seditions,” and it literally means “divisions.” The NIV translates this pretty accurately. This speaks to causing factions and divisions, driving people apart, a rebellious spirit that seeks anarchy and the overthrow of authority.
“factions” This is a more specific word than the previous one, yet it has many meanings and applications. It has three basic interpretations. It is an extremely violent word – it literally means to storm and capture something, like invading a city or country. It also means to choose, the process of choosing, or a choice. But the best translation of the original Greek for this word occurs in the Amplified Bible, which interprets this word as a “party spirit.” But we mean “party” as in political party, a group of people following their own tenets or beliefs. It also means any division caused among people based on opinion or belief – groups with peculiar opinions, heresy, or sects. Is this the spirit of denominationalism? Certainly the American church acutely suffers from this. Or dare I say, this speaks to the important underlying theme of this letter – that one must conform to a particular cultural or ethnic practice in order to acceptable to God and/or the congregation – in this setting (the Roman province of Galatia), it was Gentiles who needed to act or become like Jews in order to “fit in.” What does it take to be acceptable in our congregations? Do I expect others to be “politically correct” when it comes to denominational or local practice? Such a concept is the essence of “factions.”