By Hoyt Houchen
Question: Does the Greek grammatical subjunctive in Galatians 6:10 and the context of the chapter authorize collective, general benevolence from a local church treasury?
Reply: Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith.”
Those who believe and teach that the local church is to engage in general benevolence (extend relief to both saints and non-saints) rely upon this verse as a proof text. They assume that because the exhortation “let us” is in the plural, it must therefore mean the church. This is a wrong assumption, as the plural does not always involve collective action, as we shall see. An exhortation or a command may be addressed to a group, but the doing of it may be enjoined upon individuals rather than a collectivity. For a clear example of this, consider the familiar passage, Acts 2:38, “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you. . .!” In the command to repent, pronoun “ye” is second person plural; whereas, in the command to be baptized “every one” is third person singular. The group is addressed but the command is to be obeyed by individuals. The same is true in Galatians 6:1, where Paul wrote, “Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The exhortation is given to a group; “brethren” is plural and “ye” (Gr. humeis) is a plural nominative. But the obligation enjoined is not upon the local churches but upon individuals. We notice that Paul adds, “looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” “Thyself” (Greek: seauton) is masculine accusative singular and “thou” (Greek: su) is understood to be second person singular. It would be senseless to apply the latter part of the exhortation to collectivities, local churches.
The Galatian letter is addressed to churches, yet there are individual responsibilities in the epistle that are not to be performed by the churches. Already we have observed that verse 1 is a case in point. Then throughout the passage, beginning with that verse, it is obvious that the obligations are those of the individual. We observe that through verse 8 are the expressions “thyself,” “one another ,” “a man,” “himself,” “he,” “his ,” “himself ” “each man,” and “him.” In verse 9, Paul wrote, “And let us not grow weary in well-doing.” This admonition, as well as that which follows, is the conclusion of what he has written in the preceding verses. “Let us” in both verses is a hortatory subjunctive in the plural but involves individual, not collective, action.
A hortatory subjunctive is not always confined to collective action. Commenting upon this part of speech (the hortatory subjunctive), Dana and Mantey state: “When one exhorts others to participate with him in any act or condition, the subjunctive is used in the first person plural” (A Manual Grammar of the Greek N. T., p. 171).
The hortatory subjunctive is not always in the plural. There is an exception. I recently read a statement from the pen of a brother who was trying to prove that “let us” in Galatians 6:10 necessitates general benevolence upon the part of the church. He asserted that the hortatory subjunctive is always in the plural, but that is not true according to Dana and Mantey. They state: “The first singular of the subjunctive is sometimes used in a request for permission to do a thing (cf. Matt. 7:4; Lk. 6:42)” (Ibid., p. 171). So in the former instance as stated above, the hortatory subjunctive is always in the first person plural; however, in the latter instance just quoted, it is in the first person singular. Certainly, this has no bearing on Galatians 6:10 because we all agree that the hortatory subjunctive “let us” is in the first person plural, but the correction of an inaccurate statement is in order. In an exceptional case, this subjunctive can be used in the singular.
There are several examples of the hortatory subjunctive in the Hebrew letter, some of which we shall note. “Let us fear. . .” (4:1), “Let us therefore give diligence” (v. 11), “Let us hold fast our confession” (v. 14), “Let us therefore draw near” (v. 16), “Let us draw near” (10:22), “Let us lay aside every weight” (12:1), “Let us run with patience” (12:1). These hortatory subjunctives are used in the plural and they are examples of what is taught in Galatians 6:10. The author in each of these examples is exhorting others to participate with him. It is not the church, but individuals, who are to comply.
It is absurd to assume that because an exhortation is in the first person plural that it by necessity means the church or collective action. Those who insist that it does, should consider verse 13 of Galatians 6. Referring to Judaizers, Paul wrote, “but they have a desire to have you circumcised.” The pronoun “you” (Gr. humas) is second personal accusative plural. Paul was addressing churches, but was he saying that the Judaizers would have the churches circumcised? This would be nonsense. But if the plural “let us” in verse means the church, then why would not the plural “you” in verse 13 also mean the church? In a forum discussion several years ago in which I was engaged, I heard a brother declare that he was one of the very few who does believe that the church is to be circumcised. His statement that he was one of the very few who believes this is an understatement if ever I heard one, because I do not know of anyone who shares that view. He could not have meant spiritual circumcision because Paul adds in verse 13, “that they may glory in your flesh.” It was fleshly circumcision referred to by Paul.
The same writer who asserted that “according to the laws of Greek Grammar, a hortatory subjunctive is always in the first person plural. . .” is not only inaccurate on that point but also displays some poor logic. Referring to Paul he asks, “If he wished to imply a command to each individual in Gal. 6:10, why then did he not employ a third person singular imperative instead of changing to a hortatory subjunctive?” We simply ask in reply, if Paul wished to imply a reference to individuals in Galatians 6:13, why then did he not employ a third person singular instead of the plural “you”? What proves too much proves nothing; because, if the use of “let us” in verse 10 necessitates churches, then the plural “you” in verse 13 would do the same.
We have seen that the hortatory subjunctive, when used in the plural, may apply to individuals rather than churches. This is the case in Gal. 6:10 because the context of the entire passage (vv. 1-10) is individual. It is important that we properly distinguish between the scripturally authorized work of the church and that of the individual. This distinction is germane to the issues confronting the Lord’s people.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 5, pp. 132-133
March 3, 1983