What characterized the opponents? First, verse 4 tells us they were conceited. They felt that they had special knowledge of God, better knowledge than the apostle had. In fact, they did not, and the arrogant air about them betrayed their unregenerate nature; gentleness, a quality of true spirituality in the Pastorals (6:11; 2 Tim 2:25; compare 2 Cor 10:1), was totally absent.
Second, they were ignorant. Paul's phrase (literally, "understanding or knowing nothing") recalls the tone of 1:7. These teachers were not simply misguided, they were totally ignorant. This was apparent as their doctrine was measured against the apostle's and as their conduct was measured against true godliness. Moreover, from the context it seems that this condition was a culpable one, for it came about as the result of decisions made about the apostolic gospel which they knew (compare 1:13).
Third, they took perverse pleasure in controversy and quarreling. This so marked their behavior that Paul describes them as "sick with" (having an unhealthy interest in) disputes. As this dangerous sickness spreads, it produces poisons that destroy relationships and church unity.
Paul lists several. Envy is a discontented thirst for advantage and position that breeds distrust. In Galatians 5:21 it stands in opposition to the joy and peace that the Spirit produces. Strife refers to an atmosphere of constant struggle. Malicious talk and evil suspicions, rumor-spreading and distrust, are the offspring of envy and strife. This list closes in verse 5 with the graphic summary constant friction.
Ultimately, the disease spread by the heretics would result in a kind of spiritual mental illness. Paul makes the same connection in verse 5 between corrupt behavior and rejection of God that he did in Romans 1. There, rejection of the knowledge of God is seen to spawn a corrupt life (Rom 1:28-32). Here, the corrupt mind and being robbed of the truth amount to the same thing. The heretics could no longer apprehend God's truth because their mind, that organ of rational discernment, had been corrupted by false teaching (2 Tim 3:8; Tit 1:15).
It is little wonder, then, that missionaries of the cults are so resistant to the gospel and so easily angered in theological discussions. Corrupt minds and argumentative dispositions go hand in hand with opposition to the gospel.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.