When public opposition is necessary: Galatians 2:11-14

May 15, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

How did the early church deal with serious disputes and divisions over what Christians should believe and how they should act? The letter to the Galatians gives us some principles.

In Galatians 2:11 Paul tells his readers “When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned”.

Strong words! The reason for Paul and Peter’s clash was the controversy at the time over interracial Christian unity. Is it optional, and can be dispensed with for the sake of the Gospel, or is it an essential part of the Gospel? This was a question faced by churches in South Africa during the apartheid era, and earlier by German churches in the 1930’s; it’s still an issue in some countries today.

Behind the specific question faced by Paul and Peter was a more general principle, relevant for any issue today: If clear biblical teaching appears to go against deeply held beliefs of the contemporary culture , can we dispense with it for the sake of the gospel, or is it an essential part of the gospel?

Some background to the debate in Galatians: Peter and Paul were both Jews who used to believe that the Kingdom of God was exclusive to Jewish people. The question the disciples asked on the first Ascension Day reflects this understanding: “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

But Jesus said that God’s vision is wider: “you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Initially the apostles struggled to understand this, even though it should have been clear from their own Scriptures, for example the call to Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the story of Jonah, the prophecies of Isaiah (eg 49:6). Acts 10 tells us how Peter had his vision of God telling him to eat unclean meat. He went to the house of Cornelius the Roman, who was converted and filled with the Spirit along with his household. The Gospel then exploded in the Gentile world, beginning with the multicultural church in Antioch, then with Paul’s missionary journeys.

The apostles had accepted that God had opened the door of salvation to Gentiles, through Christ, and they rejoiced at this (11:18). But now in Galatians Paul tells of how he had to publicly oppose Peter, who had retreated from association with Gentiles. Why?

The text doesn’t tell us, but it seems likely that at the time, Jewish nationalism was growing, partly because of the increasingly oppressive Roman imperial state. The strictly observant Jews were stressing the need for all Jews to follow the outward signs of obedience to the law, like circumcision, and to disassociate from Gentiles.

This put Jewish Christians in a very difficult position. They wanted to share the Gospel with their Jewish family and friends, and so wanted to be on good terms with them. They were already regarded with suspicion because of turning to Christ. If they socialized with Gentiles that would be seen as the last straw. So they started to advise Jewish Christians in the communities around the Mediterranean to pull back from fellowship with Gentile Christians. That’s what Peter was doing. He and his fellow apostles just thought it would be best for the sake of mission to the Jews, if they kept Jewish and Gentile Christians separate.

But for Paul, this was a denial of the Gospel on at least two levels.

Firstly, it could send the message that salvation, being reconciled to God and in receipt of his blessing, depended on following ritual Jewish laws and customs. In fact although Peter was not saying this, there were some ‘Judaisers’ who were, and Paul deals with this extensively in Galatians. An essential part of the gospel message is that our relationship with God is by grace, through faith in Christ, not by being part of a certain group and obeying certain rules.

Secondly, it divided the church along racial lines. Paul does not deal with this in Galatians but he does in Ephesians, where he makes clear that the cross abolishes racial divisions for those who believes, and unites Christians from all races in a single body. Jesus and his death “destroys the barrier” between Jew and gentile (Eph 2:14), and other divisions of race. This is not an add-on: it is central to the gospel message, as Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, Tutu and others have preached.

Paul is so concerned about this that he publicly opposed another apostle and put energy into ensuring that the correct biblical understanding of the gospel was believed and put into practice, not a false one which would undermine the church. He uses strong language: “if anyone is preaching another gospel, let him be under God’s curse!” (1:9)

What about today?

Now today, our issues are very different from those that Paul and Peter were facing. But the principles are the same. Like the Jewish and Gentile Christians of those days, as Christians we have also embraced the radical idea that truth about God, ourselves, how we should live is not found in the thinking of contemporary culture which most people seem to follow, but in the word of God, and relationship with Jesus Christ.

Like some Jewish and Gentile Christians of those days, we are tempted to think that in order to reach our non-Christian friends and neighbours and society with the gospel, and avoid persecution by them, we have to accept some of their ideas so as not to cause offence, and remain respectable. But in doing so, we actually deny the gospel!

So for example some church leaders are saying we have to accept the majority views in society on sex, gender and marriage, otherwise people outside the church won’t understand us, they will think we hate them; they will not listen to us and persecute us. The Bishops of Lichfield Diocese are the latest to say this, in a recent Ad Clerum. But Galatians warns us to be careful, in our compassion for individuals and desire to see churches grow, not to alter essential aspects of the gospel, for example by re-writing what the Bible and Christian tradition teaches about how we are created, or deceiving people by pretending that God approves of behaviours which actually require repentance.

There will be two objections to this.

Firstly, can’t we apply “Jew and Gentile” in New Testament times to “straight and LGBT” today? Isn’t Paul talking about an “inclusive” church?

The answer to this is yes and no! The church is diverse and inclusive, in that as Peter said, “God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34). People from every race, tribe and tongue are included in God’s kingdom, when they turn away from their idols and sins, and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

There is no evidence that those who identify as LGBT are racially or genetically different from anyone else: people are not ‘born gay’ as they are born Jewish or non-Jewish. But however deeply felt a person’s self-identification or tribal identity, we are all called to respond to the grace of God in the same way, by gratefully turning away from sin (whether racism, greed or immorality) and recognizing Christ as Lord. “Come in, whoever you are” is part of the gospel message; “you don’t need to repent and believe” is not.

Secondly, can’t we just ‘agree to disagree’? Can’t we stay in the same church, recognizing that others have different views? Well of course, if our disagreements are caused by personality clashes, factions, views on strategy or other secondary issues, then we must make every effort to keep united, as long as we share the same fundamental beliefs based on God’s word.

But there are times when we can’t take this approach – when truth and salvation are at stake. When as Paul says in Gal 2:14 that others “are not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”. For him, the denial of racial equality and the substitution of rituals for God’s grace was so important that he opposed it and separated himself from those who promoted it.

Paul did not believe that the way to reach Jews with the gospel is to deny uncomfortable aspects of the message to make it more acceptable. Just as in his letters to the Corinthians, he did not teach that the way to reach unbelieving Gentiles is to downplay or alter the bible’s teaching on worship of idols and sexual immorality. And so today, the way to reach different groups with the Gospel is not by accepting their worldviews to show how welcoming and tolerant we are.

Rather, it seems that following the example of Paul and the Lord Jesus himself, we need at times to oppose fellow believers when there are mutually incompatible views on central truths of the gospel, sometimes to their face, and sometimes separation and differentiation is needed in an attitude of love and for the sake of the gospel.

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