11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Conformity is a common unspoken demand of any society. When someone joins a community that community has a defining set of social norms. Sometimes those norms are explained and clearly articulated. More often those expectations are unspoken and are not so clearly defined. In order to truly integrate into the community, the adherent must submit to these demands in order to be considered a legitimate member.
As in any group, Christianity demands a conformity of sorts. The problem is that sin often corrupts our ability to discern the difference between what Christ demands and what we demand. As a result of sin, we demand that people conform to us. We have an unwritten expectation that people who come to share in Christ must behave and look as we do. They must submit to the same societal norms in which we have been immersed. When we insist on such an ethnocentric legalistic expression of Christianity, we miss the Gospel. The Gospel reaches across cultural and societal norms to establish life through the pursuit of God and His life! Indeed, Jesus does not require the Pharisees to surrender their religious customs of hand and foot washing when he goes to have a meal with them. Neither does Jesus require his fishing buddies and tax collecting friends behave as the Pharisees. He opens His arms to both groups and rescues any who will believe. He lays no additional law upon His followers.
In obedience to the Gospel, the early church opened her arms to anyone who would trust in Christ for righteousness. Peter and the disciples spoke a variety of tongues at Pentecost. They did not demand everyone learn Hebrew. God showed Peter that the Gentile, Cornelius, was admitted to the Kingdom, giving Peter a vision that defied the dietary restrictions of the Jew. He did not demand Cornelius become a Jew. Further, the model we have from Paul and the apostles at the Jerusalem counsel is one of reasoning together to understand overt Scriptural commands and exercising freedom where Scripture is silent.
Still, Peter and the apostles were just men and, even they, fall to hypocrisy at times. When Peter was worshiping with the gentile brothers at Antioch, there came a moment of such weakness. The “Circumcision party” came to join in the worship and Paul witnessed the shaming of the gospel message. Peter, desiring to be approved by these brothers, withdrew from the gentile believers.
Why did Peter withdraw? It is not common to see this particular apostle seek to accommodate the whims of men. He has a reputation as headstrong and often taking the leadership role. Perhaps Peter thought he could win over these Jews to the Gospel by showing himself to be disciplined in religious affection as they. Perhaps he was simply afraid that he would lose his prestige among the Jews, maybe even rationalizing that a loss of prestige for him would be the same as a loss for the gospel. Whatever his reasoning, Peter shows favoritism and Paul addresses him directly.
Paul’s response to Peter seems brazen and very confrontational. Indeed, Paul addresses Peter “to his face,” but he does so only because “he stood condemned!” Paul’s response to Peter was bold and forward for three obvious reasons. First, Peter was obviously in contradiction to the gospel and was in danger of God’s discipline. Paul states that Peter “stood condemned.” In saying this, Paul is framing the scene as one in which Peter is in danger of God’s intervention. He is guilty of wrongdoing and it is an act of mercy to confront him. Confronting Peter as an errant brother spares him from being disciplined as a disobedient son. Second, Peter was leading others away from gospel community. Gospel community includes ALL tribes, tongues, and nations. It is not restricted to Jewish people alone but includes gentiles as well. When Peter showed favoritism to the Jewish brothers, he was acting in contradiction to the gospel message itself. So Paul publically addressed Peter in an effort to clarify and defend the gospel witness as he states, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Third, Paul is concerned with defending the reputation of his brothers in Christ. When Paul saw that Peter and the brothers were living in hypocrisy, he recognized a need to preserve them through a minor error that could have massive implications. Hypocrisy is a dangerous poison that can damage the testimony of even the most devout believer.
Through Paul’s example, we can see the proper way to confront one another in gospel community. As we strive to walk in gospel obedience together we must first check our motives. Paul confronts Peter because of a gospel motivation. He does not desire power, he seeks to honor the gospel and preserve his brother’s integrity. We must consider the implications of what is being confronted. Paul addresses Peter publically because multiple people were actually being addressed. He recognized that his true target was a large group of believing brothers who needed to be corrected. Finally, when we approach each other we must strive to pose the question, and not simply demand correction. Questions allow for introspection and self-examination. Paul challenges Peter and poses the question, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” His point is well made. Yet, in posing it as a question he leaves room for rebuttal. Pose your confrontation in the form of a question and you are offering grace to the person you are challenging.
Oh, that we would always confront one another with such grace!