NASHVILLE—This blog is the final installment of an impromptu series on ethnic diversity and racial reconciliation in the Church. The first blog was inspired by a trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa; the second blog was inspired by a Sunday worship service at Bethel in Nashville; and this final blog is inspired by an argument between Paul and Peter in first-century Antioch. That apostolic argument led to a very public apostolic rebuke.
We read about this confrontation and rebuke in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, a city in modern-day Turkey. But first, a little background to help us understand why the rebuke was necessary.
In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul pleads with the church to hold on to the gospel. Before describing the real gospel, he mentions four false versions of the gospel that had infiltrated the church: a different gospel (verse 6), a distorted gospel (verses 7), a contrary gospel (verses 8, 9), and man’s gospel (verse 11). Unfortunately all four of these “gospels” are still being preached in the church today.
After exposing these four false gospels, Paul turned his attention to the true gospel and its implications on race relations in the church.
Despite the teaching of some legalistic Jewish believers, Paul wanted to make it clear that Gentile believers did not have to become Jews (i.e. be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws) in order to follow Jesus. In short, Gentiles and Jews are saved by grace alone, not by following religious traditions.
After a long discussion about the gospel and its implications for Gentile believers, Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter:
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).
Here’s my summary of the situation. When Peter visited the church in Antioch—the first church in the New Testament that had a significant number of non-Jews—he hung out with Gentiles and even ate with them, something a good Jew would never do. But when Peter’s Jewish friends from Jerusalem came to visit, he suddenly stopped eating with the Gentile believers and reverted to the old mode of segregation.
Paul was deeply troubled by this behavior, twice calling it hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13).
First, Paul did not remain silent. And he did not talk about Peter behind his back. He “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Much more could be said here, but the fact is, there are some issues that demand confrontation. This is one of them.
Second, Paul treated racial reconciliation as a gospel issue. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas…” (Galatians 2:14). Paul did not treat the ethnic and cultural divisions in the church at Antioch as a minor issue. He did not treat it as a side issue. He did not treat is as a political, cultural, social, or economic issue, even though he could have. He treated it as a gospel issue. And gospel issues are always big issues.
Even though there was a history of political, cultural, social, and economic alienation that fed into and reinforced ethnic divisions between Jews and Gentiles, Paul chose to go straight to the heart of the issue—the gospel.
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26).
For Paul, it was simple. Though there was a long history of division between Jews and Gentiles, the gospel had changed everything. In Christ, we have all been adopted into the family of God—and family members eat together.