Galatians 2:11-13, “But when Cephas 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.”
In the span of a few short verses the apostle Paul lays out his complaint against Peter—the man had compromised the gospel by refusing to eat with Gentiles. The gospel was of primary importance to Paul, to the extent that he was willing to risk alienating his friend Peter by bringing public shame to him. I think these few verses have a lot to say to Christians today, particularly as we spar with one another in the digital world.
First, we see that Paul was primarily concerned with the gospel. Peter had acted hypocritically by refusing to eat with Gentiles. That is, he would not share a meal with people who had been made right with God through Christ because eating with those people would make him “unclean” by the Jewish standards of his day. Peter’s actions indicated that these people, for whom Christ had died, remained in their sin. Thus, Peter was denying the power of the gospel to save all sinners, including those who were once outside the covenant community. He behaving as Jonah had behaved so many centuries earlier when he longed to die rather than see God forgive Gentiles. Woe to us today if we follow Peter’s example in choosing to disassociate from people for whom Christ died!
Second, this passage shows us that not all conflict is bad. Here, it is bad in the sense that Peter and those who followed him have done something wrong. However, it is good in the sense that Paul “opposed him to his face” for his gospel hypocrisy. This stands as an encouragement to us when we see our brothers and sisters compromise on the gospel. It is good and right to oppose them when they “st[and] condemned” for compromising on the gospel’s inclusion of all ethnicities, genders, and races. Christ is clear that he came to save people without distinction as to their social status, gender, and/or ethnicity. Thus, we do well to hold that same standard both for ourselves and for those we love, as Paul clearly loved Peter.
Third, I must reiterate my first point—Paul opposed Peter because of a first-order theological issue that challenged the gospel itself. May we show grace in areas of theological dispute that are unclear. I know not everyone will agree with me on what I consider second- and third-order theological issues, so I will not offer them up here as if I am the sole arbiter of what counts as a primary theological issue. However, I can say confidently that, for example, the Nicene Creed has been affirmed by Christians for centuries as a summation of Christian teaching that matters most. We do well to use it, and perhaps other creeds, as a way to help us distinguish what are truly gospel issues and what are not. For example, I’m a Southern Baptist, so the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is very important to me (though it is not a creed). That said, I am unwilling to break fellowship with a brother or sister who disagrees with me on the mode of baptism.
Finally—and this intertwines with my other three points—as we engage believers in the digital world, where it is quite easy to spew vitriol over minor differences, let’s make sure that we major on the majors and minor on the minors. It really is okay that not every believer agrees with us on every theological issue. And it really is a problem when the gospel is compromised. Let’s just make sure that our brother or sister has truly compromised the gospel before we oppose them to their face.
Russell L. Meek (PhD Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a speaker, writer, and professor who specializes in the Old Testament and its intersection with the Christian life. You can visit him online at RussMeek.com.