But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned…But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all… Galatians 2:11,14
Seems there is a lot of disagreement among Christians these days. Have you noticed? There are probably a lot of reasons for it…emotional, political, even spiritual. But, for our purposes here today, those reasons are not what matters. Those are for another post on another day. I want to talk here about how we manage that disagreement, especially in this day of social media. When a Christian leader does something or says something that we disagree with, how do we handle that? What should be our priorities?
From Rick Warren to Rob Bell to John Piper to Mark Driscoll to Tony Campolo to Franklin Graham, we are in a season (dare I say, an era?) of Christian thought leaders who do or say something with which you or I may disagree. Strongly. And when that happens, the world (represented first and foremost by the media) sits back and observes how we handle that disagreement. And then they (the media) report what they see and hear in our responses to one another. Given how our very testimony to a watching world hangs on how we handle these relationships and these responses (which, by the way, is precisely why Jesus prayed for our “oneness” in John 17…”so that the world might know…”) it seems to me we must be extremely prayerful and careful to use a process which honors the Lord, i.e., a process endorsed by scripture.
In the early church, Peter (aka Cephas) behaved wrongly, showing some racial prejudice on his part. Paul found it necessary to confront that wrong …
When it comes to church, how careful are you about whom you are seen with? More importantly, when it comes to church, how careful do you think you should be about with whom you are seen?
I’ve been asking myself that question as I meditated recently on Galatians 2:11-21, the story about Paul confronting Peter because Peter seemed too concerned with what his Jewish brothers from Jerusalem might think about his hanging around with Gentiles in Antioch. Here is how Paul puts it in Galatians 2:12: Before certain men came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
At first blush I didn’t see this as a major problem worth addressing in my church, nor in any other reasonably healthy church. But the more I think about it, the more I tend to believe that we in the American church really do struggle with this (actually I suspect that the church globally struggles with it, but I don’t want to point fingers at my international friends without much more experience than what I have). I believe too many of us come to church as if it were some kind of country club, there for our convenience and happiness. In fact, if it doesn’t make us happy, we might just go to some other church to find happiness. Because that is what we think church is there for…our comfort and happiness.
And let’s be honest, there are a lot of people out there who, by their very presence, make some of us feel unhappy and uncomfortable. They are different or dirty or smell funny or talk funny or they think …
On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. Galatians 2:7-8
Most of us approach a jigsaw puzzle (or any other problem) the same way, whether we know it or not. We start with what we absolutely know to be true. When chaos and confusion abound and there is so much we do NOT know, we all have an intuitive notion to go back to what we know and then slowly work forward from there. In the case of the traditional jigsaw puzzle, it is the corner pieces. They are what we know, they define the parameters of the puzzle. Whatever else comes along, we know that the answer lies within the four corners of the puzzle.
Finding solutions to conflict within the church, even interpersonal conflict, works the same way. We always start with what we know: what we know about God, what we know about God’s Word, and what we know about what God is doing.
I don’t think the conflict in the early church was any small thing. I think the prejudices and potential doctrinal conflict between Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and Peter’s ministry to the Jews was every bit as dangerous and troubling as our conflicts today. It had a cultural (racial) element, a doctrinal element (e.g., circumcision) and even a leadership style element (Peter was not the only leader with whom Paul’s temperament clashed). Reading Acts 15 and Galatians 2 and other similar accounts, you see that the potential for devastating conflict …