Conflict Resolution in the Shadow of the Cross (Part 6)


Galatians 2

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?”

I once attended a church business meeting when I was a college student in which tempers flared over the question of whether or not to adopt the proposed budget. I remember being amazed and uncomfortable when an elderly man who was opposing the budget turned on the elderly lady who was sitting at the organ bench and berated her for a comment she had made.

In another and later instance, I presided over a business meeting in which one member turned on another church member and called him out for his bad attitude after the first had made a negative comment (one of many, as I recall).

Both of these were awkward moments. As I look back on them I felt, perhaps, that one of them was appropriate and one was inappropriate. But even as I ponder these situations I am uneasy. It raises an interesting and important question: does conflict resolution in the shadow of the cross ever call for public confrontation in the body of Christ?

Certainly we would want to say that public confrontation, ideally, should never happen and that if it happens it is usually wrong, given the carelessness with which human beings tend to handle such. Usually it is the case that public confrontation results from public outbursts of temper. But is that always the case and is it always wrong? After all of these careful considerations concerning conflict resolution we have looked at through this journey, we must now ask whether or not there is ever a time for public correction?

In Galatians 2, Paul recounts an instance in which he publicly rebuked Peter for something that Peter did. It is an astonishing passage! David Platt and Tony Merida call this text “one of the most dramatic and tense episodes in all of the New Testament.”[1] It is so surprising and uncomfortable that some interpreters over the years could not bring themselves to believe that it even really happened! “Some early church leaders (Origen, Chrysostom and Jerome) could not believe that this conflict really occurred,” writes G. Walter Hansen, “They explained that Paul and Peter must have staged the conflict to illustrate the issue at stake.”[2]

Well our text certainly does not sound like it was staged. We can almost certainly reject that notion outright. No, what Paul says happened actually happened. Paul publicly rebuked Peter. Why? And should this ever occur today?

  1. When a person openly condemns himself or herself through public sin.

We begin with Paul’s straightforward account of the events that led to the public rebuke.

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.

Let us try to get our heads around what is happening here. To begin, we must understand that the great tension point in the life of the early church was the relationship between Jewish followers of Jesus and non-Jewish or Gentile followers of Jesus. This tension arose primarily because of Jewish conceptions of kosher food laws, of cleanliness, and of the need for them to be separate from Gentiles and their ways of life.

Imagine, for instance, being raised as a Jew at this time (or an orthodox Jew today). You have been taught your whole life that, say, pork and other foods are unclean. Contact with these things render you unclean. And imagine being taught that such foods were eaten by Gentiles because Gentiles were themselves unclean. Then imagine the added weight of knowing that Gentiles rejected and did not undergo the great physical act and sign of covenant-belonging: circumcision. Gentiles were therefore uncircumcised, unclean, and far from God! All of this is summed up nicely in a story you would have heard from your youth, the story of David and Goliath, and particularly in David’s question regarding Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:26, “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” There it is! Goliath was (1) uncircumcised, (2) a Gentile, and (3) an opponent of Israel’s God. This sums up nicely the common Jewish perception of Gentiles.

So imagine that you have been raised in this belief and then you encounter Jesus. You encounter Jesus and are born again. Suddenly you find yourself as part of a new community comprised of other followers of Jesus. This new community is called the church. But there is a problem: the other followers of Jesus that make up the church include Gentiles! Suddenly you are asked to be ok with these people that you have seen as unclean your whole life. More than that: you are asked to call them brothers and sisters and to do life with them. And part of doing life, as we know, is eating together!

We must be sympathetic at this point. Asking a Jewish convert to the way of Jesus to suddenly be comfortable sitting at a table with Gentiles and sharing a meal, even if the convert was himself or herself still keeping kosher, was asking a lot! But this was the situation of the early church, and Jewish believers had a journey to undertake to become comfortable with this.

For instance, Acts takes a great deal of space to show us Peter’s journey in becoming comfortable with this. In Acts 10 we read the account of the God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius of Caesarea, and of God answering his prayers. God told Cornelius to send men to Joppa to get Peter and bring him back to Caesarea so that Peter could preach the gospel to the Cornelius and the other Gentiles in his house and community. Peter, meanwhile, in Joppa, was having his famous vision of the sheet lowered to him on which were all manner of animals the Jews consider unclean accompanied by the voice of God telling him to take up and eat. After Peter’s protests that he, a faithful Jew, had never eaten anything unclean,  God said to him in response, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (v.15).

This is key: God was doing more than simply changing Peter’s mind about food. He was changing Peter’s mind about how he viewed people. God was saying to Peter that through Christ everything has now changed and Jews and Gentiles may now openly see themselves as in the same family. The foundations for this were already there in the Old Testament, of course (i.e., the book of Jonah), and this should not have been a shocking notion. But it was shocking in the context of what Judaism had become and in light of Jewish exclusivism.

Back to the story: the men from Cornelius arrive in Joppa. Peter goes with them to the home of Cornelius. Then Peter explains his vision of the sheet and the animals to the astonished Gentiles with this amazing comment:

34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

The Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles, Peter has them baptized, then he stays and has fellowship with them. In this, the great barrier between the Jews and Gentiles was overcome and it was through Peter that God worked this great work.

After this, in Acts 11, we read of the Jewish believers’ struggle to understand this change in Peter. Tellingly, they confront Peter about the rumors they had heard that he was actually eating with the Gentiles. Peter’s response was telling:

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order…

Peter then tells them everything that had happened with him and the vision and Cornelius and meeting the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit falling and their baptisms. Peter concluded that sermon to the Jewish believers like this:

17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

So here is the background of the conflict in Galatians 2. Peter, a Jewish follower of Jesus, one of the great leaders of the early church, and a member of the “inner three” disciples, had been led by God into a new understanding of what was “clean” and “unclean.” In the process, his mind and heart was opened to understand that he dare not call the blood-bought Gentile followers of Jesus unclean. He came to see that they were truly his brothers and sisters through the cross of Christ in as real a way as his fellow Jews were.

Peter, in other words, had seen the truth. He could now sit and eat with Gentiles! And, in Acts 10, he did! He was so clear on the matter that when he was confronted about his eating with Gentiles by the Jewish believers in Acts 11, he gave a powerful defense of doing so and one that was buttressed by his own personal testimony and experiences.

Now, with that in mind, hear again our text from Galatians 2 and you will begin to see why what Peter did was so outrageous.

11 But when Cephas [Peter] 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.

Peter had come to Antioch, one of the great early churches. It was a church in which there was a sizeable number of Gentile Christians. And, true to his convictions and new understanding of what Christ Jesus was doing in and through his church, Peter was eating meals with the Gentile followers of Jesus, as well he should. Paul was there and so was Barnabas. Their fellowship around the table with these other followers of Jesus, Jew and Gentile alike, was powerful and beautiful and pure and good.

But then a group came “from James,” that is, from the mother church in Jerusalem and from James, its leader. There has been much debate over the nature of this group and their intent. For our purposes, however, I will simply say that it seems to me that this group was (1) a group of Christians, (2) a group of Jewish Christians, (3) a group of conservative Jewish Christians who held strictly to customs of Jews while yet being followers of Jesus,  and (4) a group of conservative Jewish Christians who held strictly to the customs of Jews while yet being followers of Jesus, and who would have taken offense at seeing Peter eat a meal at a table with Gentile followers of Jesus.

Some have theorized that this group from James were coming to tell Peter that his actions were making life hard on the Jewish believers in Jerusalem by angering the unbelieving Jews who were pointing to Peter’s behavior as an example of (to them) the corrupting and liberalizing influence of Christianity. In this theory, Peter’s separating himself from the Gentile believers was actually an act of compassion and concern for his kinsmen in Jerusalem and not an act of rank, hypocritical self-preservation. While this theory cannot be ruled out, it should be noted that (1) there is nothing in the text itself to suggest this was the case in this particular instance and (2) Paul’s incensed response to Peter would suggest that he saw no nobility in the action whatsoever. On the contrary, in the words of peter Oakes, “Paul saw Peter’s actions as inherently condemning him in the court of all reasonable public opinion, in particular on the grounds of hypocrisy.”[3]

Paul states the reason for his public rebuke clearly enough:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 

Peter, in other words, knew better. It is not as if Peter sinned in ignorance. Whatever his motives, Peter’s actions were (1) public, (2) hypocritical, and, therefore, (3) self-condemning. This establishes the first principle for public confrontation. Public confrontation and correction may be necessary when a person openly condemns himself or herself through public sin.

There are some actions that require public censure because of their public display of self-condemnation. Peter’s actions fell into this sphere. It is possible for the same to happen today.

Paul was not averse to public confrontation when it was necessary. We read in 1 Timothy 5, for instance:

19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

Again, this should be very rare and, again, this should involve, in most cases, public acts of self-condemnation. Notice in 1 Timothy 5 Paul is speaking of elders, leaders in the church, those, in other words, that should know better. It is true, of course, that this process can be applied to any members if necessary. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 18:15-20, but there too the principle applies: the offense has reached a certain point, a certain level of public self-condemnation that demands a public response.

  1. When a person’s public sin corrupts those around them.

Public confrontation is also necessary when a person’s public sin corrupts those around them. We see this happening specifically in our text:

13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

Do you see? Peter’s separation of himself from the Gentile believers corrupted the fellowship of the church and “led astray” both “the rest of the Jews” and “even Barnabas,” who helped found the church of Antioch! It is astonishing how sin committed by leaders can lead astray and shipwreck the faith and fellowship of whole churches. Peter acted hypocritically, so the other Jewish believers acted hypocritically with him. So is the power of leadership for good or for ill. For this reason, in James 3, James writes:

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

There is a great responsibility that comes with leadership, whether in the formal ministry or in lay leadership. To be a leader is to have great potential to either build up or tear down the faith of those in the church. We often say today, “Do not follow a preacher. Follow Jesus! Preachers will let you down. Jesus never will.” That is true, of course, and important to understand. Even so, scripture sees leadership and its potential for good or ill as so important that we cannot let ourselves off the hook with this. It is God who calls, equips, and places leaders where He wants them.

Many a person’s faith has been wounded or shipwrecked by bad leaders, by hypocritical leaders. We might say, “Well that should not be!” But the fact remains that the lives of leaders do matter.

In his book The Fire is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola writes of the late civil rights leader James Baldwin’s ultimate rejection of Christianity.

Baldwin’s exit from the church will be discussed in great detail later in this book, but for now suffice it to say that the seeds of doubt were planted by a broadening of his intellectual horizons and the hypocritical deeds of the “true believers” he saw around him. Though not as sudden as the conversion experience that drew him into the church, Baldwin’s conversion experience out of the church was just as profound. The “fortress” of his faith, he wrote later, had been “pulverized.”[4]

This is heartbreaking. The fortress of his faith was “pulverized” by the hypocritical deeds of “true believers.”

There is one thing worse than the awkwardness of public confrontation over public scandal and hypocrisy, and that is the wreckage that occurs when nobody confronts it at all. When should public confrontation happen? It should happen when an action has the potential to corrupt the faith and lives of others if it is not publicly addressed. This will be, we pray, rare, but it will, at times, be necessary.

Think of what would have happened had Paul not confronted Peter. The fellowship of the church would have remained divided. The church would have functionally become two churches: one Jewish and one Gentile. The mission of the church would have been radically compromised and muddled and confused. Legalism would have gained a foothold in the life of the church and the silence of those who knew better would have given it credence and legitimacy. Gentile believers would have become confused on the gospel. Gentile believers would have felt like second-class citizens. Jewish believers would have become confused on the gospel. Jewish believers would have felt like first-class citizens. The work of the cross would have been obscured beneath a haze of partiality and faulty assumptions. Secondary issues would have become primary issues and primary issues would have become secondary. Etc. etc. etc.

There is a time for public confrontation, and it is when the failure to do so results in a shipwrecking of the faith and lives of others.

  1. When a person’s public sin is not in step with the gospel.

The clearest time for public confrontation, however, is when a believer’s public actions show them to not be “in step with the truth of the gospel.”

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?”

This is the phrase Paul used: “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” This tells us that at its foundation Paul’s rebuke was not primarily sociological or even ecclesiological, it was theological. Paul understood, and Peter should have, that the gospel carries with it very clear social implications. This is unavoidable. And one of the most obvious implications of the gospel is that we must not show partiality to some followers of Jesus over others. This is because the blood of Christ does not have a class structure or an order of importance. “We all come as beggars to the cross,” as one earlier believer said. “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” said another. It is therefore in step with the gospel to treat all followers of Jesus the same, as brothers and sisters in a common family and household. It is in step with the gospel to celebrate the gift of salvation that all who have come to Christ have.

It is out of step with the gospel to break fellowship with fellow believers over issues not related to grave sin. It is out of step with the gospel to shame and embarrass one another. It is out of step with the gospel to elevate tradition above truth. It is out of step with the gospel to diminish another’s sense of dignity and value in the kingdom in order to save your own hide. It is out of step with the gospel to refuse to eat with fellow followers of Jesus because by so doing you might offend your legalistic friends.

Peter, Paul says, and all who followed him in this shameful behavior, was “not in step with the truth of the gospel.” As a result, the very clarity of the gospel was at stake! And if the church loses the gospel, it has lost that which makes it the church in the first place!

Better the awkwardness of public rebuke than allowing our silence to obscure the gospel message! Better to cringe at an uncomfortable moment than to risk losing the most precious thing we have: the gospel!

Peter publicly contradicted the gospel and Paul publicly called him out on it. So must we if, God forbid, such a thing happens in our midst. The church is to proclaim and steward the gospel, not sit idly by while it is mocked by heresy or hypocrisy. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).’’

And what was the result of this public censure? Did it destroy Peter and Paul’s relationship? To read Peter’s words after the event it certainly would not seem so. Peter wrote this in 2 Peter 3:

15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Notice that Peter refers to Paul as “our beloved brother” and as possessing “wisdom.” The highest compliment of all, however, is that Peter refers to Paul’s writings as “scripture.” That is, Peter saw Paul as somebody in and through whom God was at work for the upbuilding of the church.

And what does that tell us? It tells us that even in the rare and unfortunate instance in which public conflict is necessary, God can get glory in and through it and the church can ultimately be strengthened if it is conducted in the shadow of the cross. Peter was in the wrong and he obviously came to see and understand that. Therefore, this conflict was as necessary (given Peter’s actions) as silence (on the part of Paul) would have been tragic.

Here again we see that conflict is a mission field, even public conflict when it is legitimate and necessary. Let us seek the wisdom of God for the glory of His name and the furtherance of the gospel in this as in all other areas of Christian interaction.


[1] Platt, David; Merida,Tony. Exalting Jesus in Galatians (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (p. 41). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] G. Walter Hansen, Galatians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p.61.

[3] Peter Oakes, Galatians. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), Google Books search.

[4] Buccola, Nicholas. The Fire Is upon Us (p. 19). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


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