Taking a Stand
In general, human beings work in extremes. This includes our attitudes toward conflict. On the one end of the spectrum are those who love conflict. It is not necessarily because of hatred or anger attitudes. It may be because they value precision and accuracy. It may be because they lack patience. It may be because they have self-esteem issues and they build themselves up by trying to prove others wrong. You have met these people. You may be one of these people. They are always listening to conversations for the slightest mistake so they can jump in and correct the foolish person. They thrive on demonstrating how wrong the person is, not just for helping the person, but for the personal satisfaction and perhaps for those watching.
The other extreme are those who will avoid conflict at all costs. The scariest examples are what happens when people witness someone beating up another. What do they do? They pull out their phones, not to call for help, but to record the violence for social media. They don’t want to get involved. These are the people who live by the mantra, “It’s none of my business.” Sometimes it isn’t their business but other times it is. A more common example may be when we see someone we are in community with doing something that is dangerous or unhealthy. Rather than being accused of sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, we keep our mouth shut. Again, sometimes it is wise to remain silent. But the determination of whether we intervene should not be our fear of conflict.
There has to be a way of finding the happy medium. We shouldn’t fight every battle but we shouldn’t fight no battles either. Interestingly we can learn from a conflict between two of the most important figures in the early church.
Paul and Peter
Every conflict has a context and what we are going to look at has a specific context. Christianity began as Jews who followed Jesus as the Messiah. Eventually God decided that Gentiles, that is non-Jews, could be welcomed in the church. God chose Peter, one of the most important of the twelve apostles, to be the one to preach to and welcome the Gentiles. This happened but not without some pushback from some of the more conservative Jewish Christians. Despite Peter’s role in this event, Peter became known as the apostle to the Jews, while Paul became known as the apostle to the Gentiles. Still there were points of overlap in the ministry of these two giants of the church.
This brings us to Antioch. Paul was here and so was Peter, although Paul uses his name Cephas. The majority of the church would have probably have been mostly Gentile Christians. However, they knew that they were one Christ. Even though Jewish traditions put up barriers between Jews and Gentiles, especially for table fellowship, those barriers had been torn down in Christ. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could sit at the same table, enjoy a great meal and celebrate their common faith. Peter was very much a part of this, eating with his Gentile brothers and sisters.
That’s when some Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem. These were conservative believers, who probably were not as happy about the coziness between the Jews and Gentiles. We are not told whether they said anything but we are told that when they arrived, Peter began to withdraw from the Gentiles. Peter, despite being one of the top leaders in the church, reacted out of fear of what they thought. Because he was a leader, some of the other Jewish believers began to withdraw as well. Paul observed all of this. Even Paul’s beloved friend Barnabas began to stumble. He accuses them of hypocrisy. A hypocrite in the ancient world had a very specific meaning. It meant an actor. someone who put on a mask and pretend to be someone they weren’t. In this case, Peter and the other were pretending they had fully welcomed the Gentiles but their actions around the Jewish visitors revealed that to not be the case.
What was Paul to do about this? Paul makes it plain that he rebuked Peter to his face and in front of the rest of the church. That was a bold move. Did he pull him aside privately first? Was the public rebuke a final resort? We are not told. We are only told that Paul felt passionate enough about this issue that he was going to correct the top apostle in front of the rest of the church.
Confronting One Another
How does this affect us? Does this mean that we should all stand up right now and rebuke those around us who have done things that annoy us? I would suggest not.
The truth is that living in community means that we are going to be around people who do things that get on our nerves. The church is a family and families have frustrating members. That is the way life is. So this is not permission to let loose on everything that bothers us.
I would suspect that there were other things about Peter that Paul didn’t like but it was on this that he took a stand. Why was this such a big deal that Paul would do something so risky?
Paul’s mission was to preach to the Gentiles and to reassure them that they were as much a part of the people of God as anyone else. What Peter was doing, especially with his prominent role, was sabotaging that message. Peter was in danger of damaging the unity the church. The unity of people in Christ is central to the gospel. We use the phrase in weddings, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same message is important for the church. God had acted dramatically to join Gentiles and Jews in Christ and it was wrong to cause division. Paul had no choice but to act boldly in such a circumstance.
When we encounter a situation, we have to decide the proper way to proceed. I once had a guy in my youth group who was rebuked by an adult in church for wearing earrings. The adult may have disliked the earrings, but that is not a gospel issue. Maybe you don’t like tattoos or would prefer people dress a certain way. There are all sorts of issues that we may have opinions on but not all of them are deserving a confrontation.
But there are times something needs to be said. These are things that revolve around the gospel. It could be, like the case of Peter, something that threatens the unity of the church. However, I wouldn’t start with a public rebuke. The best thing is a private conversation. You may find that you don’t have all of the information. You may need to pull a leader into the conversation. When there is a need for confrontation, we need to fall on the side of grace. Be willing to take a stand but do it carefully on the things that really matter.
I will confess that I err on the side of avoiding confrontation. I don’t like having the hard conversations with my children, much less people in my congregation. But I have had to have some of those talks. I didn’t thrive on the excitement of correcting a mistake. I went into it with fear and trembling, knowing that there could be unfortunate circumstances. And yet there are certain things that we just need to take a stand on. Be very careful in what you choose to confront. Find a trusted Christian, perhaps someone apart from the situation, and seek their counsel. You may find that you just need a thicker skin and you may find it is time to take that stand.