One of Paul’s letters–Galatians–should be carefully examined, because it concerns, in part, a disagreement between two powerhouses in the early church: Paul and Peter. Paul writes in Galatians 2 that when Peter came to Antioch, Paul opposed Peter publicly “to his face.”
I was struck by this statement, because there are fewer and fewer times in today’s world when we disagree face to face. People disagree about anything–sometimes in hateful ways–online. Christians do the same. Facebook is filled daily with enough vitriol to cause one explosion after another one. It’s easy. Sometimes, we hardly know the people we say bad things to or about. Maybe we don’t know them at all. It’s much more difficult to look someone in the eye–face to face–and criticize them or disagree with them.
Paul and Peter’s disagreement wasn’t about something petty like how many people were in a crowd or whether a Christian should go to church once, twice, or three times a week. They disagreed over the issue that threatened to divide the early church: circumcision. More specifically, did Gentiles have to be circumcised to be Christians? The Jews had practiced circumcision for a very long time. Indeed, God had instituted the practice. Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. It made all the sense in the world to some Jews that for Gentiles and Jews to join together, Gentiles too had to practice this ancient rite. Jesus neither advocated nor condemned circumcision, although he and his disciples (all Jews) were circumcised.
Why did Paul take on Peter in Galatians? Because Peter had seemingly reversed course on the sanctity of circumcision and was undercutting the freedom extended to the Gentiles as Christians. Peter was accustomed to eating meals (and presumably observing the Lord’s Supper) with Gentiles. But when Peter was visited by James’ circumcision group, Peter backed off his unity with the Gentiles and was obviously influencing Galatian Christians to believe that circumcision was a necessary requirement to being a Christian.
Paul’s face to face words to Peter: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16, NIV)
We’re not told of Peter’s response, but they seem to have worked things out and agreed that circumcision was unnecessary. At the Council of Jerusalem, attended by both Peter and Paul, the topic was circumcision. Both Paul and Peter spoke at the Council, but they were in agreement. According to Peter: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them (Acts 10), just as he did to [the Jews]. He did not discriminate between us and them. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus, that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:8-11)
Then, the Council fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describe their work among the Gentiles in the name of Christ. And then, James, the apparent leader of the circumcision group, said: “It is my judgment…that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
I have to believe agreement was reached because there was a face to face discussion. To paraphrase James, it is my judgment that there would be more agreement among Christians today if we talked to each other face to face. That’s asking a lot this day and time. Technology leads us around like mindless robots.
We should be led by the Holy Spirit into the way of God’s grace, which makes it easy for all of us to turn to God and follow Christ Jesus.