The Wiles of Works Righteousness (2/4)
By Matthew Claridge–
(For the other parts in this series: Part 1)
Justification by Good intentions
The “Judaizers” are not the only camp Paul takes issue with in Galatians. He also takes Peter, the chief apostle, to task (2.11ff). On the surface, Peter’s hypocrisy and compromise of the gospel is straightforward. As soon as “men from James” arrive, Peter conscientiously separates himself from the Gentiles in attendance. The implication, as Paul drives home, is that the Gentiles are “second-class” Christians to whom Peter graces with his presence whenever he descends from his “first-class” Jewish perch. Taken in the worst possible sense, Peter comes across as a bumbling Charlie Brown, a wishy-washy waif of a theologian. Again, however, this is too simplistic a portrait of Peter’s lurch toward works righteousness.
Untangling the exact scenario of events in Gal. 2.12 is no easy task. The most important question revolves around whether “those from James” are identical with “those of the circumcision” in the latter part of the verse. Nothing can be clearly proved from the syntax. We’ll have look further afield to draw a conclusion.
If the two groups are identical, then Paul is essentially identifying James and his leadership team with the “Judaizers” who want to enforce circumcision. In which case, Peter separates himself from the Gentiles either because he’s afraid of James or because he’s more concerned to please James (ultimately, indistinguishable). In fact, in such a scenario, Peter’s compromise would be of the worst possible sort—a sniveling, servile submission to the jackboot of James with absolutely no regard for theological principle at all. Surely, Peter is not that spineless nor James that sinister. A number of considerations suggest a different picture.
First, if James had truly endorsed the Judaizers’ position it would utterly contradict everything he previously acknowledged in Acts 11.18 and would soon argue for in Acts 15.13ff. Second, Paul does not critique James’ position, which clearly would be the greater evil, but only focuses on Peter. This at least implies that James involvement in this situation may not be as tainted as we might think. Third, if the issue is merely one of inner circle power politics, it is surely doubtful that Peter, the leader of the pack, would suck up to James who wasn’t even a member of the original Twelve. Fourth, from everything we can tell, Peter never wavered in his conviction that the food laws had been set aside in the aftermath of the episode with Cornelius (Acts 11.11-18; 15.7-11). So what then is Peter’s motivation for pulling away from the Gentiles in Gal. 2?
The best explanation is to separate the two groups mentioned in Gal. 2.12. “Those of the circumcision” are unbelieving Jews currently active in persecuting the church in Judea. “Those from James” are a group of emissaries from the church in Jerusalem informing Peter that Christian in Judea were being persecuted on account of reports of his compromises with Jewish custom. The situation is not all that different from that recorded in Acts 21.17-26. Here, James (the same James of Gal. 2) informs Paul that his encouragement of Gentiles to forsake Moses is causing a great deal of grief for the Jewish Christians at home in Palestine. Importantly, we don’t see any indication in Acts 21 that James disagrees with Paul’s approach to Gentile ministry nor that Paul takes issue with James’ caution.
I believe this is essentially the same line James takes with Peter in Gal. 2. It is to Peter’s authority in the church that James makes his appeal, not to the idea that Peter is his subordinate. As such, Peter’s response is not one of bootlicking to James, but his calculated move and deep concern to protect the persecuted Christians in Judea. In other words, Peter is acting out of noble intentions and not out of an abject surrender of principle.
If that is the case, it will also impact how we view Paul’s criticism of Peter. Rather than a simple accusation of flip-flopping, Paul sees this as an issue of priorities on a spectrum with different shades of gray, and not as a straightforward black-and-white issue. Peter is afraid for persecuted Christians; Paul is afraid for a compromised Christianity. It’s not a question between bad and good, but between better and best. And its in that twilight zone of jumbled priorities that works-righteousness can ply its trade.
Peter thought it expedient for the moment to compromise a fellowship meal with Gentile Christians for the sake of Christians going hungry in Judea. The choice seemed obvious: “my kinsmen are losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives while I’m living it up with pulled pork BBQ.” Very likely, if Peter had just explained the situation to the Gentiles in Antioch, things could have been smoothed over. Paul, however, is not going to let this frog boil slowly. He nips this thing in the bud.
Paul’s opposition to Peter’s actions implies a startling fact: “let the Judean Christians suffer, and go on enjoying your pulled pork.” Most of us have tunnel-vision, we are entranced by the “now,” the moment right in front of us. Peter sees suffering Christians and thinks in terms of providing immediate relief—his very human response of compassion and sympathy is aroused. He feels he has a responsibility to do something. Paul, however, understands that this kind of action would set a dangerous precedent for the church. After all, “suffering” is not an ultimate evil but often God’s chosen means (if not his chief means) of conforming his children to Christ. Paul could speak from personal experience, and he often emphasized the fact—even to the Galatians themselves (Acts 14.22). Who is Peter, then, to deny the Jewish Christians their right to suffer for the truth of the gospel? Granted what Peter says in his own epistle, I think he learned the lesson (1Pt. 4.12ff)
But the lesson is still a very difficult one, especially in a world where there is so much suffering and injustice. Some recommend that believers living in Muslim countries refer to the Christian God as Allah as a way of avoiding unnecessary persecution and to “build bridges” with their unbelieving neighbors. In the context of “social justice” ministries, it’s a great temptation to prioritize meeting immediate physical needs over holding people accountable for their sinful lifestyles or risking the loss of an open door by speaking the gospel into their lives. Not many of us have the gumption of a Paul to tell it like it is. We, like Peter, think it no small deal to lose the battle for the gospel at the moment, and comfort ourselves that the gospel will still win the war.
Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.