Conflict and Change: Paul’s Relationship with Early Christian Leaders

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Conflict and Change: Paul’s Relationship with Early Christian Leaders

There are several issues in Galatians 2:1-14 that I am going to discuss this week that provide insight into confrontation and the resolution of disputes amongst early Christ followers. These issues also relate to last week’s discussion on the issue of authority. The first relates to Paul’s relationship to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem; second, the dispute over circumcision; and third, the basis of the relationship between Jewish believers and Gentile converts to Christianity. The central question to be addressed this week is, how are we to live as Christ followers in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ?


When Paul began his first missionary journey to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:11-15), there is no record of his attempt to get the approval of the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem. Paul simply went ahead and pursued the ministry that Jesus had called him to do via revelation. Then after three years, Paul goes to Jerusalem to see Peter for fifteen days (Gal. 1:18). Another fourteen years go by and Paul travels back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus (Gal. 2:1). His goal this time was to share with the leadership the gospel message that he preached to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2). Ironically, while there, a dispute arose over circumcision after he and his partners were ‘spied out’ by some snoops who insisted that Titus be circumcised. But Paul, defending himself and Titus, states, “Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised” (Gal. 2:3). He openly argues that being uncircumcised is a liberty or freedom that they have in Christ. The opposite of this freedom is that which was introduced by the spies who were seeking to bring them into bondage. Then Paul makes an astonishing comment: “to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:5). What was Paul talking about?



Paul’s Ministry to the Gentiles

It is significant that it wasn’t until three years after he went into ministry to the Gentiles that Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet with the other apostles (Gal 1:18-20).[1] Why did he wait so long? One thing is clear and that is that Paul did not seek their validation or approval of his ministry. Christ directed him by the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we now have a basis for an anti-organizational, or anti-institutional approach to church governance in the twenty-first century. That is another story. Scripture does not describe the existence of any centralized church structure to serve as a hierarchical or permission-giving entity to direct the ministry of the early believers. Diakonos (servants, or servers who are filled with the Holy Spirit) come into the picture in the book of Acts (Acts 6; 11) as well as house-church overseers or patrons (such as Lydia in Acts 16:11-15). House churches, and groups that continued to meet in synagogues give evidence that localized, Spirit-led ministries formed the basis of the Christian faith in community. Leadership in the early house churches was servant leadership. But it appears that Paul’s conversion experience was so clear and powerful that he did not take the time to go and get ‘permission’ from the apostles to carry forward the work God gave him to do.


So why does Paul go back to Jerusalem after fourteen years? It appears from the text that he wanted to talk to them and share the message he had taught the Gentile converts, to see whether what he had been doing was in vain. There appears to have been a dispute over the gospel that Paul preached to the Gentiles. Does it matter what the other apostles thought about Paul and the message he preached? According to Paul, it did matter because the text says that he communicated the gospel to those of reputation privately (Gal. 2:2). In other words, he wanted to avoid any public humiliation. It mattered to him that they be united. There is an interconnectivity that must exist between members who are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christ followers cannot ignore Spirit-led leaders whom God has called and anointed for ministry in the church. Therefore, going off and doing your own thing should not be idealized, as Paul’s situation and choice called for direct action under God’s direction. Rather than being lone-star rangers, all Christ followers should seek out and meet with other Christians locally as part of their commitment to loving Christ and serving one another. When it comes to leaders, they too must confer with one another. Even though, when he began his ministry, Paul did not seek the approval of the apostles in Jerusalem, he did seek it after many years when a dispute arose over the topic of circumcision.



Circumcision: Sign of the Covenant God Made with Abraham and His Descendants

Circumcision was first given to Abraham by God as a sign of the covenant He made with him and his descendants. God said,

“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:10-11).

The sign of the covenant was to be marked in the flesh. The issue became a point of tension between Paul’s party who were with him and the leaders at Jerusalem when they spied out and discovered that Titus was not circumcised. When the council of apostles and elders met in Jerusalem in Acts 15, they did not stipulate that Gentiles had to be circumcised. Rather they instructed them to abstain from things polluted by idols, sexuality immorality, from things strangled, and from blood (Acts 15:20). There is no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that the apostles promoted circumcision as a necessity for following Christ.


There were, however, false teachers who argued that circumcision is required and we will learn more about them next week. Paul argues in Galatians 2:6 that these people who seemed to be something, were in fact not, because God does not show personal favoritism. Perhaps, they thought they were special because they continued to observe laws that were regarded as the entry into the covenant in the Old Testament. Even though these men were trying to “show Paul up” and make him out to be a false teacher and inadequate, He says it had the opposite effect.

“But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles)” (Gal. 2:7-8).

These verses indicate that there are times when different situations and contexts call for different requirements. The same gospel, the gospel of liberty, or freedom as Paul calls it, is for Gentiles and Jews. But they may practice their faith in different contexts. But the same basic message of truth is salvation in Jesus Christ.


Conflict between the Apostles

So why did Paul and Peter get into a fight? Here are the two leaders of the mission focus of the early Christian movement. Paul to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. The confrontation is over behavior. Peter, Paul says, was acting like Gentiles were part of the gospel and he was eating with them. But, when certain men showed up from James, he separated himself from them and would not eat with them because he was afraid of these men. The rest of the Jews did the same, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy (Gal. 2:13). So Paul confronts Peter about his behavior in Antioch. “I withstood him to his face because he was to be blamed” (Gal 2:11). Notice what happened. Paul tells him to his face that he is not being open about the gospel:

“But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Gal. 2:14)

Contrast this with Paul’s approach in Jerusalem, where he goes to the leaders privately to share the message he preaches to the Gentiles. In this situation, Paul confronts Peter before them all. This is an open, public dispute over behavior between the two central leaders of early Christianity. We will delve further into the theological nature of the dispute next week, it is important to note that the Bible records that even leaders who are Spirit-filled can make mistakes and can sometimes miss the important ramifications of the gospel for the ministry of Jesus Christ.



Application and Conclusion

If leaders could disagree over how to live the Christian life in the early Christian movement, can we expect Christians living today to agree on everything? Disagreement over the message of Christ—the gospel—occurred because believers were confused about the ramifications of following Jesus Christ. Did they have to keep the sign of the covenant—circumcision—as required in the Old Testament according to the covenant God made with Abraham? Or did Christ institute something new, freeing the Christian from the laws and requirements of the Old Testament? I will get into answering that question next week but it must be asked, “is the sign of circumcision still relevant today?” The answer is a personal one. Most secular people do not practice circumcision. In some places in Western society it can be even difficult to find someone to perform this rite on males. The gospel, as Paul says, does not require the circumcision of males (nothing is mentioned of female circumcision). Instead, it promotes liberty, or freedom for those who follow Christ. Not many people dispute over the issue of the circumcision of males today, nor do they require it. The circumcision of males, whether regarded as invasive or wrong is a personal choice made by parents for their infant who has no say in the matter. Sometimes it is a medical necessity for an older, non-infant male.


This leads to the issue of Paul confronting Peter over his not eating with the Gentile believers once certain Jewish men showed up in Antioch. If we are going to fully believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, then our behavior must be consistent. Peter believed the gospel, but he was trying to look good in front of his peers who came, by following the ritual laws over eating. Other than the moral law, the Ten Commandments, the laws of the Old Testament are not binding on us today. The lesson from Paul’s dispute with Peter over his hypocritical behavior is that we cannot live two different lives, and thereby deny the gospel. As Paul explained in Romans 14:23, that eating or not eating food offered to idols is not the point. It is not acting out of faith that qualifies something as sin. We cannot believe one thing, i.e. the gospel, and then impose laws and rules on ourselves, or others that are not part of the faith that is relevant for all. If we truly believe the message of Christ, and understand the implications of the gospel, then we should not separate ourselves from others, or exclude them from the ministry of Christ, as Peter did in his conduct in Antioch.




[1] We can only surmise why he chose to do this. There is no indication that he disdained the other apostles and servants of Christ. Rather, it appears that he simply chose to follow what Christ revealed to him to do.

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About the author

Katrina Blue

Katrina Blue is assistant professor of Religion at Pacific Union College. Her Ph.D. from Andrews University is in Theological Studies. She wrote her dissertation on the topic of "Union with Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White" (2015). She is passionate about spirituality and making God's truth relevant to the world.