“When Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line…” (Galatians 2)
Don’t we all love face-to-face confrontations?
Of course, in a sense, a confrontation is better than a quiet poisonous word behind the scenes about that person (you know who I mean) and how you have to be careful because I once heard that they might have said such-and-such.
Gossip can be terribly damaging: the more so if it’s half (or even a quarter) true.
But confrontation can be equally damaging. Some folks want to “have it all out” and “lay all the cards on the table” but many times it isn’t a calm display of differing views but a hot cauldron of toxic emotions.
The problem with confrontation is that it may lead to entrenched positions and the real difficulty of future negotiations and relationship. Some “Lay-it-all-on-the-table” moments lead not to reconciliation but straight to divorce.
So it is of enormous interest to see how people behaved in the New Testament. These were men and women who might have known Jesus face to face, and who knew these mighty apostles (like Peter and Paul). These were people who had to acknowledge, soberly, that they might well die for their faith since it was technically illegal. They had already given up social respectability, couldn’t they at least get along?
There are verses that suggest that they were just like us, sad to say. Philippians 4:2 contains the line: “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement.” The first section of 1 Corinthians describes a church that had settled into squabbling cliques. Paul writes: “Some… have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”
But these were the people: how much more serious would a conflict between leaders be?
And that’s what is on the cards at Antioch, a royal bust-up between Paul and Cephas (Peter). Clearly there is some correlation between Galatians 2 (the confrontation) and Acts 15 (a reconciliation) but it’s difficult to order the events exactly. Right now we’re just contemplating the idea of confrontation itself with a few simple questions. Here they are:
Is confrontation ever necessary? If so, when? How does it proceed? How, according to the Bible, should it end? What is its fruit?
The answer to the first one, judging from the opening quotation from Galatians 2, would seem to be “Of course!” but even here, there’s some things to be said before the knives come out.
The first point is that they were both on the same page.
They shared common ground in the centrality and lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul is doing in Galatians 1: he stresses his own background in Judaism (“zealous for the traditions”) in Gal 1:14 and then adds the significant “But” in v15. “But when God… was pleased to reveal his Son…” That is to say: the common page in this conflict is not the Jewish background that they both share, but the revelation of just who Jesus is. Jesus is the centre, not Jerusalem.
And there is simply no point in a confrontation between people who do not share a commonalty. You would only accentuate the differences that are already there!
But if Jesus is truly the centre for the different parties in a conflict, then that is main topic of discussion, because it is only at the centre that people of opposing views meet.
Cue picture of bicycle wheel.
Second, there is an enormous difference between people who are “weak” and those that are “false.” Here’s a few New Testament clues:
- “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” (Romans 14:1-23)
- “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (Galatians 2: 11)
- “Jesus … said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”(Matthew 16:23)
So there’s a difference between being “weak” and being “false.” We welcome the weak, but we stand against the “false.” And of course, we slip between those categories ourselves. Peter had an amazing revelation of who Jesus was (in Matthew 16) and Jesus commended his spiritual insight, but Jesus withstood Peter in the strongest terms, when he suggested that Jesus avoid the pain of the cross: “Get behind me, Satan.”
And in Galatians 2, challenging Peter’s hypocrisy, Paul said: “I opposed him to his face.”
But here’s the big question: how do you know the difference between the one and the other? In Matthew 16, it would seem to be the difference between “merely human concerns” and “the concerns of God.” Similarly, in Galatians 2, it’s the difference between what is done for human praise, and what is done for God’s glory.
So, I believe there’s a time to confront, but we need wisdom and a heart of love, so that we know when that time is, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t “write people off” but restores them back into the track of what God is doing in their lives.
I think that’s a key point. You have to examine your own motivation quite honestly. Is the game-plan for this confrontation that you win the argument or that you win the person? Is your honest desire that Christ is glorified (by your future relationship with this person) or that your ego is satisfied by successfully winning the day?
Paul had a grasp on the Gospel that was powerful in its simplicity. There is a righteousness by faith apart from the law. It is typified by Abraham. It is exemplified by Jesus. It is effected in my life by the power of the Holy Spirit. No legalistic add-ons could be allowed to complicate or distract. No “should.”
You should never listen to people who tell you that you should do something.
So how on earth do we live together? We’re all so different and have different backgrounds and value-systems. Isn’t confrontation and relational breakdown inevitable?
- Not if the centre holds.
- Not if the Spirit guides and empowers.
- Not we seek to live “worthy of our calling.”
That’s the key solution to a “confrontation culture” that Paul offers in Ephesians 4. Here it is in context:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Are you living “worthy of your calling”? That means worthy of your high position! A bent policeman or a corrupt politician –by contrast- is unworthy of his position.
This doesn’t mean that we should try to deserve our place in God’s favour. It means that we should recognize how much our place in God’s favour deserves from us. The focus is not on our worth but on the worth of our calling.
God chose us for himself Eph (1:4) and predestined us to be his children—and heirs! (Eph 1:5). He sent Christ to atone for our sin (Eph1:7) and sealed us with his Holy Spirit. (Eph 1:13). We are “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.” That’s our calling, and it’s a lot to live up to!
And the way to do it, according to Eph 4:3, is to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” How? “With all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love.”
So the emphasis here is not on doctrinal unity –that’s taken for granted. We’re all on the same page if Jesus is Lord. He gives a short hand sketch: “One faith, one Lord, one baptism…” but the emphasis is not on what we believe but on how we believe.
And the key word is “together.” We believe together, in lowliness and meekness , in patience and forbearance.
We endure one another! Imagine that. Now perfect people don’t need to be endured or forgiven. But we do, often. Paul is not naïve. He knows that there are a few of us who are grumpy or critical or unreliable or finicky, so his counsel here is not how perfect people can live together in unity, but how real, imperfect people can maintain the unity of the Spirit, namely, by enduring each other in love.
But how can you keep on caring about a person who doesn’t like you? Or a person who opposes you and wants to frustrate your dreams? How do you maintain the unity of the Spirit with them instead of becoming hostile and cold?
Paul’s answer: be lowly in spirit so that you can patiently endure their differences and their sins. A person of lowliness is keenly aware of the size of his debt toward God and how he has dishonoured God through unbelief and disobedience. He is also keenly aware of God’s amazing grace that saved a wretch like him.
But what of “confrontation”? When do you write someone off? When they are doctrinally inaccurate (in your opinion)? When they are behaviourally challenging? When they are hateful?
Never. You can never write anybody off.
Because God doesn’t.
(And He never writes you off either).