More from Paul: Conflict is Important!
You may have noticed that I have been camping out in Galatians lately. My Tuesday morning men’s group has been walking through the book together and it has been rich. My last post on Paul spoke about some thing that I see in my generation that are troubling to me. This morning I was struck by how Paul deals with conflict and drift in the church:
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Paul is seeing a problem that could easily have led to the first church split: leadership that is being manipulated by a vocal minority who want what they want. Paul, seeing the division that is starting: Peter is pulling away from the gentiles in order to please the Judaizers who are looking to add to the gospel message. This chunk of scripture is full of lessons and warnings for the church… I am going to focus on two.
First, I read this and I come away hopeful and worried at the same time. At this point in church history Peter is recognized as the leader of the early church. Peter who walked on water with Christ, who was the rock upon which Christ would build his church, the one who preached on the day of Pentecost, and the one who had the vision which enabled us to eat bacon. This same Peter is the one who drifted from the core message of the gospel and allowed the church to be sidetracked. This makes me hopeful because Peter is a flawed man, like me, and is capable of making leadership mistakes. This worries me because if Peter is able to allow this kind of drift to happen, it can definitely happen to me.
Second, conflict is important. It amazes me how in this day and age where the media is filled with (and making billions on) conflict, we are so terrified of interpersonal conflict and inept when it comes to walking through it together. As Paul looked at the state of affairs in Jerusalem he noticed practices that went against the gospel. He found himself in a tough spot… he could approach Peter, The Peter, the recognized leader of the church at that time and confront him on the practices that had been drifted into, or he could avoid conflict because it is easier.
I wonder what would have happened if Paul backed off and allowed things to continue on the way they were going. I wonder how many of our churches today allowed a small drift to continue because they did not want to deal with the conflict that would arise from approaching church leadership. Paul stepped up and approached Peter in a way that reminds me of Matthew 18 and called Peter on the drift in the church. Peter, realizing that Paul was right, took the rebuke and corrected course.
The beauty of this conflict is in the way it played out. First, Paul saw what was going on and approached Peter. He didn’t have secret meetings and build a coalition of supporters that would back him in a vote, he approached Peter and had the conversation face to face. Second, Paul approached Peter as a brother, as someone who loves Jesus and wants to see God’s Kingdom expanded. Had Paul approached Peter with the mindset that he was intentionally leading people in a direction contrary to the gospel I believe that the conversation would have looked slightly different.
Today we hear about church fights and splits all the time. We often hear about churches that are powerless and adrift. I wonder how much of this is because of how poorly we do conflict.
How do YOU manage conflict in the church?