Saturday, May 2, 2009

How Not to Resolve a Church Conflict; Galatians 2:1-14 (21)

Last week I was leading an adult study on Diversity in Early Christianity. Looking into Galatians 2:1-10, a perceptive man wondered at the genius of the solution. Paul and his colleagues continue his mission to the Gentiles, Peter and his continue among other Jews, and to cement the collaboration Paul continues to raise funds for the poor in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the solution didn't hold up. In retrospect, the reason is obvious. Things fall apart when Cephas (some have suggested that Peter and Cephas are different men, but I doubt it) visits the church in Antioch. Cephas joins Gentiles at the table, just as Paul and his colleagues do. But when representatives from Jerusalem come up, Cephas withdraws -- he maintains the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, thus breaking table fellowship.

Paul condemns Cephas for his inconsistent -- hyprocritical!, Paul says -- behavior. But the roots of the problem lie in Jerusalem, not Antioch. The Jerusalem solution could hold, but only so long as the Jewish and Gentile believers don't cross paths. What happens when two missions, with two different sets of rules, collide?

The Antioch conflict bears implications for some contemporary church compromises. For example, the ELCA is considering a measure that would allow local bodies to take diverse positions with respect to sexual minorities. One Mennonite group adopted a similar temporary resolution to the matter of ordaining women. Such compromises can work in theory, but they don't resolve the justice and discernment issues at hand. When real people encounter one another across the artificial boundaries that keep them apart, further conflict is inevitable. No halfway compromises, please.

21 comments:

Richard Fellows said...

Greg, you assume that there was tension between Paul and the pillars in the first place. You also assume that the "solution" was that Paul and Peter CONTINUE with their respective ministries to the Gentiles and Jews respectively. I would question these assumptions. It seems to me that, prior to the Jerusalem meeting, Peter was an apostle to the Gentiles and that he had (and continued to have) the same views as Paul. After Paul discussed his gospel with the pillars they recognized that he made an effective apostle to the Gentiles. This allowed them to give to Paul the responsibilities that Peter had previously held. Freed from his responsibilities to preach to the Gentiles, Peter became, once again, the apostle to the Jews. It would be difficult to preach effectively to both Jews and Gentiles, so it made perfect sense for Peter and Paul to specialize. We should stop thinking of Peter and Paul as rivals dividing territory between them.

Peter's switch to preaching exclusively to Jews explains why he decided (for tactical reasons) not to eat with Gentiles.

I do not see the Antioch incident as a defining moment in Paul's relationship to the pillars (which was always good). Paul mentions it only to show that he was sincere in his belief in Gentile liberty (the Galatians thought that he preached Gentile liberty only to please the pillars).

Luke said...

yeah dude! enough with charity! let's get to justice! everybody love charity, it's nice warm fuzzies like Extreme Make Over... but justice offends practically everyone and overturns what we know and posits something new.

inclusion, understanding and grace.. that is the church's business. anything else is just silly.

Pastor Joelle said...

I think you are right. I have heard the Jerusalem Council brought up as an example of a precedent for the compromise we are trying to come up with but your point about it being only a temporary solution is good.

Greg Carey said...

Thank you, Richard, for your comment. I do believe there was tension in the Jerusalem meeting. Several signs from Galatians 2 point to this tension. First, Paul meets with the pillars privately, yet somehow "false believers" sneak in -- how could that have happened? Paul's reference to "those who seemed to be" something suggests a dismissal of the pillars' authority, though Gal 2:2 acknowledges the necessity of working things out with them. Finally, Gal 2:12 suggests that James continued to understand the Jerusalem resolution as offering a two-paths gospel. (I'm influenced by Dunn and Painter here.)

I think your point concerning Peter is interesting. Gal 2:7 suggests that Peter "had been" entrusted with a mission to Jews (perfect tense), but Acts clearly indicates a double mission. I'm inclined to believe Luke there, but that's an interesting problem.

I'm not one to put much stock in early legends about the apostles, but I do note that the eastern churches hold that Paul and Peter achieved a reconciliation.

LiturgyGeek said...

We humans seem to have some pretty deep impulses to create and maintain a univocal voice on any number of issues. In the church, the issue of same-sex marriage appears to be the current battle.

But it seems to me that the church has always had trouble speaking with one voice. I guess, given the Galatians text and so many other parts of Christian witness, I find it strange that we would ever expect to have a unified voice on any substantial issue.

The thing is, we are living in the in-between time where, even despite our best intentions, we differ deeply on many substantial issues. I agree that it is a temporary situation, but how quickly do we expect resolution to such things?

I think that our contexts may be different. In the UCC, diversity of thought and opinion are expected, and we have very little in the way of "doctrine" or consistent "discipline."

Thanks for giving me something to think about, Greg!

Richard Fellows said...

Greg,

I'll try to address your points.
1. Paul may have met with the pillars privately because he trusted them more than other members of the Judean church.
2. It is not clear that the 'false brothers' entered the Jerusalem meeting. It has been argued that their intrusion is more likely to have been in Antioch. Galatia is another possibility. In any case there is no indication that the person or persons who brought them into the meeting knew that they were FALSE brothers.
3. Paul says that the pillars were seeming and that their status meant nothing to him. He does this to show that he preached the gospel of gentile liberty out of conviction and not merely to please the pillars. Allow me to explain. With one hand Paul delivered to south Galatia the decisions of the Jerusalem church, confirming Gentile liberty, and with the other hand he circumcised Timothy. The (south) Galatian believers found this confusing and deduced that Paul really believed in circumcision for Gentiles and that his preaching of non-circumcision was only to please the Judean church authorities. The Galatians reason, "Paul believes in circumcision so it is OK for us to be circumcised". It is to this situation that Paul responds in Gal 1-2. He must convince his readers that he is not writing against circumcision merely to please the pillars, so he argues that his gospel is independent, he explains that he preached it before he had had much contact with the Judean church, and he claims that he is not a boot-licker. His final proof is his claim that he opposed Peter to his face in support of Gentile liberty.
4. I equate the men "from James" with the men from Judea of Acts 15:1-2. Therefore I don't think they had been encouraged by James to promote circumcision.

Just to clarify, I think Gal 2:7 refers to when Jesus promoted Peter (Matt 16:18). This is why Paul calls him "Rock" uniquely here. Peter later accepted a calling to preach to Gentiles, as you say. After the Jerusalem council Peter switched back to his original mission to the Jews alone. Thus there were three phases. Of course Paul did not mention the second phase (because that would feed the misunderstanding that he had preached gentile liberty just to please people like Peter).

Richard Fellows said...

Greg,

I'll try to address your points.
1. Paul may have met with the pillars privately because he trusted them more than other members of the Judean church.
2. It is not clear that the 'false brothers' entered the Jerusalem meeting. It has been argued that their intrusion is more likely to have been in Antioch. Galatia is another possibility. In any case there is no indication that the person or persons who brought them into the meeting knew that they were FALSE brothers.
3. Paul says that the pillars were seeming and that their status meant nothing to him. He does this to show that he preached the gospel of gentile liberty out of conviction and not merely to please the pillars. Allow me to explain. With one hand Paul delivered to south Galatia the decisions of the Jerusalem church, confirming Gentile liberty, and with the other hand he circumcised Timothy. The (south) Galatian believers found this confusing and deduced that Paul really believed in circumcision for Gentiles and that his preaching of non-circumcision was only to please the Judean church authorities. The Galatians reason, "Paul believes in circumcision so it is OK for us to be circumcised". It is to this situation that Paul responds in Gal 1-2. He must convince his readers that he is not writing against circumcision merely to please the pillars, so he argues that his gospel is independent, he explains that he preached it before he had had much contact with the Judean church, and he claims that he is not a boot-licker. His final proof is his claim that he opposed Peter to his face in support of Gentile liberty.
4. I equate the men "from James" with the men from Judea of Acts 15:1-2. Therefore I don't think they had been encouraged by James to promote circumcision.

Just to clarify, I think Gal 2:7 refers to when Jesus promoted Peter (Matt 16:18). This is why Paul calls him "Rock" uniquely here. Peter later accepted a calling to preach to Gentiles, as you say. After the Jerusalem council Peter switched back to his original mission to the Jews alone. Thus there were three phases. Of course Paul did not mention the second phase (because that would feed the misunderstanding that he had preached gentile liberty just to please people like Peter).

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