Bad Manners at the Dinner Table: A Powerful Lesson in Biblical Confrontation
June 3, 2001
This is a sermon about conflict in the church—where it comes from and how to handle it. As a place to begin, I’d like to start with the observation that most church conflicts fall into one of two categories. Let’s talk first about the second category.
Category 2 conflicts are those disagreements that are non-biblical in nature. That is, they deal with matters that are not directly discussed in the Word of God. Most conflicts are in this category, such as what color should the carpet be in the sanctuary—red or blue or should we not have carpet at all? There’s not a verse in the Bible that tells you how to answer that question definitively. Another example would be when to schedule your services and how many services to have. In another generation every evangelical church had three services—Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. That’s perfectly fine, but there is no biblical mandate to follow that pattern. Or people might argue about whether to sing from the hymnal or from song sheets or from an overhead or by putting the words on a big screen using Power Point software. What to name your church is a Category 2 dispute. Most people don’t know it but our church has had three different names in its 86 years of existence. We were founded as the Madison Street Church in 1915, then we became the Madison Street Bible Church in the 1930s, then in the late 1950s our named changed to Calvary Memorial Church. Now why did we change our name twice? Answer: Because we wanted to. I don’t know if there was a conflict over those name changes or not. There might have been or maybe everyone was happy with the proposed changes. Could we change our name again in the future? I suppose we could. Changing a church name is a Category 2 issue because it doesn’t involve clear biblical revelation. Nearly all conflicts in the local church fall into this category.
Category 1 disputes involve matters where the Bible has clearly spoken. Examples would be: Is the Bible the Word of God? Is Jesus the Son of God? Is Jesus the only way of salvation? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead? Do we believe in the Trinity? Those are huge issues that the Christian church has agreed upon for centuries because there is clear biblical teaching in these areas. These disputes are so important that to compromise on them is to deny important biblical teaching.
And I suppose you could say there is a third category of conflict, which would be arguing over whether a particular conflict belongs in Category 1 or Category 2. I think the hottest arguments of all are in this area. One person says, “This is clearly taught in the Bible” and another person says, “No, it’s not clearly taught. At best, it’s an inference; at worst, it is just your personal preference.” And the battle rages on for weeks, months or even years.
Our text offers a classic example of a church conflict that in many ways is a Category 3 dispute. On the surface it appears to be something that is Category 2—who you choose to eat with, but Paul treats it as a Category 1 issue—the gospel itself is at stake. Let’s take a moment to find out what was happening and why Paul did what he did.
Peter vs. Paul
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men 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 Peter 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?’” (Galatians 2:11-14)
This is one of those passages that at first glance seems rather remote from us today, but upon further inspection is highly relevant. Our story begins in Antioch, a bustling, cosmopolitan center located north of Israel, in the province of Syria. It was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire and an early Christian center. Although it had a large Jewish population, it was predominantly Gentile. We know from Acts 13 that the first missionaries to the Gentiles were sent out from the church in Antioch. Evidently there were two sizable groups of converts in that one local church. There were the Jews who had been circumcised, raised under the Law, and had come to faith in Christ. Then there were the Gentiles who had not been circumcised, had been raised in pagan religions, and had come to Christ. Those two groups got along just fine. The Jews and Gentiles in the church seemed to love each other and enjoyed each other’s company despite their very different backgrounds. They even ate their meals together, which for the Jewish converts was a huge step since that meant leaving the kosher laws of their childhood.
One day the Apostle Peter came for a visit. Can you imagine what a scene that would have been? Peter who walked on the water. Peter who was personally called by Jesus. Peter who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Peter who came to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Peter who swam to meet the risen Christ. Peter who saw 3,000 men trust Christ after his mighty sermon on the Day of Pentecost. That Peter, the man whom Jesus named “The Rock,” had come to Antioch to visit them. I’m sure they crowded around him and listened with amazement to his stories. And what Peter saw in Antioch amazed and pleased him. He saw Jews and Gentiles worshipping together in one church, singing the same songs, laughing together, working together, praying together, and yes, even eating together. Nothing like that had happened in Jerusalem yet. The Jerusalem church was still entirely Jewish. But here in Antioch things were very different. Peter loved it and he joined right in with his brothers and sisters. He gladly ate his meals with his Gentile brothers in Christ. They loved him and he loved them. To him, this was what the body of Christ was supposed to be.
Troublemakers From Jerusalem
Then one day some other people came along who spoiled everything. They claimed to be sent from James, the leading apostle in Jerusalem. Evidently they were on some sort of inspection tour. Maybe they had heard about what was happening in Antioch and came to put a stop to it. What they saw appalled them. They saw circumcised Jews eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. They saw Jews disregarding the kosher laws of the Old Testament. And to their astonishment, they even saw the Apostle Peter openly eating with those same uncircumcised Gentiles. The whole scene revolted them. It upset everything they had been taught to believe. Evidently they started stirring up trouble. I imagine they came to Peter and said something like this: “Brother Peter, we know you mean well, but we are shocked that you would so soon give up your Jewish heritage. Don’t you know that God wants every man to be circumcised? Have you forgotten how our Lord himself was circumcised? Does that not mean anything to you? You are setting a terrible example. Soon even our Jewish children won’t be circumcised. What you have done is wrong. Stop eating with those Gentiles. Stay with your own people.” When Peter protested, perhaps they said, “We’ll have to write James and the other brothers in Jerusalem and tell them what you have done.” Maybe it was a bluff, maybe not. Peter couldn’t know. And after all, Peter had made mistakes before. He didn’t want his reputation smeared again.
So he gave in despite his inner doubts. He stopped eating with his Gentile brothers and sisters. I can think of several ways he might have justified it to them: “You know I love you. And it’s only until these guys leave town. God knows my heart. They’re putting so much pressure on me, I have to do something.” But in his heart, he knew he was doing wrong. And he did it anyway. That’s why Paul accuses him of hypocrisy. The word means “play-acting.” Peter pulled back from the Gentile converts out of fear of the men who came from James. It is a sorry spectacle to see the bold apostle give up his freedom in order to placate these men. Write over the whole story the words of Proverbs 29:25, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.” Peter feared what these men might do, so he compromised his convictions even though he knew it was wrong. And worst of all, his bad example caused the other Jewish Christians to follow his example. Even Barnabas (Paul’s associate) was carried away in the same hypocrisy. Spiritual leaders never sin alone. What they do always drags others with them.
“Let’s Eat in the Heritage Room”
So maybe it happened like this. When everyone came for the Wednesday night supper, the Jewish converts would go through the line together. Then they all took their plates to the “Heritage Room.” They even put up a sign that said, “Jewish Only. Kosher Only.” That meant the Gentile Christians had to eat in the Dining Room or the Parlor next door. It’s not hard to see where this would lead. Pretty soon you’ve got two churches in one church, and you’ve got two groups that don’t have much to do with each other, and finally you’ve got two groups that don’t even like each other. All because Peter caved in under pressure.
But it’s right at this point that we’ve got to ask a question. What’s the big deal here? Where in the New Testament does it tell you what to eat or where to eat or who you should eat with? Answer: Nowhere. Eat what you want, when you want, where you want, and feel free to choose your own tablemates. That’s a Category 2 issue. If you want to eat at Denny’s, go ahead. Or if you want to eat greasy french fries at Parky’s on Harlem Avenue (As I do about once a week. I get a Polish sausage plus fries and a large Coke for $3.80.), go ahead. If you want to eat at that fancy restaurant on the 95th floor downtown, go ahead. I was there once. It’s nice, but I eat at Parky’s more often. And while we’re at it, what’s wrong with Jewish Christians eating with other Jewish Christians? Nothing. Or Gentile believers eating with other Gentile believers? Nothing. There’s no rule against eating with your close friends and relatives. But there is something tremendously wrong with Jewish Christians eating together to the exclusion of Gentile Christians. And there is something enormously wrong with Gentile Christians saying to Jewish Christians, “You can’t sit with us.” That’s what was happening at Antioch. The Jewish believers were pulling away from the Gentile Christians, and Peter was leading the way even though he knew it was wrong.
I should point out that while it’s not wrong to be with your people, your group, your friends at church, you need to be careful lest even subconsciously you send out an exclusionary message that says, “Other people aren’t welcome here.” Folks who are new to the church often pick up those signals even when the rest of us don’t think we’re sending them out.
Tofu vs. T-Bone
Let me illustrate this another way. Romans 14 tells us that in the church at Rome there were various groups and factions, including a group of vegetarians and a group of meat-eaters. Let’s suppose for a moment that we had a very vocal group of vegetarians at Calvary. They like their tofu and their bean sprouts and they don’t like to eat meat. Some are vegetarians for health reasons, others because they dislike the idea of killing animals for food, others because they believe vegetarianism helps their walk with God. And suppose we’ve got a second group at Calvary who are meat-eaters. So how are these two groups going to get along—the tofu crowd and the T-bone crowd? I myself enjoy a good steak, but if I go to your home and you serve me a vegetarian meal, I’ll be a man about it and do my part. And I’ll probably even enjoy it. And if you come to my home, and I know you’re a vegetarian, I’ll buy some tofu and fry it or put gravy on it or dip it in chocolate or whatever you do to tofu before you eat it. (I’m smiling as I type this because after the sermon on Sunday, a friend gave me a container of tofu from a health food store. The label said it had been “third party inspected” to make sure it was truly organic. It looked sort of like wallpaper paste to me. We’ve got it in the refrigerator at home and will find a way to eat it soon. And I’m sure I’ll like it.) I personally don’t have scruples about this one way or the other. Doesn’t bother me one bit if a brother or sister in Christ says, “I’m a vegetarian.” More power to you. Go and be blessed. You’re probably healthier than I am. Churches shouldn’t split over issues like this. The only thing that would be wrong would be for the vegetarians to say, “We won’t eat with the meat-eaters” or for the meat-eaters to say, “I always thought those vegetarians were a little strange so I’m going to stay away from them.” Our fellowship in Christ ought to rise above what we put on our plates. And our fellowship certainly should include people whose background is quite different from our own.
Not in Line with the Gospel
Paul’s response to the problem in Antioch is decisive. He saw that they were not “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (14). The Greek word for “acting in line” is orthopodeo, from which we get the English word orthopedic. Paul understood that Peter’s hypocrisy was really a compromise of the gospel itself. By withdrawing from the Gentile believers under these circumstances was to deny the truth that all believers are one in Christ. It established two classes in the church and implied that one class of believers (the Jewish Christians) was superior to the other (the Gentile Christians). This must not be done and therefore Paul must take drastic action. That’s why he rebuked Peter face to face in front of the whole congregation, presumably on Sunday morning. He knew Peter’s heart, knew that he knew better, but that made his compromise that much worse. Under pressure, Peter had yielded his liberty in Christ and he had done it because of what those men who claimed to be from James might do or might say or what they might write back to Jerusalem about him. Paul took drastic measures because in his mind, the heart of the gospel itself was at stake.
Twenty-First Century Truth From a First-Century Story
Let’s wrap up our study of this ancient church conflict by focusing on four contemporary applications.
1) There are no infallible leaders. If one apostle can rebuke another apostle in public, then we know that no pastor or elder or other spiritual leader is beyond correction. And we say with all kindness and humility to our friends in the Roman Catholic Church that we do not believe any man should be regarded as infallible, no matter what office he holds or what throne he sits on. We do not believe anyone can claim to speak infallible truth ex cathedra. But lest I be misunderstood, that goes as much for Protestants and evangelicals as it does for anyone else. Neither I nor any other pastor can claim infallibility. I don’t want anyone who reads these words to believe them simply and only because I have said them. Please don’t lay the burden of infallibility on my back. I am capable of just as many mistakes as anyone else. And if I speak the truth, it is only because I speak truthfully what God has already said in his inerrant Word. It is always good to be like the Bereans who heard the words of Paul and then went home to search the Scriptures to see if what he was saying was true (Acts 17:11).
And this truth certainly means that spiritual leaders must remain open to the correction of other godly Christians. Sometimes we’ll be like Paul and have to go to a brother or sister with a word of correction. Sometimes we’ll be like Peter and be on the receiving end. May God give us grace in both cases to speak the truth in love and to receive the truth with humility.
2) When great issues are at stake, we must put truth above personal friendship. It couldn’t have been easy for Paul to rebuke Peter face to face in front of the whole congregation. He knew he was risking their friendship for the sake of the gospel. What if Peter did not respond well? What if he got angry and attacked Paul’s character? What if it ended up splitting the church? Paul couldn’t be sure what would happen, but he did what he had to do anyway.
The key to all this is the two-word phrase “great issues.” The truth of the gospel is truly a “great issue.” It would be hard to find a greater issue. There are many times when lesser issues are at stake and we must decide to agree to disagree in order to preserve our friendship in the Lord. We’ll just have to agree not to agree about tofu or T-bone, red carpet or blue carpet, contemporary or traditional worship, and a host of secondary issues. If we make every issue a “hill to die on,” we’ll end up fighting all the time and have no friends at all.
But there are times when truly eternal issues are at stake: Is the Bible the Word of God? Is Jesus the Son of God? Is Jesus the only way of salvation? Is salvation truly by grace alone? Is there really a place called hell? Is homosexuality really a sin? Are the lost really lost? The principle is this: When the Bible speaks clearly and repeatedly to an issue, then we have found a “hill to die on.” In that case, personal friendships must not come before the gospel itself.
It’s easier to state that truth than to live it out in practice. And most of us won’t ever end up rebuking someone in front of the whole church. But this principle may come into play in our own family, in a classroom, over lunch at work, at a neighborhood meeting, and with dear friends who do not share our Christian worldview. In those cases, we will need God’s wisdom to know what to say and how much to say and how to say it. But the truth remains. May God give us the courage never to back down or keep silent to save a friendship when truly great issues are at stake.
3) Public sin must be rebuked publicly. Thoughtful readers may ask why Paul didn’t go to Peter privately. Doesn’t Matthew 18:15-18 teach us to go to our brother privately when he has sinned against us? The answer is yes, but that applies most particularly to a personal offense. If my brother sins against me, I am to go to him privately and admonish him privately. Then I take another person with me. Then and only then do I “tell it to the church.” Why didn’t Paul follow that pattern? The answer is, Peter’s compromise was not against Paul personally. It was a public sin that hurt the whole body of Christ. Therefore, it must be dealt with publicly. There are times when the sin is of such a nature that a public rebuke is necessary. This was one of those times.
4) Since our freedom in Christ is always under attack, the church must defend that freedom vigorously. Satan hates the doctrine of free grace and he hates our Christian freedom. He will do whatever he can to bring us back under bondage to the law. He will stir up trouble to cause us to live in the fear of men and not in the freedom of our liberty in Christ. Paul was willing to fight for free grace and for Christian liberty. We must be willing to do the same thing.
Pray for Your Leaders
As I come to the end of this message, the clearest application that comes to my heart is this: We need to pray for our spiritual leaders. We ought to pray for men like Billy Graham and Chuck Colson who have vast responsibilities and whose voices impact the Christian community worldwide. And we ought to pray for the leaders of various ministries and for our missionaries who labor around the world.
And if I may be very personal, we need to pray for our pastors and the leaders of our local churches. Every pastor needs prayer. Every elder and every deacon needs prayer. All our lay leaders stand in need of prayer from the congregation. Sometimes I think our church people take this far too lightly. We neglect to pray for our leaders and then wonder why they fall into sin. We forget to pray and wonder why they struggle to lead us as they should. We forget to pray and then wonder why our churches are not all they could be.
O church, pray for your pastor. Pray for all your pastors. Pray for your elders and all your leaders. Did you think our feet are not made of clay? We are cut from the same cloth as you are. Paul asked people to pray for him. If the great apostle needed prayer, how much more do the rest of us need prayer?
Church of the Pathetic Losers
Several weeks ago Moody Bible Institute sponsored its annual Pastors Conference. On Wednesday afternoon Alistair Begg from Parkside Church in the Cleveland area spoke. Many of you have heard him on the radio teaching the Bible with his distinctive Scottish accent. He is a wonderful Bible teacher who leads a strong and growing congregation. His message dealt with our need to depend fully on the Lord and not on our own resources. As he came to the close, he told the story of how King Jehoshaphat prayed in II Chronicles 20. The Ammonites and the Moabites were moving in a vast army toward Jerusalem. There were so many of them, and they were so well armed, that the men of Israel would never be able to defeat them. As the invaders came closer and closer, the situation looked increasingly hopeless. The king called for a nationwide fast. Men from every town and village gathered in Jerusalem to seek the Lord. Jehoshaphat stood before them and offered one of the greatest prayers in the Bible (II Chronicles 20:6-12). He begins by declaring God’s greatness: “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you”(verse 6). Then he reminds God of the promises he made to take care of his people when they were in trouble. Then he tells God, “We’re in big trouble now!” He freely admits, “we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us” (verse 12). And he concludes with this simple confession: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (verse 12). God’s answer came through a prophet who told the people to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” The next day Jehoshaphat put the male singers at the head of the army and sent them out to do battle. They literally stood still and watched as the Lord sent confusion into the enemy ranks. The Moabites and Ammonites started killing each other by mistake. There was a great slaughter followed by the plundering of the supplies left behind by the enemy soldiers. The story ends with the army gathering for a praise celebration, giving thanks to God for the victory he provided.
After telling that story, Alistair Begg commented that when Jehoshaphat prayed, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you,” he was really saying, “Lord, we’re just a bunch of pathetic losers. And if you don’t help us, we’re sunk.” He went on to say that he had discovered that this was the true mission statement of the church he pastors: “We’re just a bunch of pathetic losers and if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk.” That’s a good name for a church: “The Church of the Pathetic Losers.” You would never run out of prospects.
I think he’s absolutely right. Apart from God’s grace, that’s all we are—just a bunch of pathetic losers. Without God, we don’t have a chance, we don’t have a thing to offer, and we don’t even know what to do next. Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him. So let me say it clearly to everyone who reads these words: I am a pathetic loser. Apart from the grace of God, I own up to the truth that in me, that is in my flesh, there is nothing good at all. Whatever talent I possess, and whatever good I have accomplished, the power to do it has come from the Lord, and he alone gets the credit.
At the same Pastors Conference, Dr. Joseph Stowell, president of Moody Bible Institute, commented that many days he is just sick of himself. I understand that and say “Amen” to it. After the first service a man told me he had stayed up all night wrestling with the Lord because he too was sick of himself. A woman told me, “Sometimes I get on my own nerves.” And a man struggling with a cocaine addiction came to me asking for prayer that he might have the courage to share his struggles with his Sunday School class. Later I received emails from people who were touched by the same truth. All of us (if we are honest) are sick of ourselves sooner or later. A friend passed along these words from a song by Chris Rice:
Curse-reversing day of Jesus
When you finally seize my soul
Freedom from myself will be
The sweetest rest I’ve ever known.
A friend told me about a pastor at another church in the Chicago area who preached something similar. He came up with a phrase that he printed at the top of their church bulletins even though some of the leaders didn’t feel comfortable with it: “Blunder Forward.” Having been a pastor for nearly a quarter of a century, I can testify how true that is. Even on our best days, we struggle as God’s people to simply “blunder forward.” And some days we can’t even do that.
So we need to pray for each other. And we need to pray for our spiritual leaders. Let’s not put our leaders on such a high pedestal that we think they are beyond mistakes or not in need of our prayers. Apart from God’s grace, all of God’s leaders are pathetic losers. There are no exceptions. And when pathetic losers band together to seek the Lord, the Red Sea parts, the walls come tumbling down, the enemy is routed, and the church rolls on for the glory of God. Amen.