A Few Thoughts about Conflict ahead of SWBTS Trustee Meeting 5/22/18

There is much ado about the developing at situation Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) with its president Paige Patterson, which also has significant implications for the upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and the SBC as a whole. This scenario has become another unfortunate chapter in SBC life, and at SWBTS, an institution from which I hold two degrees.

Whereas I am in wholehearted agreement that major changes need to happen in our denominational stances and behavior regarding women, I also count Paige Patterson and other radical complementarian men (which I am not) as brothers in Christ.

Therefore, I will continue to take my stand for my sisters in Christ in the Church, without being against Paige Patterson. I am thankful for Patterson’s public apology, and I hope this becomes a redemptive and teachable moment in his life and for everyone involved.

A LESSON FROM TWO APOSTLES WHO FOUGHT

This past Sunday, I taught on Galatians 2:11-21, where Paul describes a very public confrontation he had with Peter. We so often see these apostles as larger than life. In art, they are almost always depicted wearing saintly apparel, with halos over their heads, in front of a holy backdrop.

In this story, however, we see both men in a very human moment. Peter caved to the pressure of outsiders, and Paul lost his cool. What appears to be a clash of to titans of the Christian movement, also called “pillars” of the Early Church (Galatians 1:9), was actually a teachable moment for both of them, for the church at Antioch, for the churches among the Galatians, and also for us.

The setting of Antioch is a key to understanding why this conflict happened. Antioch was a port city with thousands of people coming and going because of its extensive commerce and trade. The church at Antioch, like the city itself, had become a multicultural nexus of ethnicities and belief systems from places like Judah, Syria, Arabia Greece, and northern Africa; which meant Jews and Gentiles worshiping together.

Antioch and Pauls 1st Missionary Journey
Antioch attracted thousands of people from multiple continents and cultures. As a result, the church at Antioch became very multi-cultural missionary sending center for the Early Church.

Within this community of faith, Jews and Gentiles would often eat at the same tables. It is the table which becomes the main setting for Paul’s confrontation of Peter. When Peter had first come to Antioch, he often ate with the Gentiles at their table. After all, God had already revealed clearly to Peter that the Gentiles were no longer to be regarded as unclean because of the work of Christ (Acts 10:15). When a group of Peter’s old Hebrew compadres from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch, however, compelling the Gentile Christians to conform to Hebrew legalism through the practice of circumcision, Peter capitulated to their pressure and no longer ate at the table with the Gentiles.

If this seems like High School drama, as in who gets to sit at the “cool table,” it was not. This was deeply deeply seated racial tension, going back for centuries. The Jewish rabbis used to say things like: “If you accidentally rub shoulders with a Gentile, you could be made impure just by incidental contact.” Or, “Never eat at a table with a Gentile, for surely what they eat is unclean and who knows where their hands have been?”

So Paul, believing that Peter’s behavior was pulling them back to past ignorance and belittling the work that Christ had done to make both Jew and Gentile clean, was filled with righteous anger. He believed that Peter should have known better. In his anger, Paul “opposed [Peter] to his face . . . in front of everyone.”

Without a doubt, Peter was in the wrong here. In first century Judeo-Christian culture, table fellowship in the Church represented fellowship before God. By switching tables in the way that he had, he was sending a message to everyone in the Antiochene church that the Gentiles were more like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and that the work of Christ had not been sufficient to cleanse them completely from their sinfulness. This was not ok, and it was right for Paul to be angry. It’s no wonder Paul used such strong words as “condemned” and “hypocrisy”.

That does not mean, however, that Paul carries no culpability for the conflict. In confronting Peter to his face in front of everyone, one might argue that Paul jumped right over steps one and two of Jesus’ protocol for dealing with conflict with a brother or sister in Christ found in Matthew 18:15-17: “(STEP 1) If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, (STEP 2) then take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ (STEP 3) If they still refuse to listen, then take it before the church…”

My point regarding all of this is simply that both men were wrong. I don’t want to be guilty of either offense – belittling any brother or sister in Christ or publicly shaming another brother or sister in Christ in ways that do not honor God. 

CONCLUSION

It is noteworthy to me that Paul changed the tone of his language in Galatians 2 after recounting the whole “I called him out in front of everyone” story. His language went from condemnation to exhortation as he wrote one of the most well-known verses in all of the New Testament: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

It is possible that Paul confronted Peter publicly with pure intentions, with the purpose that everyone would hear his defense of the Gentile Christians and that they themselves would hear Paul be their advocate. At the same time, the way Paul’s language shifts at the end of the chapter makes me wonder if he would have done things differently if given the chance again.

Perhaps he would have simply spoken in favor of Christ, and in favor of his brothers and sisters in Christ, and not against his brother Peter. Perhaps, instead of calling Peter out in front of everyone and saying what he did, he would simply have pulled Peter aside and said: “Peter, my beloved brother, we have been crucified with Christ and we no longer live, but Christ lives in us. The life we now live in the body, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.”

3 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts about Conflict ahead of SWBTS Trustee Meeting 5/22/18

  1. djhester67 says:

    Amen! I appreciate your perspective.

    As an interesting side note, I spent some time last year looking into what happened with Paul’s relationship with Barnabas after the encounter described in Galatians 2. Without reading too much into the text, it seems that the relationship between Paul and his mentor in the faith may have been damaged to a point that it was never the same.

    Barnabas was the one who took Paul under his wing at the beginning of Paul’s ministry. Barnabas personally vouched for him before the leaders in Jerusalem. Barnabas was the first “pastor” at Antioch. Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch to help disciple the church. Barnabas was likely the leader of the first missionary journey. Of course, Paul disagreed with Barnabas publicly regarding whether to give John Mark a second chance.

    When Paul confronted Peter in Galatians 2, he also threw Barnabas under the bus with the charge of hypocrisy. Then he wrote it in a letter that was distributed to the churches throughout Galatia. There is ample evidence that Paul’s relationship with John Mark was eventually restored. However, there is no convincing evidence his relationship with Barnabas was ever restored.

    When I studied this issue, it really saddened me. It also caused me to be mindful of how I handle the precious friends that the Lord has placed in my life – especially in my public comments. If something shared in the letters of the first century could spread such strife, how much more damage can be done in the age of instant communication placed at the fingertips of every believer in social media.

  2. John White says:

    If three thousand women and men sign a petition seeking redress of an offense, does it make them right or righteous? Or does it instead display a disregard for Matthew 18:15-17 and a lack of understanding and acceptance of the bible’s teachings on relationships? Seeing Christians and some of my relatives choose the world’s way with a petition rather than God’s way as revealed in scripture saddened me. Persons who chose not to talk with Paige directly missed a great opportunity to show Christ’s love and possibly learn more from this esteemed teacher of the Word.

    1. Eric Costanzo says:

      Of course not everyone has the opportunity to access Paige Patterson or other prominent leaders in person. In those situations, our votes or other methods of having our voices heard are often the only option. I believe the petition gave several women that has had an influence regarding this issue in an environment where women’s voices have not been valued.

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