You know the punch line. The person Paul condemned was none other than Peter. We read of the account in the book of Galatians:
11 Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? 15We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Gal. 211:16, NKJV)
Peter, if not explicitly then at least implicitly through his actions, was teaching that works are required for justification. No doubt Peter also understood that grace was necessary for justification, but by his actions he was, in effect, stating that in addition to grace one had to act as a Jew and do the works of the law in order to be justified. Peter was teaching:
Faith (by grace) + Works --> Justification
As is clear from the rest of Galatians, Paul uses this incident with Peter to segue into teaching a different (in reality the only) gospel:
Faith (by grace) --> Justification + Works
From the rest of the New Testament, we know that Peter corrected himself and ceased his Judaizer error. Paul, in challenging rather than tolerating Peter, did him a great loving service. As for Paul, John Calvin theorizes that the credibility of his (Paul’s) entire ministry depended on his fortitude in standing up to Peter.
We live in an age where society worships at the altar of tolerance. I think we have to resist grabbing onto the humanists’ coattails.
Now none of the bloggers I have been reading, who are presently discussing ecumenism, advocate sacrificing truth for the sake of a false unity. In fact they all rightly warn against it. And other parts of scripture tell us not to let insignificant doctrinal differences divide us. Nevertheless it is inescapable that a zeal for truth and a zeal for unity will, at some point, collide. The question is always: are we disagreeing on something essential. If so, then we need to work on correcting whoever is in error, recognizing that it might be the same person I see everyday in the mirror.
Paul’s rebuke of Peter can serve as a model. Their positions differed by some amount. Clearly Paul’s circle was not big enough to accommodate Peter’s position. If you stress unity among believers whose positions differ as much as those of Peter and Paul (which by today’s standards may not be so rare), then I would say gracious debate, rather than unity, is called for.
The lack of unity does not mean a lack of discussion. In fact, it calls for discussion. Let me use as an example one of my fellow (and one of my favorite) bloggers, Mark Shea.
Mark Shea is one of the preeminent Catholic blogger-apologists (with extremely enviable site traffic). I have had more than a few discussions with Mark and his readers in his comments sections.
From my perspective, and I must stress I am not speaking for Mark, we are not unified in the sense that unified is being used here and in the other posts on ecumenism. From my view (again, I am not speaking for him) our differences are very much like the differences between Peter and Paul in Galatians.
I could not go on a joint mission with Mark; to me our messages are incompatible. I would not feel comfortable encouraging someone to attend Mark’s church. If I had an opportunity to witness to (yes, sheep-steal) one of Mark’s readers would I do it? In a heartbeat.
And yet I go to Mark’s site daily looking for edifying discussion. The fact that I cannot claim “unity” with him does not mean that I can’t learn something from reading his blog. It doesn’t mean I have to pretend he doesn’t exist. And it doesn’t mean that I think he is not saved. It means that I think his teaching is false in an essential area, and that I cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter. I have to call him on it. And he should do the same for me.
Providing the tools to challenge and debate one another may be the greatest benefit blogging has to offer. Before the advent of Christian blogging, I had much less opportunity for discussion outside of my comfort zone. It has been a wonderful development.