Beyond the Lectionary Text: Galatians 2:1-14
by Heidi De Jonge
To be differentiated as an individual is to be defined and connected at the same time. The principle of self-differentiation comes to us from family systems theory https://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptds.html. Aside from Christ, no human being is completely differentiated. We all, the apostle Paul included, could be plotted somewhere on the scale of differentiation of self. Sometimes we err on the side of connection. We give up what we believe and what we think in order to stay connected to other people. Sometimes we err on the side of definition. We fight dirty or flee with fear because staying healthily connected to the person with whom we disagree seems like too much to bear. As we grow in our differentiation of self, we are more and more able to say what is so for us in ways that do not bully or manipulate, while listening well to others say what is so for them in ways that are respectful and loving. Higher levels of self-differentiation are associated with clarity and calm. I think one could also say that higher levels of self-differentiation are manifested in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
When I read these writings of a relatively young Paul (Galatians is most likely Paul’s first extant letter), I see an apostle who is growing in his differentiation of self. He is working the angles of self-definition and other-connectedness.
In Galatians 2, Paul is reporting on his second post-conversion visit to Jerusalem. He tells the church in Galatia that he went up ‘by revelation’ (v. 2) – which is a kind of self-definition. “The important thing about his going up ‘by revelation’ lies, however, in its corollary, which is that he made this second visit neither on his own initiative, nor at the demand of the Jerusalem authorities, as though he had to render an account of himself, nor simply because he had been commissioned by the church in Antioch to go…” (Ronald Fung, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 87). Paul’s self-definition comes through his deep connection to God – and it is from the context of this relationship that he is convinced that he must go.
Paul presented to the leaders of the Jerusalem church the gospel that he preached to the Gentiles. He told them what was so for him. And what was so for him was this: the gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of freedom.
There were certainly those who opposed this understanding of the gospel. There were those who tried to compel Titus, a Greek, to be circumcised (v. 3). Titus was not compelled. He was not forced from the outside to give up what was so for him. There were those who wanted to enslave Paul and others to the demands of the law (v. 4). Paul did not give in to them (v. 5).
When we consider verses 11-14, we see Paul’s continued self-definition. “When Cephas (or Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (v. 11). Paul opposed Peter to his face. Of course we don’t know exactly what this looked like. Paul might have yelled and screamed and behaved immaturely. Or, we could see the conflict between Paul and Peter very differently – as something that happens when people who are attempting to head in the same direction disagree on something quite fundamental. Paul opposed him to his face. Paul was defined – and connected. Paul didn’t oppose Peter behind his back, but to his face. Paul said what was so for him and pointed out how it seemed to be quite different than that which was so for Peter.
People with strong convictions oppose each other sometimes. People heading in the same direction need to call one another out when it seems that the other is not living according to their own convictions – or not living according to previously claimed shared convictions. In this case, it looks like Peter was originally operating according to the gospel of freedom, but then was influenced, and even made afraid, by those who held to a different system (the circumcision group). According to Paul, Peter and Barnabas stopped living according to gospel of freedom.
Fung says that “Peter’s ‘fear may have been no more than a genuine concern lest he, who was head of the ‘home mission’ work of the Jerusalem church, should appear to be (and be reported as) apostatizing from Judaism and thus prove a stumbling-block to those whom he was seeking to evangelize. But the actual term used (‘he was afraid’; phoboumenos) suggests a rather stronger emotional reaction” (Fung, p. 108). Fung goes on to conclude: “The clear sense of hypokrisis shows that Peter was taken to task for failing to have the courage of his real convictions; and it is for this reason that Paul says that Peter ‘stood condemned’” (p. 109). (But see Charles B. Cousar’s commentary on Galatians where he says that Paul’s “concern is not that Peter is insincere but that he is very sincere and is blind to the full import of his actions” [p. 49]).
Working together for the cause of the gospel can be messy business. We may have similar goals, but our means for getting there differ from one to another. Sometimes these differences are based on such fundamentally different interpretations of the gospel, causing a parting of the ways. But sometimes we are able to hold those differences and diversities in the context of a unified mission and vision. And this was obviously the case – at least for some, and at least for a time – as Paul reports in 2:6-10.
Clearly, Peter and Paul had different emphases, as their primary audiences were different audiences (Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles), but the leaders in Jerusalem recognized these variations as important differences that were necessary for the best and fullest transmission of the gospel. The gospels of Peter and Paul were not two different gospels. Fung draws out the healthiness of the agreement that they reached – this agreement that celebrated diversity within unity: “Neither ‘surrender’ nor ‘compromise’ would therefore seem to be a true description of the Jerusalem agreement; rather, it confirmed an already existing unity between the gospel of Paul and the gospel as preached by the Jerusalem leaders and gave recognition to Paul’s apostleship as equal to that of Peter” (p. 101).
Cousar says that this is “a unity discovered in the context of mission” (p. 43). When we are taking the gospel with us into new areas of the world, or new areas of Christian witness, there are moments of tension that may, at the outset, seem like moments of irresolvable difference, but that, when listened and spoken through respectfully and lovingly, lead us toward greater unity, greater gospel-centered diversity, and greater testimony. Like James, Peter, John, Paul, and Barnabas, we can recognize grace in one another. Peter, in his first letter, names us as stewards of God’s grace in its various forms (4:10, emphasis mine). And, like our brethren, recognizing that grace, we can extend to one another the right hand of fellowship (v. 9).
This grace and right hand of fellowship is shared the best when we keep the main thing, the main thing. And this is what the leaders did when they together recognized the importance of continuing to remember the poor (v. 10). This was a priority that each of them grasped in their own right and in their own way. The ‘main thing’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ was and certainly is justification by grace, apart from the works of the law. But the ‘main thing’ was and is also faith evidenced in the work of caring for the poor.
Cousar reminds us that “Christian unity is not to be confused with mere tolerance or indifference or the absence of strife. Like love, it longs for expression in some tangible way, the participation of one partner in the life of the other” (p. 44).
Both faith and unity long for expression in some tangible way – the participation of one partner in the life of the other. In spite of all of the back and forth in this passage, and in spite of Paul’s characteristically long, rambling sentences, I think we can see here what it looks like when partners in the gospel participate in one another’s life. We can see what it looks like when God participates in the life of his servants and when they participate in his life. We are defined by God’s life in us – connected to him and to other believers – and always listening and learning from God’s life in them.
Every church goes through times of conflict and tension – and so does every family. The true meaning of the unity of the church can be taught from this passage and applied to specific situations in our congregations and denominations.
Coursar, Charles B. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Galatians, Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.
Fung, Ronald Y.K., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians, Eerdmans, 1988.
Rev. Heidi De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Community Christian Reformed Church, Kingston, Ontario.