PETER'S HYPOCRISY AND OURS
It has always been difficult to understand Peter's hypocrisy as described by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. What motivated this
apostolic man to act inconsistently with the truth of the gospel? He was not immune to sin or inconsistency. Nor was it the last
time that someone did not practice what he preached. In fact, Peter's hypocrisy is often our own.
At some point in the early history of the church the apostle Peter visited the Jewish-Gentile church of Syrian Antioch. Paul
and Barnabas were there with him at least part of the time. The best timing for this visit might be Peter's flight from King Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12). Whenever his visit was, while there he freely and habitually shared table fellowship with
Gentiles. "Ate with" (2:12) is expressed in the imperfect tense which denotes a continuous past action. This was nothing new in Antioch. Peter was no innovater, but a practioner. Apparently Paul and Barnabas had shared this same kind of table fellowship
with the Gentiles throughout their ministry in Antioch (Acts 11:25, 26). The Antioch church had chosen unity over the table
regulations of Jewish traditions.
Sometime during Peter's stay in Antioch, some Jewish brethren arrived from Judea. Paul refers to these as arriving "from James" (the Lord's brother in Jerusalem). This may be nothing more than James attempting to contact Peter or involved in a
communication to the Antioch church. There is no dissension implied in the expression "from James." However, with the
arrival of these brethren Peter gradually retreated from any table fellowship with Gentiles and completely separated himself
from them. Again the verbs "withdrew" and "separated" in 2:12 appear in the imperfect tense indicating a process of withdrawl and separation rather than a one-time action.
Paul tells us that the motive for this action by Peter was fear of the circumcised (2:12). Apparently, Peter feared the results
his table fellowship with Gentiles would save on the Jewish brethren who had arrived from Judea. They certainly would not
have been used to such close contact with Gentiles, and they probably placed Peter under some pressure to stop his association
with uncircumcised Gentiles. Peter may have been concerned about mainting unity within the church. Peter's response to this fear
also influenced others. His move led the way for a wholesale defection of previous practice. Even Barnabas, the one whom the
Jerusalem church had sent to work among the Gentiles at Antioch, followed Peter's lead.
The Principle Involved
The incident seems innocent enough, but Paul saw great harm in Peter's example and withdrawal of practical fellowship from the
Gentiles. Paul considered Peter guilty of some sin (2:11, "because he stood condemned" or guilty) and opposed him to his face in the presence of the whole church (2:11,14). He charged him with hypocrisy (2:13, "dissimulation"). There is no idea of
an insincere or false motive here, but imply that Peter had not
acted according to his true conviction. Rather, Peter exhibited one conviction by his actions (i.e., not to eat with Gentiles)
when, in fact, he had already demonstrated another conviction previously (i.e., he had eaten with Gentiles). Far from pointing
up some theological disagreement between Peter and Paul (as modern criticism would guess), the passage indicates the fundamental unity between Peter and Paul since Paul accuses him of hypocrisy (inconsistency) rather than a theological change of position. Peter had acted inconsistently with the truth of the
gospel as even he himself preched it (2:14).
But what had Peter done that was so hypocritical? Peter could have argued that these Jewish brethren were weak and needed to
progress slowly into full fellowship with the Gentiles. He could have argued that association with the uncircumcision would hinder his evangelistic efforts among the Jews in Judea. He could have even argued that he did not want to discourage or scandalize the Judean brethren by insisting that they eat with him when he was
eating with Gentiles. In the moment of the act these are thoughts which might have passed through Peter's mind. Indeed, a
good apologist for situational ethics might be able to make a case that Peter did the loving thing.
Yet Peter's actions was no mere mistaken judgment of opinion. Rather it was a denial of the gospel itself. While Peter would
not have excluded Gentiles from the church, he denied them practical fellowship (actual table fellowship) on the basis of a
cultural or racial principle. Peter had submitted to the principle that cultural/racial customs can be raised as barriers to full fellowship in the church of God. As Paul argued in Galatians 2:14, Peter had forced the Gentiles to become Jews in order to enjoy full fellowship in the gospel. This is tantamount to a denial of God's grace which destroys and tears down all
cultural/racial barriers to fellowship. God's grace, when accepted by faith, unites all cultures and races into one people
Paul expounds the importance of this insight in Galatians 2:14-21. To deny grace and refuse its destruction of all cultural/racial barriers is to return to a righeousness which is based upon the works of law. Anyone who seeks this kind of
righteousness bases his salvation upon a legalistic system of human works of merit (whether it be a pagan idolatrous rite or a
Judaizing interpretation of the law of Moses). Faith in Christ, on the other hand, is the acceptance of Christ's death as the
only ground of merit and the rejection of all human conventions (including those which seek to please God).
When the people of God raise up any barriers to fellowship in the gospel other than an obedient faith they have become followers of
Peter's hypocrisy. These barriers may not even deny that those who we exclude are Christians (Peter would not have said that
about the Gentile Christians at Antioch), but may restrict or deny active and full fellowship between two parties.
For example, there used to be a time (and there is still is in many places) when whites were exclusivistic of blacks and vice
versa. We would not deny that they were Christians (though I have recently heard someone say that blacks have no soul--God
will judge such bigotry harshly), but we would deny full practical fellowship with them. That denial may come in many
forms (table fellowship, worship in the same building, no cooperation in evangelism, etc), and in each case it is a denial
of the gospel. A denial of fellowship based upon purely cultural or racial considerations is a gross devaluation of the gospel's grace.
Another example might be the attitude of some members, and even elders perhaps, that certain "church requirements" (participation
in church programs of various types including prayer partners, soul talks, etc. or regulations concerning the percentage one's income one must donate) are definitions of "faithfulness to the
Lord." When these members of a congregation become exclusivistic, this erects a barrier to full fellowship on the basis of a cultural or methodological concept of the church (that is, the Bible does not contain these specific requirements).
Another example is a danger to missionaries and even to local evangelists. Evangelism is the attempt to preach the gospel
without cultural baggage. Our goal is to win converts to Jesus, and not to make Americans out of Hondurans, or make Americans out of Russians. There are situations on the mission field where two
congregations do not fellowship each other freely because one is Americanized and the other is native. Here culture stands as a
barrier to fellowship much like the cultural unwillingness of a man to remove his shoes might prevent him from worshipping with a
When cultural or racial barriers separate brethren so that they do not seek full fellowship with each other even though they do not assign each other to condemnation, the gospel is denied. The gospel does not relate us as brothers only to sanction our
separation and exclusivism on grounds other than the gospel. We need to learn from Peter to act consisitently with the truth of
the gospel. We need to learn from Peter that we ought to seek full fellowship with other Christians even if we have to cross
cultural and racial boundaries to do so. gage.
First appeared in Gospel Advocate 128.8 (April, 17, 1986), 244-5.