A Commentary by John Stott
What can we learn for today from this clash between Paul and Peter in Antioch? Was it just an undignified, unseemly collision of personalities without any lasting significance? On the contrary, the controversy between Paul and Peter is being re-enacted in contemporary ecclesiastical debate, especially with regard to inter-communion. The scene is different. It is not Syria and Palestine, but other parts of the world, not least England. The participants are also different. They are not first-century apostles, but twentieth-century churchmen. The battleground is different too, for it is not the question of Mosaic circumcision, but of such secondary matters as episcopal confirmation, the mode of baptism or the church’s ministry. Yet the fundamental issue at stake is precisely the same, namely on what grounds Christian believers may enjoy table-fellowship with one another, and on what grounds they should separate from one another and excommunicate one another. The answer to these questions is given by the gospel. The gospel is good news of the justification of sinful men by God’s grace. It tells us that the sinner’s acceptance with God is by faith only, altogether apart from works. This is the truth of the gospel. Once we have grasped it clearly, we are in a position to understand our twofold duty towards it.
a) We must walk straight according to the gospel.
It is not enough that we *believe* the gospel (Peter did this, verse 16), nor even that we strive to *preserve* it, as Paul and the Jerusalem apostles did, and Judaizers did not. We must go further still. We must *apply* it; it is this that Peter failed to do. He knew perfectly well that faith in Jesus was the only condition on which *God* will have fellowship with sinners; but *he* added circumcision as an extra condition on which *he* was prepared to have fellowship with them, thus contradicting the gospel.
Still today various Christian bodies and people repeat Peter’s mistake. They refuse to have fellowship with professing Christian believers unless they have been totally immersed in water (no other form of baptism will satisfy them), or unless they have been episcopally confirmed (they insist that only the hands of a bishop in the historic succession will do), or unless their skin has a particular colour, or unless they come out of a certain social drawer (usually the top one), and so on.
All this is a grievous affront to the gospel. Justification is by faith alone; we have no right to add a particular mode of baptism or confirmation or any denominational, racial or social conditions. God does not insist on these things before He accepts us into fellowship; so we must not insist upon them either. What is this ecclesiastical exclusiveness which *we* practise and which *God* does not? Are we more stand-offish than He? The only barrier to communion with God, and therefore with each other, is unbelief, a lack of saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Of course we are not anarchists. There is a place for wholesome church discipline. Every church has the right to make its own rules for its own members. The purpose of such domestic discipline is to ensure, so far as it is possible for human beings to ensure, that those applying for church membership have been justified by faith. But to deny a fellow-Christian (a believing, baptized, communicant member of another church) access to the Lord’s table simply because he has not been immersed or confirmed, or is not this or that, is an offence to the God who has justified him, an insult to a brother for whom Christ died and a contradiction of the truth of the gospel. Am I to regard a justified fellow-believer as unclean, that I will not eat with him? We need to hear again the heavenly voice ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common’ (Acts 10:15).
b). We must oppose those who deny the gospel.
When the issue between us is trivial, we must be as pliable as possible. But when the truth of the gospel is at stake, we must stand our ground. We thank God for Paul who withstood Peter to his face, for Athanasius who stood against the whole world when Christendom had embraced the Arian heresy, and for Luther who dared to challenge even the papacy. Where are the men of this calibre today? Many are the vocal pressure groups in the contemporary church. We must not be stampeded into submission to them out of fear. If they oppose the truth of the gospel, we must not hesitate to oppose them.