Peter, Paul, and Race
When it comes to race relations and the church, let’s acknowledge first off that the church has had major challenges in this area. Yet let’s also acknowledge that the church is still our best hope. Why? Well, because Jesus is the head of the church. As long as we keep in step with Jesus, the world around us will be able to find in us the reconciliation they’ve been missing.
All along, God had a plan for a multiracial church. In John 12:32, Jesus said, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Then, in Matthew 28:19, Jesus sent His disciples out to make disciples of all nations. We can see in Jesus’ plan for His church a continuation of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, in which God told him, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
Clearly, the church was never meant to be for only a select group of people. It’s for anyone who wants a relationship with God and is willing to follow His Word.
Unfortunately, it took Peter and many of the early disciples of Jesus a long time to truly accept these truths. You see, the church began as a Jewish community. It’s true that the early disciples had seen God open doors for non-Jews (Gentiles) to come to faith in Jesus. In fact, it was Peter himself whom God led to tell a Roman centurion about Jesus, thus baptizing the first Gentile into Jesus.
At the time, Peter seemed to understand very well that God was now seeing no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as Peter exclaimed,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).
Yet it is very possible to understand a teaching from God—and even believe it—but for the teaching not to implant as a matter of conviction. Unless a belief becomes a conviction, it’s likely to be blown over and uprooted by cultural winds.
Meanwhile, another of the early disciples of Jesus, Paul, went from being a persecutor of the church to an apostle of the church. God had set Paul apart specifically for ministry to the Gentiles. When Paul and Peter met to discuss the gospel, it was clear that they were on the same page about God’s inclusion of the Gentiles (Gal. 1:18; 2:1-3).
Yet, again, beliefs can be affirmed without taking root as convictions.
And if we want to learn what our real convictions are, we can find out a lot by looking around our dinner tables. Peter was ministering at a church in which there were Jews and Gentiles. That’s obviously a good step in the right direction. As such, Peter was accustomed to eating with both Jews and Gentiles. But when some of the Jewish Christian leaders sent by James in Jerusalem came to visit the church, Peter decided to revert back to eating with his own ethnicity.
Paul tells us what happened:
For before certain men came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:12-14).
Because there was still a strong cultural divide, Peter reverted to having a Jewish table and a Gentile table. Right here, the church could have been divided. But Paul would not allow the church Jesus had died to bring together fracture into disunity. Too much was at stake.
Do you want to keep pursuing racial reconciliation in your church? If so, then please remember these three truths from this episode in Galatians:
First, racial unity is a gospel issue.
The bringing together or formerly disunited people is a major component of the gospel. When we don’t care to pursue racial reconciliation, then we are missing the truth of the gospel.
Again, here is how Paul put it: “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all…” (2:14).
And because racial unity is a gospel issue, then racial disunity is something to call out in our churches—not something to shrug at. Let’s be reminded that, if we are gospel-centered, we can’t put up barriers based on ethnicity, skin color, political affiliation, or membership in a particular denomination. What matters is faith and repentance before God in Christ.
Second, racial unity starts with leaders.
The leader’s relational habits matter. When Peter caved to cultural pressure, the other Jews in the church joined him, including even Paul’s dear friend Barnabas. If we want our churches to match the multiethnic vision Jesus gave us, then we who are church leaders must model multiethnic relationships. Just as in Galatians, this starts at the dinner table.
Third, racial unity isn’t something we arrive at, as much as something we need to continue to work at.
Cultural winds of disunity will keep threatening to blow your church off track. Peter had baptized a Roman centurion into Christ, which was a huge step for him and the church toward racial unity. Yet affirming a belief isn’t the same as developing a conviction. Peter needed to take more steps to reaffirm racial unity as a core conviction, and to do that, he needed to let Jesus be Lord over his table and chairs.
One final thought: Each week, as we sit down together at the communion table—brothers and sisters from diverse backgrounds—let’s remember that we are all sinners celebrating the blessing of salvation. And let’s let the countercultural unity we experience around the communion table influence how we utilize our dinner tables.