I have heard and read Christians make some very harsh, mean, and cruel statements as they strive to defend the truth against error. Sadly, in the heat of a discussion even we Christians can get downright nasty with each other if we’re not careful. We can forget that God told us to restore others with gentleness (Galatians 6:1). We can forget that the servant of God is not to be quarrelsome but rather correct our opponents with gentleness (II Timothy 2:23-25). We can forget that we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Instead we seem to think we can speak hatefully, cruelly, spitefully, condescendingly, and mockingly but we are still being gentle and loving because our words were the truth. That is just not so. If we are directed to speak the truth in love, that means it is possible to speak truth but not do so in a loving way.
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying sin must not be rebuked. I’m also not saying there is never a place for sternness and firmness. I am saying that no matter what the situation, we are to be gentle and loving.
However, when some are accused of violating these principles, they will often turn to Galatians 2:11-14. “See, Paul withstood Peter to his face. I can do the same.” Yes, Paul withstood Peter to his face, but does this mean Paul was harsh or cruel? Does this mean Paul yelled at Peter, belittled him, called him names, and held his error against him for the rest of his life? It doesn’t mean any of those things and it doesn’t justify any of those things.
Regrettably, I fear we may read our own emotions and actions into Galatians 2:11. The text says Paul withstood or opposed Peter to his face. Too many of us picture this as Paul getting up in Peter’s face with finger wagging and voice raised. We read anger, wrath, and vehemence into this passage. That is what we read into it. It is not what is there. The word translated “withstood” or “opposed” means “resisted.” It doesn’t mean that he yelled. It doesn’t mean he got up in Peter’s face. It simply means he stood against Peter. He didn’t go along with Peter but resisted Peter’s actions. He did that to Peter’s face, not behind his back. He didn’t hide his opposition to Peter. Being opposed to someone or something doesn’t mean being cruel to them.
Further, take a look at how Paul actually withstood or opposed Peter. Did he say, “What’s wrong with you, Peter, you stinking hypocrite?” Did he make all kinds of accusations or call Peter names? Did he even chastise Peter for not holding the proper standard? Actually, he asked Peter a question. He prompted and provoked Peter’s thinking. He asked, “If you though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14).
But what about the fact that he did it in front of everyone? Doesn’t that show his intent to embarrass and shame Peter publicly? Actually not. In front of whom did Paul demonstrate his opposition? In front of those who were going along with Peter’s error. Paul was addressing the “ringleader” in front of those who were following him. He wasn’t blasting Peter in front of everyone; he was correcting a group by speaking to their leader in their presence.
What does this passage actually authorize about our conduct? It does authorize opposing error. It does authorize opposing error publicly. It does authorize rebuking sin. However, it does not authorize calling people names, shaming them, being mean to them, cruelly treating them, mocking them, abusing them, belittling them, berating them no matter how wrong they are. We must withstand, oppose, resist error and wrong practices, but we must do so with gentleness and love.
Some times the things we do with the best intentions still cause problems. For instance, just the other day, I came into the dining room to find the dinner dishes on the table and no one else was there. I decided to clean up. I scraped all the food on the plates into the trash, rinsed the dishes, loaded the dishwasher, and went on my merry way. A few moments later, I heard Marita call from the dining room, “Hey, where’s the rest of my supper?” Oops. The fact is, sometimes even what we do with good intentions can cause some problems.
This is true with teaching the Bible also. There are times when we have the best of intentions as we try to teach, explain, or illustrate some Biblical principle. However, sometimes even our best intentions cause problems. This is why we need to be careful regarding how we teach. Consider an example.
We are extremely concerned about sticking with the Bible and following the pattern it establishes. We read II Timothy 3:16-17 and learn that a work is good only if the scriptures provide equipping for it. In order to convey this idea, we have sometimes said things like, “We can only do what they did in the New Testament.” The problem is that statement just isn’t true.
We can only do what the New Testament authorized. However, that is not the same thing as only doing what they did. Because of that kind of statement many people today are constantly saying we do all kinds of things that aren’t in the New Testament—Bible classes, song leaders, song books, buildings, etc. They then conclude that while we say we need authority, we actually practice whatever we want. We get upset and try to correct that, but we rarely realize our own statements caused the misunderstanding.
We need to be clear when we teach. We are not limited by the example of the early Christians. We can do things they did not do in the New Testament. Their scriptural example is merely one means by which we find authority and equipping to act. For example, the church’s job is to uphold the truth (I Timothy 3:15). As far as I’m aware, we never see the churches of the New Testament have a set of Bible classes in which they divide up the congregation and have small group studies. However, when we have done that, we are doing nothing more than teaching the truth to a group of people. No, we don’t find Bible classes in the New Testament. However, we do find equipping for Bible classes in the New Testament.
We need to measure our speech, be clear, and make correction when our intentions cause problems. We need to quit leaving the impression that we are only allowed to do what is specifically exemplified in the New Testament. Rather, we are looking for authority from the New Testament and that authority can come in multiple ways. No, that won’t cause everyone to suddenly agree that we need New Testament authority to act. However, at least we won’t be contributing to their misunderstanding.
Communication is tough work and we’ll always make mistakes. However, let’s work hard at improving our teaching by being as clear and accurate as possible.