‘What do you have to do to be a member of JPC?’ People ask that from time to time – often because of their experience of another church, where there were certain hoops to jump through. E.g., some churches have a membership covenant you have to sign – which is fine, so long as the things you’re committing to are clearly things the Lord Jesus requires – such as ‘attendance that’s as regular as possible’. The problem comes when a church requires for membership something more than Jesus requires. So, e.g., John Piper, the American pastor and writer, tells how the membership covenant he inherited included this line:
We also engage… to abstain from the… use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage
Now Piper himself is teetotal by choice. But he led his church to drop that line because it requires of people something more than Jesus does.
So, ‘What do you have to do to be a member of JPC?’ Well, we don’t have anything to sign, or hoops to jump through. The answer is: you simply have to be a believer in the Lord Jesus. That’s the basis for belonging. Obviously, you then need to commit to living for the Lord Jesus as an active member of this church – but that’s really the how you belong, not the basis for belonging.
Well that question, ‘What do you have to do to be a member of God’s church?’ was the burning issue for the Christians in Galatia, to whom the apostle Paul wrote Galatians, which we’re going through on Sunday mornings. So would you turn to Galatians 2, and let’s re-cap the background. (Let me say: Galatians was written against a very specific set of background needs and problems, so you have to do some patient ‘spadework’ to understand what was going on back then, before you can see what God is saying to us today through it. So, patience, please!)
The background is that the Galatians were Gentiles – ie, non-Jews. And Paul had told them that trusting in Jesus and his death was all that was required to put them right with God; and that living for Jesus as Lord subsequently did not require them to live under the Old Testament law (OT), like Jews did. Paul then moved on, and some new teachers, who I’ll call the trouble-makers, moved in. And they said to the Galatians, ‘Actually, you are required to live under the OT law. And your men must be circumcised – because that’s always been the sign of being in relationship with God.’ And to undermine Paul, the trouble-makers tried to drive a wedge between him and the other apostles. So they said, ‘If you want to know what to believe, ask Peter and the others. Because they were apostles before Paul. And they got their message direct from Jesus. And if you go to their church in Jerusalem, you’ll find that the Jewish believers there are all still living under the OT law – they haven’t changed that. Whereas Paul has changed the message, to make it easier for you Gentiles to swallow.’
And last week, we saw Paul saying, ‘No, there is no wedge between me and the other apostles.’ Because at the start of chapter 2, he describes how he went to Jerusalem to get public agreement from the other apostles that Gentile Christians are not required to live under the OT law. And he tactically took one along with him – called Titus – to focus the issue. (‘Here’s my Gentile brother, so… are you going to insist he ‘has the operation’ before you let him join a Home Group?’) So look at Galatians 2, v3:
But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised (v3)
And then look down to v9:
and when James and Cephas [ie, Peter] and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (v9)
Ie, there was public agreement… until Peter did something totally inconsistent with that agreement. So look on to chapter 2, v11:
But when Cephas [ie, Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (v11)
So this morning’s passage is about how Peter did something totally inconsistent with the gospel, which the trouble-makers could easily have used to drive their wedge between him and Paul. So Paul has the painful job of explaining what happened and why Peter was wrong. So,
First, PETER’S ACTION
Look at v11 again:
But when [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (v11)
Now you can read about the church in Antioch in Acts chapter 11. And the key thing to know is that it was the first church that was a mix of Jews and Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus together under the same roof. So look on to v12:
For before certain men came from James, he [ie, Peter] was eating with the Gentiles (v12)
Now for a Jew, eating with Gentiles was a ‘No, no’. Gentiles were seen as ‘unclean’ – so you didn’t want to get morally contaminated by them. So, the OT food laws were designed to stop Jews and Gentiles having contact through meals. But here at the start of v12 is Peter the Christian Jew. And he’s now convinced that God accepts people – whether they’re Jews or Gentiles – solely on the basis of Jesus’ death for their forgiveness. And he’s convinced that he must accept everyone God accepts. So if they trust in Jesus, he must recognise them as fellow-members of God’s family and have fellowship with them. And if you’re a believer in Jesus, that should be your attitude to all other believers, as well – however different they are from you, however ‘not your cup of tea’ they may be. So when Peter first arrived at Antioch, he sat down to meals with his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ, and happily tucked in to the sausage rolls and bacon butties. But read v12 again:
For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (v12)
So, some men came from James – one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church (see v9) – and that’s the same James who was part of that public agreement back in chapter 2, verses 1-10. So it’s hardly possible that these men came to say, ‘Actually, Peter, we’ve changed our minds here in Jerusalem. We do think the Gentile believers are required to live under the OT law – and we shouldn’t have fellowship with them unless they do.’
So what were these ‘men…from James’ saying? Well, for a clue, turn over to Galatians 6, v12, where Paul writes:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. (6.12)
Now we know from Acts that the Jewish establishment did persecute the Jewish Christians. And we know from outside the New Testament (NT) that there was a strong Jewish nationalist movement, which wanted to keep Judaism pure, and which was violent towards Jews who associated with Gentiles. So just think what their reaction would be to the news that Peter (one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem) had dropped being kosher and was eating with Gentiles. It would be more violence against the Jerusalem church. So you can imagine these men from James saying to Peter, ‘Look, things are getting really bad back in Jerusalem. We’ve had church members beaten up and arrested; and their houses and shops looted and even death threats. And that’s all a direct result of what you’re doing here.’
So, as a result, Peter (chapter 2, v12):drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (v12)
Actually, the original doesn’t say ‘the circumcision party’ [the ESV translation adds the word ‘party’ for no good reason]. The original just says ‘the circumcision’ – which is one of the ways the NT refers to the Jews. And Peter’s fear was that if he kept mixing with Gentile believers, there would be more persecution by Jews on Jewish Christians – ie, it would make life harder for his fellow-Jewish believers, and make it harder to reach Jews with the gospel.
So before sitting in judgement on Peter, we need to see that what he did was very understandable. And we’d have felt exactly the same emotional reaction of sympathy for our fellow-believers, and exactly the same instinct to bend pragmatically in their direction. Which is a reminder that emotional reactions can lead us to bend pragmatically in ways that are actually wrong on principle. In ministry and church life there are things that have to be said and lines that have to be drawn that are hard for people to hear, and that do seem to make life harder for those who are on the ‘wrong side’ of those lines. But we mustn’t bend pragmatically in a way that’s wrong on principle. As someone put it, ‘In church life, to care for people properly, we need soft hearts but hard heads.’
So that’s Peter’s action.
Secondly, PAUL’S ANALYSIS
In ‘Match of the Day’ terms, we’ve seen the clip of the action, now we’re going to hear the expert analysis. Look down to v12 again:
For before certain men came from James, [Peter] was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (v12)
And here’s Paul’s analysis of what was going on:
And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. [And v14:] ... I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel... (vv12-14)
So Paul’s analysis is that Peter is guilty of hypocrisy – ie, believing one thing but doing another. So as far as what Peter believed goes, we know from verses 1-10 that he believed Gentiles are accepted by God solely through faith in Jesus, and not required to live under the OT law. And he knew that he must accept everyone God accepts and have fellowship with them. But what Peter actually did was to separate himself from the Gentile Christians, which sent the message, ‘I don’t accept you. I don’t recognise you as fellow-members of God’s people.’ And underneath that is the implication, ‘I don’t think God accepts you or recognises you as his people, either.’
So what’s really sobering is that we can deny the gospel by what we do – by our church practice – without saying anything false about the gospel. Because Paul doesn’t say there’s been heresy here – i.e., false teaching that denies the gospel. He says there’s been hypocrisy – i.e., false practice that amounts to denying the gospel.
So, e.g., some South African churches during apartheid operated their own apartheid – which was a way of bending pragmatically towards the society around them. Their teaching often remained as sound as a bell. But the point is: their practice was denying the gospel – because the gospel says the basis of membership in God’s people is faith in Jesus; whereas the practice of those churches said it was faith in Jesus… plus the colour of your skin.
And that’s the big message of Galatians: The basis of membership in God’s people is not Jesus plus. It’s Jesus only.
So let’s see how Paul confronted Peter, v14 again:
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (v14)
So Paul says to Peter, ‘Look, you’re a Jew – and yet, now Jesus has come, you know that you’re no longer required to live under the OT law. And you exercise your freedom not to lie under the OT law – you’ve been tucking into the sausage rolls and bacon butties. So how come you’re now forcing Gentiles to live under the OT law?’ And you might think, ‘That’s a bit harsh – Peter hasn’t forced anyone to do anything.’ But Paul would have said, ‘Yes he has: he’s effectively said to the Gentiles, ‘If you want me to have fellowship with you, you’re going to have to eat kosher.’
Let me give a recent example. A student left JPC a while back and settled in a town where the best church going was a strict Baptist church. And he’d been baptised as an infant. And the policy of that church was that if you hadn’t been baptised 1) on profession of your faith and 2) by full immersion, then you could only be an ‘associate member’ and you couldn’t be a leader of anything in the church. And I know Baptist ministers who feel caught by that kind of strict policy. Because it’s basically saying, ‘We can’t have at least full fellowship with you unless you’re baptised our way.’ Ie, the basis of membership looks like Jesus plus. And this student phoned me to talk about it and I remember him saying, ‘I’d love to stay, but to be fully part of this church, I feel I’m being forced [his word] to be baptised again.’
Now let’s trespass quickly into next week’s passage to see how Paul defines the basis of membership, v15. Thinking of Peter and himself, he says:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified [ie, accepted by God as in the right with him] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (vv15-16)
So the basis on which God accepts people is Jesus and his death on the cross, which paid for the forgiveness of everything that’s unacceptable about us. So if you’re trusting in Jesus, God accepts you. And if someone else is trusting in Jesus, God accepts them. Which means that both of you should accept one another, recognise one another as fellow-members of God’s people and have fellowship with one another, and avoid all unnecessary separations or divisions between you.
Now as we’ve gone through that, I’ve tried to take us from ‘them, back then’ to ‘application to us today’. But let me end with:
Thirdly, SOME FURTHER APPLICATIONS
1. We must accept and work at fellowship with everyone God has accepted.
And God accepts people from every nation, race, colour, background. Which means there are going to be people in his church whom we don’t immediately relate to. But we must accept them and work at fellowship with them.
So, eg, people sometimes say to me that there’s no-one in their home group or small group whom they really ‘click with’ as friends. And I often say, ‘Well that’s because church is family – God’s family, where he chooses the membership and we have to work at accepting those whom he’s accepted. So you may find your ‘click-with’ friends come from outside your small group, not necessarily inside it.’
And can I also just say from these verses that eating together is still a mark of fellowship that’s not just an arm’s length, superficial, ‘How-are-you?’ on-Sunday affair. So it worries me the number of people I talk to who say, ‘I’ve been at JPC three, four, five years and never been invited for a meal.’
2. A church must not require for membership more than Jesus requires
I mentioned that strict Baptist church – not to take a swipe at Baptist convictions, but to illustrate how easy it is for secondary issues to divide believers or create two-tier membership.
So a secondary issue is something that’s not necessary for salvation – something which we can disagree on without believing that the other person is not truly right with God – eg, the age and method of baptism. Whereas a primary issue is something that is necessary for salvation – eg, believing that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for the forgiveness of our sins. And one strength of an Anglican church like ours is that we don’t define ourselves by secondary issues. So we can agree to disagree under the same roof about things like baptism, spiritual gifts, the timescale of creation, and any number of other issues that divide Christian opinion.
3. A church must work so that its culture isn’t excluding people
And this is a real challenge. Eg, I read an article by a guy who’d planted a church on a council estate, helped by a group of fairly middle class people. And he writes, ‘Early on, this guy from the estate came to church – in trackie bottoms and hoodie – and walked into this sea of Boden tops and chinos. And I could see the culture shock written all over his face.’
And a range of people have told me how they feel excluded to some degree by our church culture. And it goes way beyond the style of services (which is an issue for some). Eg, I’ve heard it said, ‘You need a degree to be at JPC – the teaching just goes over my head.’ (In our defence, can I say it’s not easy to explain some parts of the Bible – like Galatians – in words of three syllables or less; but I may have failed in that respect this morning and contributed to that perception of our church.) I’ve heard it said, ‘You need to be married and preferably with 2.3 children to be at JPC – it’s just not designed for single people or those without children.’ I’ve heard it said, ‘You need to have no problems to be at JPC – the assumption is that you’re a nice, middle class person who’s never messed up.’ Now we’re not saying any of those things. But our church culture clearly is, and needs to change.
4. When leaders mislead the church publicly, they must be publicly opposed
Paul is often criticised for being un-Christian, here. People say, ‘Shouldn’t he have spoken privately to Peter instead of dealing with his mistake publicly? Isn’t that what Jesus tells us to do in Matthew 18?’
But the answer is: in Matthew 18 (see vv15-17), Jesus is dealing with a private offence against you alone. And he does say that in that case, you speak to the person who has sinned against you privately and alone – and if they’re repentant, it goes no further – it’s not gossiped, it’s not mentioned in a rant on your Facebook page. It goes no further.
But this wasn’t a private offence against Paul alone. It was a highly public denial of the gospel (in practice, even if not by heresy), with the potential to mislead the whole Christian world. And therefore it had to be opposed publicly to avoid people following Peter’s false lead.
And that’s the principle behind the stand we took years back in relation to the current bishop of Newcastle. He has in practice affirmed same-sex relationships as acceptable to God. Whereas in 1 Corinthians 6 (see vv9-11) Paul makes it clear that a homosexually active lifestyle – along with many other lifestyles; he doesn’t just single out one – is not compatible with having Jesus as Lord. So having communicated with the bishop privately, to check what he really was saying and doing, David and Jonathan led us to take a stand against him publicly, to say we couldn’t recognise him as our bishop. Because the principle is: when leaders mislead the church publicly, they must be publicly opposed
But that’s not the main point of the passage to end on. The main point is: what do you have to do to be a member of a church that’s shaped by the gospel? The answer is: the basis for belonging is simply to be a believer in the Lord Jesus. And beyond that, a church needs to work all the time to check that its teaching and its practice and its culture requires both nothing more and nothing less of Christians than Jesus does.