St. Peter, St. Paul, and Racial Justice

by Jared C. Wilson

Last fall on Twitter I made the claim that Paul confronted Peter (as recounted in Galatians 2:11ff.) out of a concern for racial justice as an entailment of the gospel. The nuclear fallout was nearly immediate. Over the ensuing 24 hours, I had my exegetical aptitude, moral reasoning, and even my employment and masculinity questioned in a good old-fashioned social media dog pile. It was, to say the least…interesting.

So where do I get off? How can I make that claim? Am I an idiot?

Well, yes. But I don’t think for this reason specifically.

Peter, Paul, and Race

So here is my effort to explain what, in my estimation, actually would not have been seen as a controversial point two years ago. But that was before no evangelical—or really Reformed evangelical—could talk about race without immediately being put on the defensive. What I mean is, I was actually fairly shocked by the response. No, not the insults and potshots—that’s old hat in Christian social media land, sadly—but by the idea that what Paul is confronting Peter about “has nothing to do with race,” as many people informed me.

Let me begin by explaining what I meant: The holy God has made all men equal. We are to show no privileged partiality for any reason, including social or cultural or racial. (Yes, I know there’s “only one race,” but in today’s parlance I am assuming most people know what is meant by the differentiation between “races.”) Thus, while the immediate circumstances of Peter’s hypocrisy involve upholding the Jewish ceremonial laws in leverage against Gentile believers, the implications are felt between Jew and non-Jew in the moment as playing favorites. This, as Paul says, is “not in step with the truth of the gospel,” because the gospel announces free grace. We are justified by grace alone received through faith alone, and the law cannot help us in that regard except to level the playing field of our universal neediness for salvation in Christ.

In sum: Showing partiality is a violation of the gospel because we are justified by faith, not works, and in the gospel, God has made one new man out of the two (Eph. 2:15).

This, I don’t think, has ever been a controversial point among Reformed folk, and indeed many of those in the “anti-social justice warrior” camp have been saying the same thing for a long time, positing SJW’s as “reverse racists.” So why the freakout? I assume because of the phrase “racial justice,” which in the minds of many has become a junk drawer where only twist-ties and expired Domino’s coupons can be found, but never anything useful like batteries or super-glue.

But that is all I meant (and ever really mean) by “racial justice”—the treating of all persons, including historically or contemporarily marginalized or underprivileged people groups, as equals as a reflection of the just God who has made all persons equally in his image.

Exegesis, please. Now, if you’re tracking with me there, you will want to know where I get that from Galatians 2. (If you’re not tracking with me on the whole equality thing and “no partiality” thing, you need another blog post entirely, and I’m not up to writing it.) Here is the passage in question:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 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?” (vv.11-14)

The immediate theological circumstance/context is about food laws (and circumcision), to be sure. This is in large part Paul’s thrust in the entire letter, rebuking the Judaizer heresy and stumping for the soteriological foundation of sola fide. But the idea that there is no ethnic component to the Jew/non-Jew dynamic is, frankly, strange. And I don’t think I’m the innovator in noting it as a serious matter at stake in Peter’s sin, but rather it is those who deny it has any bearing at all who are advancing something new.

Paul brings up Peter’s separating himself from Gentiles (to play favorites) and forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (by implication) to rebuke Peter’s circumstantial legalism, which is manifested in the sin of cultural partiality. In v.15 he uses the phrases “Jews by birth” and “sinful Gentiles” to bring up not just an apparent difference in theology but also an alleged difference in biology. Jews = faithful, Gentiles = sinful. That’s the assumed dynamic many Jewish believers subscribe to, which Paul is tweaking by, in vv.16-17, going on to say that even Jews are saved not by their customs but by their Christ. It is faith that justifies, not religion. This makes Jew and Gentile equal in both their sin and in their Savior.

To deny that the Jew/Gentile dynamic has nothing to do with racial issues is to overlook a whole lot of biblical history, including more recently to this context the four Gospels, where racial tensions are an undercurrent throughout Jesus’ ministry and, by extension, the apostles’. Think of how ethnic Jews considered those “half-breed” Samaritans. Or just the general uncleanliness of any non-Jew. That was not purely about religious observance; it bled then, as it does now, into areas of ethnic vainglory. (I mean, it’s not like the only time and place in history racial superiority existed was during the days of the antebellum American South.)

Paul’s addressing of this point is perhaps more direct in Romans 9, where he is distinguishing carefully between ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel, the children of physical descent and “the children of the promise,” but it’s a serious component of both Christian mission in the days of the early church and apostolic teaching on unity in Christ. The Jew/Gentile unity is a tension point with all the weight of Isaiah’s prophetic word on Israel as a light to the nations, and all the eschatological vision of Revelation 5:9 at stake.

Anybody else see this? Am I the first guy to see this? According to some of my exegetical helpmeets on Twitter, yes. But, actually, no. John Piper preached an entire sermon on racial harmony from Galatians 2:11-16. That was back in 2006, before race became as taboo a subject as it is today, and well before many of my critics considered Piper a heretic. I’m not too concerned about Piper’s orthodoxy, and he may very well be wrong to get that from this, but at least I’m in good company. More recently (2015), Southern Seminary’s Jarvis Williams cited Galatians 2:11ff. on the issue of race in the church for 9Marks. (See also Williams’s entry in the compilation Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, which includes further treatment of the passage.) New Orleans Baptist Seminary’s DeAron Washington made the direct connection, as well. Timothy Cho makes the connection between Galatians 2 and ethnic pride, as well, writing at Core Christianity:

In Galatians 2, the Apostle Paul publicly rebukes the Apostle Peter for drawing back from fellowship with the Gentiles out of fear of a Jewish Christian faction that believed that Gentiles needed to become Jewish before they could be fully included in the church. This “circumcision party” had made ethnic and racial identification an additional condition for Gentiles to become children of God.

I know, I know—as the argument will go, these are all “social justice warriors” not to be trusted. But modern examples are numerous, from various sources of varying theological stripes and emphases. (Just Google “Galatians 2:11 and race” and see for yourself.)

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Source: Church Leaders