‘Fought’ is an awfully strong word, but these two did have a sharp encounter. We see it unfold in Galatians 2:11-19, where Paul rebukes his fellow apostle for caving in to the prejudice of a group who said that people from all ethnic backgrounds had to satisfy the Jewish ritual law before they could become proper Christians. This meant, for instance, that men had to be circumcised and that no one could eat pork.
Paul was livid at this perversion of the gospel. They were piling on superfluities, making salvation a matter of performance instead of a gift of mercy and grace on the basis of faith alone. If there’s any doubt over how upset Paul was at this heresy, one should read verse 5:12, where he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” In other words, as long as they have the knife out, why stop with circumcision? They could be even more “holy” if they kept on cutting.
In the fire of Paul’s righteous indignation, Peter got scorched. He was doing just fine with the brothers in Antioch – until, that is, some Jewish church members came up from Jerusalem. Before they arrived, he was eating happily with uncircumcised non-Jews in the local fellowship. But when these “legalists,” these Old Testament Law police, showed up, he caved in and pulled away from the Gentiles. Paul spotted his craven behavior and let him have it in front of these judgmental visitors. His rebuke and doctrinal lecture make for great gospel reading.
You might think that after such an embarrassing showdown, the two apostles would have had a parting of the ways. Certainly, hurt feelings have wrecked many a relationship. Yet Christianity is not all about feelings, but also and necessarily about truth. And Peter knew that Paul had truth on his side – so much so that in one of his own letters, he commended Paul’s writing as “scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Though he’d been stung by the criticism, he’d been able to “rejoice with truth” in love (1 Corinthians 13:6) instead of nursing a life-long grudge, which would have hindered his own spiritual development, as well as the witness of the church.
Anyone who’s been around the church for a while recognizes this sort of clash between admirable believers. I remember my own shock in seminary when I discovered that missionaries disagreed almost vehemently over strategy, some favoring long-term work from fixed residential, medical, and educational compounds, others insisting that personnel travel light, ever ready to shift from one region to another as circumstances suggested. I thought they all just sang “Kumbaya” and worked by glad consensus at every point.
Discord is inevitable when finite, fallen creatures join together in larger tasks. All Christians are spiritual works-in-progress; they’re being sanctified right along, but none is perfect, and most are far from it. Along with their gains in beneficence, courage, and winsomeness, they have episodes of selfishness, cowardice, and petulance. And despite their advance in wisdom and knowledge, they’re often just confused. (As a young pastor, I photocopied a quote and put it in my study desk – something along the lines of “Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained in terms of ignorance.”) In fact, a measure of confusion and sub-Christian moodiness can be at play in all the parties concerned. It’s not always black and white, and often each disputant could use a little rebuke and clarification. (Proverbs 27:17 says as much: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”)
One thing you have to love about Galatians 2 is its “verisimilitude,” its truthlikeness. You can tell these are real Christians struggling with real limitations, just as we are. The Bible doesn’t gloss over the imperfections of its characters to enhance its spiritual tone. It tells it like it is. Though the opinions and behavior of the leading figures may be flawed, the reporting of such is accurate, important, and informative. Paul and Peter were not personally flawless. They had their self-confessed moments of weakness. But the Scripture they gave us is inerrant, by God’s superintendence. Through it, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we find our way to God in Christ and learn to walk with Him.