When Hypocrisy Corrupts Theology

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?”

Galatians 2:11-14 (ESV)

When prejudice is found in those who confess the name of Christ, it is always accompanied by hypocrisy. The American writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” begins with Mrs. Turpin in a doctor’s waiting room, watching with condescension those around her. She sees poor white people, black people, and “ugly” people. With a momentous sigh of relief, she thanks God that He has spared her from these “conditions.” Her prayer is reminiscent of an ancient, Jewish thanksgiving: “Thank God I’m not a Gentile, slave, or woman.”

It is difficult to imagine how hard it was for many Jews, God’s chosen people, to accept that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Apparently certain false teachers called “Judaizers” found it impossible to swallow and taught that a Gentile must adopt the customs of the Jewish people before embracing Christianity. For a time, these customs had their place in salvation history; they were commanded by God to set the Jewish people apart as special and holy. But these laws were now fulfilled in Christ; holiness would not be found in what one ate but in Whom one believed; as Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, wrote, “[A] person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16).

Here, Paul censured Cephas (Peter) for retreating from this bedrock Christian truth. For a time, Peter lived “like a Gentile and not like a Jew” (2:14). That is, he ate non-kosher food with his Gentile brothers in Christ—a beautiful picture of reconciliation. But when “men came from James” (Jewish Christians from Jerusalem), prejudice reared its ugly head. The fear of men filled Peter, and he pulled away from his Gentile brothers. By capitulating to the Judaizers, Peter lent credibility to their heresies and thus “forced Gentiles to live like Jews.” Faith in Jesus Christ was no longer enough—the works of the law became a requirement. Paul rightly saw the gospel being obscured, and his rebuke of Peter was swift and severe: “I opposed him to his face because, he stood condemned” (2:11).

If prejudice and hypocrisy could enter the Apostle Peter’s ministry, believers today dare not assume they are impervious to such a fall. When Christians use unbiblical standards to marginalize or shun their brothers and sisters, they join in the Galatian sin of prejudice, and thereby cloud the gospel. For some churches, it may be as subtle as an unofficial dress code, whereby men without (or with) ties are not taken seriously. Others look down on those who use (or don’t use) the King James Bible. In still others, raising hands in prayer (or not) or cherishing prophecy charts (or not) could quickly make one an outsider.

Some Christians reassure themselves with the internal monologue—“Surely I am not prejudiced!”—while at the same time giving aid and comfort to those who do, in fact, practice discrimination or other sorts of heresies. Sin is sin, even if it is once removed from its heinous source. Shepherds of God’s flock must stay vigilant lest the company they keep corrupt their theology and ultimately ruin their ministries.