Like any group of people those in the church find themselves, from time to time, contending against one another. This was also the case for those in the early church. That being the case, is there anything in Scripture that speaks to when it is appropriate to contend and how to contend with a fellow christian?
If we analyze those cases in Scripture where believers contended with one another we find certain standards are in play. These situations have the following:
- It is face to face
- There is no holding back on the charge. Rather it is made directly.
- It is done openly in front of all. There are no back room conversations. No gossip behind the scene.
- Finally and most importantly, these confrontations do not happen over “preferences” or "what's working" or "the latest way" or “what is popular with all or any demographic”. These confrontations only occur when the integrity of the Gospel is threatened or those who need to come to the Gospel might be hindered or prevented from doing so by either actions or the lack of actions.
One of many examples of believers in the early church contending with one another is documented in Galatians Chapter 2. Cephas (Peter) had withdrawn from eating with the Gentile Christians because they were not circumcised. Paul states that Cephas did this because he “feared those of the circumcision”. First, what Peter is doing is wrong on its face. But any time we do things out of fear, rather than love, we are most likely in the wrong as it was in this case for Peter.
For Paul, Peter's refusal to eat with Gentiles is unacceptable because it places circumcision above the Gospel. So this satisfies number 4 above; it is about the essence of the Gospel and how this impacts those who would come to the Gospel, or have already come into the Gospel but are being secluded from fellowship by other than the truth of the Gospel.
In Galatians 2:11 Paul writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I stood against his face, because he was to be blamed.”
The most interesting part of this passage is “κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην (I stood directly against his face).
The original Greek in this passage is:
|against||face||to him||I stood|
|because||to be blamed||he was|
Translation: “But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I stood directly against his face, because he was to be blamed.”
It is clear from this that number 1 and 2 are satisfied. To protect what Paul refers to as the “truth of the gospel”, Paul’s confrontation with Cephas is face-to-face and stark and explicit.
Paul waits for Cephas to come into Antioch and then he confronted him personally and directly holding nothing back and being very explicit. It also states in verse 12 that he did this "in the presence of all".
Over the many years I have spent within churches, one of the areas in which churches fail most often is this process of contending. Churches contend over the wrong things; things of preference rather than precedence. They contend in private rather than in public. This is especially destructive when the actions have an impact on the public but the consequences are not addressed in public.
But the most devastating error of all is the lack of specificity and directness. For some reason Christians confuse love and kindness and graciousness with side stepping an issue. When they do this they assume they are loving and that the issue will take care of itself.
But in this passage it is clear that Paul literally stood in Peter’s face and confronted him. He did this publically because what Peter had done had an impact publically.
The conclusion is simple, when it comes to what Paul calls “the truth of the gospel” any behavior or teaching or process that damages this truth, or prevents this truth from reaching its destination, those who need it, is to be dealt with face to face, explicitly and publically. Protecting the truth of the Gospel that is the means of salvation takes precedence over the feelings and shame of those who violate this precedence of the Gospel by replacing it with their preferences.
Finally, during the process of contending no one group gets preference or is held above another within the body of Christ. Whether long time members, new members, or visitors who are coming to Christ, they are all treated equal in this process.
A clear sign that "the truth of the Gospel" is being compromised, and thus impaired, is a process that places new over old or old over new; long time over short time or short time over long time. The only measure should be that the truth of the Gospel is for all — young, old, rich, poor, married, single, long time christian or new.
When the Gospel is altered to benefit one group at the expense of another, it is not the Gospel, it is merely a preference. And to this, like Paul, we should stand against its face.
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