“Oh no, girls. I’m sorry. I didn’t know . . .”
That’s what I had to tell my American daughters several times each season as we walked up to the Czech public school they attended. We never knew what the native moms and kids knew, like when to shift from wool hats to cotton hats, or when to shift from snow boots to tennis shoes.
It sounds unreal to fiercely independent Americans but in a homogenous community with roots going back generations, there is a real and unseen system for what you wear during each season. The day the clothing shifts was unanimous in our former village in the Czech Republic, but it was never explicitly explained.
So when my girls wore Mary Janes instead of the appropriate rubber boots, they were asked if their mother was crazy. And when they didn’t have the proper parka, their teachers shook their heads and tisk-tisked.
We tried. We kept a close eye on the calendar. We asked our Czech friends for help. We peeked out the window at other kids on their way to school. But we rarely cracked the cultural clothing code. Add to that a serious gap in language and zero roots in the village, and our kids were doomed to be outsiders.
They already felt like they didn’t belong, and I hated not being able to help them fit in.
A TABLE DIVIDED
Being ostracized or seen as second-class is unpleasant for everyone. We long to belong. Technically, our family did belong in the Czech Republic. We had legally entered the country, attained all the proper visas, rented a home in the village, and gained entrance into the local school through all the correct channels. But while we deserved to be there, we were painfully aware that culturally and linguistically we did not fit in.
How much more despondent the early Gentile Christians must have felt when Peter stopped associating with them. Because of their faith in the blood and mercy of Jesus, they deserved a seat at the table, right next to Peter and any other apostle or Jewish Christian. But after having been one of the first to share the gospel with the Gentiles, Peter “drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Gen. 2:12).
I wonder what the Gentiles’ table talk was like after Peter quit eating with them. It had to be confusing and hurtful, maybe even preposterous and maddening. They knew how Peter heard from the Lord himself: “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). They knew Peter told Cornelius and his household, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). They themselves received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44) and they knew Peter defended their faith when the circumcision party criticized him for sharing the gospel with them (Acts 11:2, 3, 12, 15).
“Did Peter change his mind?” they probably wondered. “Did he make a mistake when he shared the good news with us? Was it really the Holy Spirit that fell on us? Are we really in?”
The irony is that Peter was worried about what his Jewish brothers would think of him dining and sharing life with the unclean Gentiles. He and his Jewish brothers had a lifetime of training that said the Gentiles are unclean, unacceptable, and inappropriate table company for good Jews. Peter took such strong and decisive action in rejecting the Gentiles that “the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (Gal. 2:13).
OUT OF STEP WITH THE GOSPEL
Seeing that Peter prioritized his ethnicity above the gospel, Paul was incensed. He confronted Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11)—maybe even in the presence of the Gentiles who were on the outs. Paul did not mince words when he told Peter and the other Christian Jews that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Paul knew that Peter knew they were saved by grace alone, though faith alone, in Christ alone. Paul told Peter he was brazenly out of step with the gospel in elevating his own heritage and former practices above that of his Gentile brothers in the faith.
That “approval of man” Paul had alluded to earlier in his letter to the Galatians (1:10) seems to have enslaved his brother Peter and disabled him from being “a servant of Christ.” Rather than serving his faith family, he served the Judaizers. Rather than serving the Lord, he served man. Rather than living out the truth of the gospel, he fell back under the law.
Peter prioritized his long-held traditions and cultural preferences above gospel unity. Rather than casting off all other labels and identities and walking in Christ with the Gentile believers, Peter, Barnabas, and the rest of the hypocritical Jews rejected their Christian brothers for their national brothers.
To be “in step” with the gospel is to rightly understand that grace through faith in Jesus is the one and only standard for true belief, and to act accordingly. The gospel says no work can be applied to our faith. It’s faith alone—which the Gentiles had—and Peter rejected as not enough.
WHO’S AROUND YOUR TABLE?
More than 2,000 years later, I fear we still struggle with the same thing. Cultural unity so often trumps gospel unity. Those sitting at my table tend to look like me and have cultural practices that look like mine. All too often, I prioritize the ease of homogeneity over and above the joy of Christian solidarity.
We Christians—especially those of us who belong to the majority culture—must ask who is welcome at our table? And whose table do we approach? Who is sitting across the table from you and me?
Do you sit and eat and fellowship with Christians from other denominations? Political persuasions? Neighborhoods? Ethnicities? Classes? Career fields?
Are you a white-collar businessman who sups with a blue-collar tradesman? Are you a stay-at-home mom who dines with the working single mom? An artist sharing a meal with an accountant? An ivy league graduate dining with a high school graduate?
MAKE ROOM AT THE TABLE
We live in divided times in the United States and in much of the world. But this should not be so in the church.
Like my own children experienced abroad, we all know what it feels like to be different. To be left out. But to treat anyone as second class in the church is to be out of step with the gospel.
May the Lord give us eyes to see our hypocritical blind spots. May he give us hearts to love our siblings in the faith—no matter how different they are from us. And may you and I make space and boldly invite his whole family to our tables.
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for nearly two decades on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.