The cross-cultural success of the mission in Antioch and beyond (Acts 14:26,27) triggered conflict within the church as a whole. With the steady trickle of Gentile converts rapidly turning into a flood, the apostles in Jerusalem had to take note of what the church in Antioch was doing; this is probably why Peter went there (Galatians 2:11). Hot on his heels, a group of Judean Christians arrived with an agenda of their own: they wanted all the new Gentile believers to become full-blown Jews (Acts 15:1). These ‘Judaisers’ claimed to be acting on apostolic authority, and they caused considerable confusion amongst the Gentile believers (Acts 15:24), who were faced with two conflicting messages, both claiming to be the official Gospel. Thus the battle lines were drawn: who was preaching the true gospel, and who was preaching the false one?
Sharing food was an integral part of Christian fellowship, but required Jews to eat with ‘unclean’ Gentiles. When Peter, under pressure from the Judaisers, declined to participate any more, all the other Jewish believers in Antioch felt obliged to follow his lead. Their action threatened to split the church into two (Galatians 2:12,13), and seems to have prompted Paul to write this letter.
Did all this happen just before the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), or some time afterwards? Peter’s erratic behaviour at Antioch (Galatians 2:11,12) is more understandable if it happened beforehand, while the situation was still fluid. Also, the decision of the apostles and elders, widely disseminated to the churches by letter, appears to have settled the argument (Acts 15:22-31). While the issue did continue to rumble on (it is mentioned in some of Paul’s later letters), it never again reached such a crisis point or required such a sustained and energetic rebuttal as in the letter to the Galatians.
The very fact that this question is no longer an issue for us is testimony to how effectively the early church dealt with it. But similar issues continue to arise from time to time. So what is an ordinary church member to do when they see their leaders disagreeing in public? How are we to decide between the true gospel and false teaching? Theology isn’t something we can comfortably afford to ignore; it has repercussions on how we live and on how our churches function (such as whether Jewish Christians could sit down to eat with Gentiles).
And so the letter to the Galatians is of universal relevance. In addressing the immediate issue, Paul lays down general principles for Christian belief and practice. The Christian has to walk a narrow way, between legalism on one side and libertarianism on the other; and Galatians maps out the borders of our path.