It appears that in Galatians 2 Paul has some strikingly sarcastic things to say about the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem. He refers to them four times with variations of the expression “those who seem to be something” in vv. 2-9. Is Paul picking a fight with Peter, James, and John, pillars of the early church?
I don’t think so. It seems that the Jewish-Christian missionaries from Jerusalem who are persuading the gentiles in Galatia to convert to Judaism in order to enjoy God’s salvation in Christ are “name-dropping.”
Among other strategies, they are likely trying to impress the Galatians with the credential of their connection to the “big boys” in Jerusalem. They are indicating—inappropriately—that “the pillars” support their case that gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be set right before God.
Paul doesn’t criticize the Jerusalem leaders, but calls out the Galatians’ inappropriate regard for them. Rather than exalting Peter, James, and John as larger than life, their opinion ought to match God’s, who shows favoritism to no one (v. 6).
The problem for Paul, then, is not the presence of leaders and teachers in the church, but rather that the Galatians are so in awe of Peter, James, and John that they’re considering abandoning the gospel.
The problem is that Christian people can be moved to take on disobedient modes of life because of a perverted regard for prominent figures.
This isn’t a problem that has gone away. Similar dynamics of celebrity-worship pervade evangelical Christianity.
The existence of this or that well-known speaker, teacher, scholar, writer is not the problem. The trouble starts when we line up behind them and make them “team captains,” fighting against other Christians as opponents. This dynamic has fueled the tribalism that configures the current state of a Corinthianized evangelicalism.
Well-known figures can be gifts to the church. Let’s learn from them and consider what they say in order to orient and shape lives of faithfulness to Jesus.
Well-known figures are also flawed, like Peter (Gal. 2:11-21). Let’s not set them up as unquestioned authorities, and let’s most definitely avoid lining up behind them and dividing into teams to fight one another.