It is possible to be restrained from doing good by the fear of what others will think. Some people who are ready to make their views known are those whom we fear displeasing. Those people we would prefer to impress than upset may be influential whether that is because they are innovators, conservative or simply widely admired. We must certainly act carefully and with wisdom. It is important (and too often a neglected principle) that we should have regard to the impact of our words and actions on others. We should respect those that are godly and we do not wish to stumble anyone. So this seems like a real dilemma because we are being careful about offending these people. But displeasing someone is not the same as stumbling them. It is still possible to edify them even if we displease them. When we stumble others, we are causing them to sin or impeding their spiritual progress. In such a dilemma we should choose the best edifying rather than the easiest option. But perhaps we don’t want to be seen to get things wrong, we don’t want to lose reputation with others. It’s a real temptation or indeed a snare (Proverbs 29:25), as even an apostle found out.
This is what happened with Peter in Antioch. He was happy to fellowship with the Gentiles until some important and strict fellow believers came from Jerusalem. Out of fear for them he stopped having fellowship with the Gentiles altogether (Galatians 2:12). The power of the fear of man was so strong that he was ready to compromise the very gospel itself. Through this bad example, the other Jews at Antioch did likewise, even Barnabas (verse 13). Just like a hunter’s trap that captures and paralyses animals this is a real but subtle snare. James Fergusson shows us the many lessons that can be drawn from this in the following updated extract.
1. Fearing Others Can Ensnare in Serious Sin
This incident shows us the importance of the circumstances that concern our actions. An action considered simply in and of itself may not be sinful. Yet due to its accompanying circumstances, it may indeed become exceedingly sinful. Peter’s action was not simply abstaining from certain kinds of meats, to avoid offence to the weak as with Paul (Acts 16:3 and 21:26). It was exceedingly sinful in the circumstances which accompanied this abstinence:
(a) He withdrew from the Gentiles in eating as if they had not been true members of the Church with whom it was lawful to have complete fellowship; He withdrew, and separated himself.
(b) He abstained not at Jerusalem where the Jews came from but at Antioch where he had openly done the contrary in using his Christian liberty a little while before. He ate with the Gentiles before but when these Jews came, he withdrew.
(c) He withdrew not as though it was indifferent to do so and therefore doing it for a time for the sake of the Jews; but as if it had been in itself sinful to have eaten with them, contrary to what he knew and had been informed of by the heavenly vision. This is why it is called dissimulation
(d) His abstinence was not for the sake of weak Jews to get the opportunity to inform them of the annulment of these Levitical ordinances. Rather it was out of fear of losing esteem with and incurring the hatred of, those who were spying out their liberty. These would doubtless make bad use of his abstinence to confirm themselves in and draw others into their errors.
(e) By his example he harmed the other Jews who were beginning to be informed concerning the annulment of the ceremonial law and therefore had been eating with the Gentiles
(f) This practice of his (as is clear from verse 14) tended to compel or force the Christian Gentiles to take on the yoke of the ceremonial law to regain fellowship with Peter and the church. This would have been most sinful for them because they had never been under it.
(g) He gave a great blow to Paul’s teaching and that of the gospel concerning Christian liberty and the annulment of the ceremonial law. His behaviour implied it was still in force.
2. Fearing Others can Ensnare the Best
The best of men are so weak and inconstant that, being left to themselves, the least blast of temptation will make them break off their course of well-doing in the very middle. Without respect either to conscience or credit they openly desert what they were doing. Peter having begun well in his use of Christian liberty by eating with the Gentiles now gives evidence of great inconstancy in that for fear of offending others he did immediately moved away from this.
3. Fearing Others can Ensnare Dangerously
To separate from and break off communion with a true Church and its members cannot be attempted without sin. We cannot do this even to avoid the offence and stumbling of many. This separation from the Church of the Gentiles made Peter blameworthy. His separation was as though it was unlawful to maintain communion with them (even though the Jews would have been offended if he continued to do so).
4. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Leaders
It should be of great concern to men of grace and gifts, who are in a public position and enjoy the praise of many to be men of both courage and self-denial. Even when they enjoy the praise of everyone, they must be dead to it and die to it. Otherwise, if they think more of this than they ought, through their fleshly fear of losing reputation and incurring hatred from others they may venture to dishonour God. Even Peter sinned against the Lord because he feared the loss of his esteem among the Jews too greatly.
5. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Principles
Sometimes good men under a violent temptation will in practice condemn that which they accept in their understanding. For any to sin against their light in this way highly aggravates their guilt still further. The guilt of Peter’s sin and dissimulation is aggravated by this. By his practice he now professed that fellowship with the Christian Gentiles was unlawful but he had been instructed to the contrary by the heavenly vision (Acts 11:9).
6. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Piety
The bad example of those are eminent, gracious and learned can be of such great force that not only the weak but even those who are strong and richly endowed with grace and gifts will sometimes be corrupted by it. We usually (without being aware of it) esteem such to be something more than others and once this is so we do not examine their actions as closely as we would those of others. Thus, not only the other Jews but even Barnabas himself an eminent apostle (Acts 13:1-2) was carried away with Peter’s bad example. Barnabas was carried away with the dissimulation of the other Jews. His example in turn had a kind of compulsion towards the Gentiles to make them do as he did (verse 14).
7. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Many
A flood of bad examples, especially if they are otherwise devout, can be so strong and of such force that it will carry others along in their conduct. So much so that even the very best of men can hardly stand against it at all. The dissimulation of Barnabas is not only due to Peter’s bad example, but also, if not mainly, to the influence which the bad example the other Jews had on him.
8. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Others With Us
It is of great concern to all in authority, especially those who are eminent for piety and talent, to take diligent heed lest they give a bad example to others. The sins of others (which are occasioned by the bad example of any) will be justly charged on those whose bad example they follow. The dissimulation of the Jews and Barnabas is mentioned as something that adds to the seriousness of Peter’s sin since it brought such dreadful consequences.
Perhaps we do not think we are as invested in our own reputation as we really are, we scarcely question our motives. In its worst form it can lead to unacknowledged but powerful forms of control within the church. We need to take action about our fear of others because as Peter shows us, those whom we fear we obey. This can even lead us to disobey God or to reject others and their spiritual good. It can lead us to care more about what other people threaten to do than what our conscience or God’s Word says. To be fearless in this context isn’t the same as being careless, it’s not being reckless and inconsiderate. Rather it is caring more about how to edify as much as possible rather than being restrained from this out of fear of disapproval.
AVOIDING SPIRITUAL HARM
In The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks, James Durham helps us to consider the matter deeply by defining the nature of stumbling as well as showing its serious consequences. He looks in considerable detail at different kinds of stumbling and identifies the ways that people can stumble and be stumbled. Durham provides practical advice for avoiding and preventing offense.
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