Did Paul rebuke Peter for being racist?

In Galatians 2 we learn of something surprising for its uniqueness. In that passage the story is told of a time when one apostle rebuked another in front of the church. When the gospel first began to Gentile communities the Apostle Peter visited the church in Antioch. He spent time with the Gentile believers and treated them as if they were equals. However, when other Jewish believers from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles. Peter feared the condemnation of the Jews. In response, the Apostle Paul publicly rebuked the Apostle Peter for his actions.

One popular interpretation of this passage says Paul rebuked Peter because of his cultural prejudices. According to this perspective Paul chastised Peter for what is today called racism. Did Paul rebuke Peter because of his racial prejudices? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.

The Apostle Peter was the first to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. When he did, he told the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.” (Acts 10:28) Generations of Jews had been taught that it was against the law of Moses to share a house or a meal with Gentiles. When Peter ate with a Gentile he became ceremonially unclean. Would have to be cleansed before he could offer sacrifices or join the temple worship. After the conversion of Cornelius it became evident to Christians that Gentiles could be saved without keeping the law of Moses. The division between Jew and Gentile was taken away by Christ.

Paul rebuked Peter because Peter’s actions compromised the gospel. Paul told Peter exactly what the problem was,“Thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” By separating from the Gentiles Peter was acting as if the Gentiles were still unclean before God. He was saying by his actions that despite their faith in Jesus the Gentiles were still not right with God. Peter was acting as if faith in Jesus was not enough. He was acting as if the Gentiles had to keep the law of Moses to be truly Christian.

Peter’s actions were the result of long standing prejudices against all Gentiles. However, Paul does not address Peter’s racial prejudice. Paul addressed Peter’s distortion of the gospel. To say this passage is about racism is to miss the main point. Racism is wrong, but far worse is a gospel which teaches works are necessary for salvation