This article was originally posted on TGC-Africa and was written by Graham Heslop from South Africa.
If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have heard the reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ You might even have received this stinging rebuke yourself, after a careless comment about some ‘man of God’.
At face value, it’s a rebuke dripping with zealous piety: a godly concern to protect God’s Spirit-empowered leaders. But more often than not it is an excuse for theological indifference. For the rebuke is usually a companion to the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charisma-laden, and public Christian figures. This acceptance—which tends towards allegiance—does not typically concern itself with what the ‘man of God’ teaches. Rather, the ‘Lord’s anointed’ simply cannot be challenged.
Learning From Peter’s Example
In this article I want to challenge these notions about the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ by reflecting on the life and leadership of the apostle Peter. For in Peter we repeatedly see someone who – despite his best intentions to faithfully follow Christ – was nevertheless a flawed man.
This is especially evident in the events narrated prior to Christ’s crucifixion (Luke 22:54-62). But long after Christ’s commission and the sending of his Spirit, Peter fell into error and sin. We read about one such occasion in Galatians 1-2. The significance of this event for us is twofold. Firstly, Peter’s apostolic status and authoritative position did not result in him claiming to be above reproach or rebuke. Secondly, the ‘Lord’s anointed’ repents.
The Imperfect Apostle
Meet the apostle Peter. While John was the disciple Jesus loved, Peter is the disciple we love. He regularly overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled. Yet, in God’s gracious economy, like us, Peter is restored. God forgives failings. So the imperfect apostle provides a fitting model for the Christian life—and leadership.
For we too often exaggerate our faith only to arrive at crushing failure. From private sin to spiritual indifference, honest believers are aware of their shortcomings. N. T. Wright astutely describes the Christian life as a “Peter cycle.” He writes, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.”
Was Peter Utterly Changed After Pentecost?
A common mistake that we easily fall into is imagining that this describes ‘pre-Pentecost Peter.’ For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early Church. We wrongly think that the bumbling Peter of the Gospels is transfigured in Acts. But this is not the case.
Sure, Jesus’ resurrection transforms the quaking disciples. They become fearless heralds of the gospel following Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Subsequent to the sending of God’s Spirit, the weak disciples boldly preach the gospel far and wide. But they do not become flawless followers at the same time.
Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace. This remained the case throughout his life. He was far from perfect. Despite his special appointment, apostolic title, and Spirit anointing, Peter knew the bitter taste of failure—he was acquainted with his own sin. The apostle Peter erred. And he was not above rebuke.
The Lord’s Anointed Is Not Above Rebuke
What does this have to do with those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early Church. This was the moment he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. As with the imposition of circumcision on Gentiles (Galatians 2:3-5), Paul boldly opposes Peter when he observes practises that obscure the gospel of grace (Galatians 1:6-9). Far from a disagreement over table settings or choice of starter, Paul rebukes Peter for distorting the gospel.
Now Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early Church. Paul on the other hand was—at the time of the events recorded in Galatians 1 and 2—a relatively unknown itinerant preacher (Galatians 1:22). Worse still, he was most well known for persecuting Christians (Galatians 1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (Galatians 2:13), and out of step with the gospel (Galatians 2:14), Peter’s status becomes irrelevant. His title, feats, and fan fare mean nothing when his life and teaching fall foul of God’s glory and the gospel.
God’s Truth Is More Important Than Human Status
Paul did not hesitate to rebuke Peter. If ever there was a man in Church history, apart from Jesus Christ, who can rightly be called the Lord’s anointed then it was Peter. Yet he did not go unopposed. He did not leverage his position and status over against the truth. And, in humility, he repented (Acts 15:7-11).
There Was Real Error & Real Repentance
Paul’s language is both unapologetic and severe. For Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (Galatians 2:11). His conduct was leading others astray (Galatians 2:13). His refusal to fellowship with Gentiles implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (Galatians 2:14).
Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (Galatians 1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category. But his misunderstanding and linked misleading behaviour warranted a fierce rebuke. And we cannot overstate the significance of Peter’s response. Because he was a man familiar with and dependent on God’s grace, the apostle is teachable. The ‘Lord’s anointed’ listens. He repents of error.
A Lesson For Christian Leaders
Even the apostle Peter got things wrong. He made mistakes. And he repented of sin. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle for all believers—but perhaps especially for Christian leaders. For Peter demonstrates a noticeable humility. In humility he accepted the challenge. He was accountable to others. He was not a law unto himself. Ultimately, Peter’s authority was borrowed from God and bound to Scripture.
Your pastor might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed.’ For all intents and purposes he may be a mighty man of God. But if that means he’s beyond challenge and correction, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be. At the very least, he certainly isn’t anything like the apostle Peter.