Guest Blog by Sigurd Grindheim
How should Christians respond when their values are being ridiculed, and, even worse than that, they are said to be unethical, intolerant, even hateful? Should we look for a strong man who can turn back the clock to a time when things were better?
Unlike many issues facing Christians in the 21st century, this is a challenge the New Testament has a lot to say about. As every student of the New Testament knows, the earliest followers of Christ were no strangers to marginalization. According to Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that “if the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” (10:25).
Peter’s first letter was written largely for the purpose of helping believers who were vilified in their community. They were being “accused of doing wrong” (2:12) and “insulted because of the name of Christ” (4:14). People spoke “maliciously against [their] good behavior in Christ” (3:16). It appears that they were also being taken to court for no good reason, other than the fact that they bore the name of Christ (4:12-16).
In a situation like that, it is easy to demonize the dominant forces in one’s community, but Peter takes a very different approach. He maintains a basically positive view of political authorities, and encourages the believers to respect them and submit to them (2:13-14).
But Peter’s focus lies elsewhere. He shows the believers that they belong to a different kingdom. On the most fundamental level, they are not to identify themselves as citizens of the country in which they live. They are to view themselves as “foreigners and exiles” (2:11). Their identity is not determined by the community in which they live. Their hope is not tied to the success or relative glory of the nation to which they belong. Their future is secure because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:3).
Whatever the political situation might be, whatever their status as Christians in society might be, it doesn’t affect who they really are: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (2:9). Their status and position could not be better, and it could not be more certain. Their inheritance is kept safe in heaven where it cannot be touched (1:4).
Therefore, they can be free from fear (3:6, 14). They can interact with the world, knowing full well that there is no development in this world that can genuinely threaten them.
Peter has some wonderful advice for how they are to engage the world around them. They are to take as their model their savior Jesus Christ, who “when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (2:23). In a similar fashion, the disciples are called, not only to accept the abuse that is being hurled at them, but to “rejoice inasmuch as [they] participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that [they] may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:13).
But Peter does not want the church members to look exclusively for their eternal reward. He fully expects that they will experience some measure of success in this world as well. He wants to see a church that exercises a genuine influence on society, a church that brings their enemies around, not only to tolerate them, but to become one of them. How does he envision that such a miraculous transformation might take place? Certainly not by political means, but when they “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse [them] of doing wrong, they may see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:12). Peter expects unbelieving husbands to “be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of [their] lives” (3:1-2).
According to First Peter, marginalization of Christians does not mean that the Christian cause suffers defeat, nothing more than the marginalization of Christ was fatal to the Christian faith. Christ’s unpopularity provided the very occasion for him to save the world, and Peter views the life of Christians in the same light: their marginalization provides them with the opportunity to serve as faithful witnesses of their savior.
Does this mean that Christians should never be politically involved? Certainly not. That would be to apply First Peter too broadly. Christians should always be engaged in working for good causes. But the possible marginalization of Christians does not call for a political response. It calls for something much more powerful: the paradoxical power of the gospel. It calls for a demonstration of force that is not found in political influence, but in Christians’ faithfulness in doing good.