“Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:13-17)
The early Christians lived in a world that was openly hostile to them. Often scorn, disdain, criticism, and discrimination were the norm while abuse and martyrdom were their not infrequent companion. Throughout his first letter, the Apostle Peter has been warning his beloved readers that it will be so. Now he turns to tell them how to live in these situations. In particular he tackles life in three of the most common situations they would find themselves: subjects of Rome, slaves, and marriage. In every case it is assumed that the relationship is with a hostile or at least skeptical pagan or unbeliever.
These instructions, believe it or not, may be for us among the most timely and relevant passages in the New Testament because in some places and in some ways our current situation is beginning to mirror that of the first century Christians. Listen to N.T. Wright:
“In what used to be thought of as the “Christian West’, particularly Europe and North America, it used to be taken for granted that we lived in a ‘Christian’ country. …Now all that has been swept away, and anyone who is really ‘Christian’ may well stand out. In some quarters – politics, art, the media, and particularly journalism- anyone known as a Christian may well attract scorn, criticism, or even discrimination.” (Wright, Early Christian Letters For Everyone, p. 77)
In particular, I think we must realize the contrast between what God through Peter calls us to and the behavior we too often fall into as Christians in a newly hostile or indifferent environment. Our response all too often vacillates between belligerence and withdrawal, between anger and despair, between our own forms of attack–scorn and defamation–and playing the role of the victim. Of course, all of this comes from fear, but that is no excuse. God’s people must behave as God’s people even, or especially, in the moment of greatest challenge.
What is Peter’s counsel? In short and in part it is, in every human relationship in which we find ourselves, to give the best service humanly possible in that relationship, and to do it without resentment even in the midst of criticism and scorn. The goal is that a good life, lived even in the face of disdain, will make a lie of the scorn and eventually help turn the scornful into believers themselves. The single verse which dominates all that Peter has to say is this: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of dedication.” This is the goal in each and every relationship: “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior.”
Our model for this, Peter says, is Jesus who for the sake of saving the world endured the scorn of the world. Actually, the example is even more pointed for the implication is that Jesus endured OUR scorn and took on OUR sins for OUR salvation and we should be willing to follow his path as well. This beautiful passage must be quoted in its entirety:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he trusted him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”(2:21-24)
This is our calling yet today in whatever hostile environment we find ourselves. We are to be like Jesus -for the world and an example to the world, even in the face of the world’s disdain.
One caveat though. We are not to make the mistake that so many have made of taking the specifics of Peter’s instructions as if they were meant to be the complete word on the relationships described. Far too often these beautiful verses about a free person’s free decision to serve (“Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God”) have been abused by abusers to keep others in subjection. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peter’s dictate to be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”, though true and good, is to be complemented by Peter’s own experience hearing Jesus proclaim “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”, which he lived out in his own refusal to obey an illicit command from authorities: “We must obey God rather than men.”(Acts 5:29) In his ears must have rung, as well, the thundering voices of the prophets speaking out against every oppression and injustice of every king whose authority was misused. No, submission to human authority is not the final word.
Neither are Peter’s instructions with regard to slavery (which is never condoned only acknowledged) nor with regard to marriage. Whatever “submissive” may mean ( and it is certainly not the connotations we often give it), it is to be lived in a context not of unilateral but mutual submission (“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” Ephesians 5:21) and in the security of sacrificial love (“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” Ephesians 5:24 ). Where these have been betrayed and a spouse lives in perennial neglect and abuse, the responsibility for the all too necessary separation and failure of a marriage rests on the shoulders of the abuser, not on the one who rightly must choose to leave.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.