In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been stalling on this series. This is largely due to a niggling doubt about whether I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said (e.g., by Matt or John Dickson or Greg Clarke).
I’m still not sure I have much to contribute. But I want to unpack the slightly cryptic comment I finished with last time — about the church’s role in relativising human political institutions.
When I said that 1 Peter was on my mind.
Here, briefly, are what I take to be the most relevant aspects of what the Apostle Peter says about the church’s identity and relationship with society:
- We’re not to belong to the society we find ourselves in. Peter addresses his readers as ‘exiles of the dispersion’ — scattered among the nations (not gathered in a single political body like ancient Israel), we don’t really belong in the societies we inhabit. The reason we’re out of joint is because God has chosen and worked through Jesus and the Spirit to take hold of us, setting us apart to belong to him. We can’t just ‘fit in’ or ‘go with the flow’.
- We’re to engage with society not separate from it. Peter repeatedly underscores the difference belonging to God should make — producing a radical break with past patterns of behaviour, etc. And yet one of the expected outcomes of this is that ‘though [non-Christians] malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’. We can’t choose to ‘opt out’ (even if that promises to make things less complicated).
- We’re to relate freely to society’s power structures. The radical implication of this teaching is spelled out in 2.16-17: ‘As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor’. In a society where the emperor called for worship (a demand from which only ethnic Jews were exempt), to place Caesar below God was a huge deal — although that relative status was all he could legitimately claim. It might mean we cop it, but we can’t allow the absolutisation of good-but-not-absolute things — even democratic structures — to go unchallenged.
I would like to have a go outlining what this might look like in our context. So there’ll be one or maybe two more posts in this series…