You are a missionary living with your family in a small, mountainside village, among people who have never heard the gospel. Not only does your appearance single you out as a foreigner, but your strange practices border on the offensive. Unlike you, the native residents recognize that evil spirits dwell inside women, so the men and their wives never live under the same roof. Unlike you, the native residents understand that the rightful place of women is in the fields harvesting crops. After all, they reason, a woman who can contribute to a family’s wealth (measured in wheat, livestock, and offspring) is fit for marriage.
You have come to this place to share the gospel, but it looks as though the native people’s values, traditions, and way of life – their culture – are so different from your own. Do you tell them to love their wives as the Bible commands? Do you teach the men about sacrificial love, and encourage them to do the hard work of harvesting crops on their own?
In my last post, I talked about the radical truth in 1 Peter that God has redeemed us from our “ancestral way of life,” or “culture,” and how this reality is tied to the very creation of the church. In this post, I want to show you what 1 Peter says about how we are then to live as those who have been redeemed out of our cultures by God. How does this shape the way we relate to culture? How does this change the way we might share the gospel, whether to our neighbors or in more foreign cultures like the one above?
Various people have sought to explain the church’s role in and relation to secular culture. On one extreme is what we might call the “assimilation” perspective, which says the church should assimilate or embrace the surrounding culture. The mission of the church then is to redeem or transform culture (the arts, the workplace, various secular institutions, etc.). On the other extreme is what we might call the “rejection” perspective, which says the church should completely reject the surrounding culture’s values and institutions. The church’s role in society then is to preach the Word, administer the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and baptism), and create a haven or sanctuary for those who have rejected their culture. This perspective rarely engages with secular institutions, and believes the good deeds required of Christians are to be practiced within the church.
I’ve never felt comfortable in either of these categories. I’ve always thought there must be a middle-ground or third way that takes seriously the church’s love for outsiders (through mercy, justice, good deeds, etc.) and the church’s call to be exiles in a foreign (and sometimes hostile) culture.
Miroslav Volf communicates this tension well when he writes,
Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God’s new creation?
Some wish to reject all the practices of their culture. Others wish to retain everything. But the answer Peter provides is one which holds these competing priorities in tension together.
A New Culture in 1 Peter
In 1 Peter 1:18, Peter writes that God has redeemed us out of our culture or ancestral way of life. However, in verse 17, he exhorts his audience to “live out your [new] way of life.” He is exhorting them to live out their new culture. Most English translations mask the clear parallel Peter wants to make in the Greek. Here’s my own loose translation that makes it more clear:
v. 17: Since you call on God as Father (pater) … live out your [new] way of life (anastraphete)
v. 18: because you know that you have been redeemed from the futile way of life (anastrophes) passed down from your fathers (patroparadotou).
Peter is saying that Christians are called to live out a “new” way of life for two reasons: 1) God is their father; 2) they have been freed from the ways of their fathers. These two reasons are closely connected. In the ancient world, the head of the household or pater held absolute power over family matters (which included religion), even over life and death. His power was cemented by ancestral tradition handed down from their fathers, and Christianity was seen as a threat to this family structure.
Peter is saying they are able to live out a new culture now because they have a new Father and have been freed from their former traditions, which were the two things that held power over them.
This explains the language of “exiles” and “sojourners” used throughout 1 Peter. Peter’s audience were “exiles” and “sojourners” (1:1; 2:11) because they had been displaced from their surrounding culture by virtue of their “new birth” (1:3). Their new birth into the household of God (4:17) meant they had a new inheritance, a new history, a new hope, a new family – a new culture.
In order for the church to rightly relate to the surrounding culture, she must first remember that she has been redeemed out of that culture (including its values, conventions, norms, etc.), so that she might live out a new culture led by a new Father.
But what does this new culture look like, and how does it inform how we should relate to the culture around us? Are we called to reject culture or redeem culture? Or something else entirely?
The Tension of the Church’s New Culture
This new culture is not a complete rejection of all social norms and conventions, nor is it simply one with the surrounding culture. It is a third way, one that holds together the competing polarities of rejection of culture and assimilation of culture. At the same time, it also subverts or transforms the existing culture according to biblical values.
Peter says this new way of life must reject “what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (4:3). Because of their break with their former way of life, they will face fiery trials and suffering. They are “exiles” because their values and beliefs are utterly opposed to their surrounding culture.
Some Christians who wish to “redeem” culture need to remember that their new birth into the family of God has made them exiles in their home cultures. This is nothing less than a radical break with their former manner of life, and assimilation of the broader culture for the sake of mission simply will not do.
At the same time, Peter says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). Peter expects those who are suffering because of their status as exiles to keep their “conduct” (that same word – anastrophen) among the Gentiles honorable. This presupposes that the Christians’ new way of life will be visible to outsiders. This presupposes that Christians will continue to live “among the Gentiles,” even as they reject what Gentiles want to do.
Some Christians who want to draw a stark distinction between the preaching of the Word and showing love and mercy to outsiders need to remember that for others to see the good deeds of the church (which Peter advocates here) requires that the work of the church impacts society outside our church walls. How else would governors commend them for doing good (2:14-15)?
This new culture which Peter advocates also subverts or transforms the existing culture in accordance with biblical values.
Beginning in 1 Pet 2:18, Peter uses the format of a household code to give instructions to various members of these church communities. The household code was used in the first century to order relations in the household.
But Peter uses the household code differently, in that he speaks directly to the slaves and the wives. This is not found anywhere in non-Christian culture, where slaves were considered nothing more than property. The fact that Peter exhorts slaves to be subject to “unjust” masters is also different from anything we see in Greco-Roman culture. The idea of “justice” did not apply to slaves at all in the first century, but Peter uses this first-century convention of the household code and reshapes it according to Christian values by treating both slaves and wives as persons.
Unlike his contemporaries, Peter also does not speak of husbands “controlling” their wives. Instead, he exhorts husbands to live considerately with their wives by showing them honor (3:7).
In this third way (neither complete rejection nor complete assimilation of the old culture), there is a constant “yes” and “no” that the church must practice in her relation to culture. “Yes” we are in the world, but “no” we are not of it. “Yes” we love our neighbors and do them good (as Peter commands – 2:12), but “no” we will not practice what they practice (as Peter forbids – 4:3). “Yes” we honor our leaders (“Honor the emperor” – 2:17), but “no” we do not fear them (rather we “fear God” – 2:17).
The Implications of this New Culture
What are the implications of this for the church’s mission?
- Contextualization is extremely important. Peter was a Jew born and raised in Palestine, and yet he was able to speak into a Gentile society dominated by Greco-Roman values. Peter’s awareness of his audience’s culture should convict us of the importance of having a certain cultural competence, especially in missional settings.
- We live as exiles of our home cultures. The reason why Peter uses the language of “exiles” is not because we have been exiled from our heavenly home, but rather he is speaking to a church community that was estranged from the surrounding culture. When on mission, we cannot forget that there has been a break with our old way of life. We cannot adopt cultural values that go against biblical values for the sake of contextualization or missional impact.
- We are called to love those outside the church in our time of exile. While our redemption involves a break with our old culture, this does not mean we should create enclaves of Christians who do not engage with their neighbors. Peter exhorts these church communities scattered throughout Asia Minor to do good deeds that would be visible to outsiders (and would even win the praise of governors – 2:14), which implies that it is not just individual Christians, but the church as a whole that is called to love the poor and do good deeds.
- We should transform existing social conventions according to biblical values. Of course, this requires much wisdom, and there may be some things that require a much greater degree of transformation, but Peter’s subversion of the household code reminds us that our new culture doesn’t require a complete rejection of our old culture. In fact, Peter’s subversion of the household code implies that we are to use those things that are treasured by the surrounding culture in new ways that bring glory to God.
To return to the example at the beginning of this post, what should you then do in a cultural context completely foreign from your own? The issues are highly complex, but the simplest answer I could give in a short blog post is that the main priority must be to share the gospel message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection before any cultural transformation can take place. This was the foundation which Peter continually returned to when reminding his audience of their break from their old culture (1:19-20; 2:21-25).
As I learned from a seasoned Wycliffe missionary (who lived among a people much like those mentioned above), when the seeds of the gospel are planted in a culture through word and deed, the people themselves will begin to see how their new way of life must conform to the gospel. These tribal people, when they saw the love this missionary showed to his wife and heard the message of God’s love for unworthy sinners, were gradually awakened to the oppression of their women and moved in the direction (slowly but surely) of loving them and treating them with dignity.
This new culture for them was not a complete rejection of all their old conventions, but many of their traditions were transformed (such as their physical homes, which were rebuilt to house both husband and wife). This is what happens in every culture when the gospel takes root, and it will continue to happen until people from all tribes and nations are gathered before God to praise him in one voice (but many languages) for his great act of redemption.