The Christian and Culture



I don't usually write on pop culture; that is more of Luke's niche, but I have been studying the book of 1 Peter lately and couldn't get away from some of the ideas that Peter presents in the book. As believer's in America, we may not face outright persecution like our brothers in China or India, but we do face what has come to be called soft persectution. Hard persecution is aggressive, physical, violent and often leads to the death of believers. The BBC quotes headlines such as this A twin suicide bombing outside a church in Pakistan kills at least 75 people. So the persecution faced by Christians around the world is real and presents a danger to over 2/3 of the worldwide Christian population.


But such persecution has not been our lot here in the United States. What we face is more akin to what the believer's in 1 Peter were facing and in such an environment we must ask ourselves how the believer is supposed to respond to the culture that surrounds them.


The Background


1 Peter begins with a traditional greeting "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: grace unto you and peace be multiplied." Peter addresses his letter to the strangers scattered throughout the regions of Asia Minor or modern day Turkey. Much debate has occurred about who these strangers were. Were they Jewish Christians exiled from their homes now living in Asia Minor? Were they political exiles? Were they Gentiles Christians living in a new area? While it is an interesting discussion with practical theological implications, I think Peter's focus was not on their earthly status as exiles, but on their heavenly status as exiles. These believers were exiles because they were the elect people of God. Evidence that this is true is the fact that in Greek the passage actually say "to the elect exiles."


The theme of exile is presented throughout the book: As we saw in 1:1 they were called elect exiles; 1:17 talks about their sojourning here; 2:11 references them as strangers and pilgrims; 2:12 talks about their lifestyle among the Gentils; 3:13 references the persecution motif throughout the book; 4:17 uses us/them terminology; 5:2,3 uses Flock imagery to reference the separated people of God. Peter was teaching that these believers were a separated people of God living among a people antagonistic to God.


Though many Christians in the first century faced hard persecution as we see in the life of the Apostle Paul and in Church tradition about the death of the Apostles; this church was most likely only facing soft persecution. Nowhere in the book do we see references to the death of believers. Such persecution was still to come on a worldwide level under Nero, but up to this point they had not faced it so severely.


What is "Soft Persecution?"

Soft persecution is a term that is foreign to many Christians today but we all feel it when it happens. Soft Persecution includes general disdain by the society around you, criticisms, loss of jobs or educational opportunities, breaking of relationships, and marginalization based on one's faith. I would argue that America faces this less because Evangelical Christianity is still the majority block in our nation, but Culture itself has become antagonistic to conservative Christian beliefs. The more conservative our Christianity, the more likely we are to face "soft persecution."


1 Peter is written to such a group of believers who had lost jobs, relationships, faced ridicule and even imprisonment because of their faith. The title I have assigned to the book is "Living in exile" or how to live out our Christian faith in a world were we are becoming more and more marginalized because of our faith. Since it is culture itself that is antagonistic to the Christian faith, we must ask how the believer should respond to said culture.


The believer's response to Culture

Peter doesn't leave us wandering around blind, dazed and confused. The theology of 1 Peter shows us exactly how the believer is supposed to respond to the culture around them. Christians tend to respond in one of two ways to culture: separation or assimilation. For the most part this has been the difference between Fundamentalism and the broader world of evangelicalism. Peter presents a view that is a little more nuanced than just these two extremes. The Christian will have to exercise wisdom to interact with culture in the right way at the right time. From the teachings of 1 Peter, we see the believer submitting to culture, separating from culture, challenging the culture and changing the culture.


Submitting to Culture


Roman culture and politics at the time were in direct opposition to Christian values and yet Peter did not lead a revolution to overthrow the powers at the time. In fact in 1 Peter 2:13, we are commanded to submit to the ordinances of the kings and governors. The Christian is expected to obey the edicts of the government when they are not in opposition to God's edicts. Clearly, our response is such a situation should be "We ought to obey God rather than men." But there are many situations when we don't like the law but it is not something opposed to God's law. The Christian accommodates the law in such situations. I really don't like the concept of property taxes because it assumes that the government owns the property and we just pay to use it, but Jesus taught in relation to taxes that we are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's (Mark 12:17).


In 1 Peter 2:18, servants are told to be subject to your masters with all fear. The English kinda hides what is actually happening here. Peter is telling slaves to be subject to their masters. Peter is not advocating slavery. In vs 16, he references the freedom we have in Christ. Peter is more concerned with our responsibilities living in situations we can't change. Slavery in the Roman Empire wasn't going away because of a few Christians in Asia Minor. Peter commands them to be subject to their masters. Obey them and he doesn't just say to the nice ones. At the end of the verse he says "also to the froward". He was telling them to obey their masters whether they were nice or mean. He didn't call for a revolution. In these two situations, Peter was calling for accommodation to the culture.


Separation from the Culture


One of the main themes of the book of 1 Peter is that we are a separate people of God living in the midst of a fallen world. The key word here is "separate." The whole concept of election which can be traced through the book is intended to show that we are a people chosen out of the world for God. 1 Peter 2:9 teaches that we are a peculiar people. Peculiar in the older English did not mean something weird, but something that had been set aside or apart. The concept is used for the treasures of Jericho that were set apart for God. In Joshua 6:17, the Bible uses the word "accursed" to refer to the treasures of the city, but the idea is that they were dedicated to the Lord. It is this sense in which peculiar is used in the Bible. We are a separated people to God. We are His. 1 Peter 4:3 references these believer's previous lifestyles among the Gentiles as drunkenness, orgies, idolatry, banquetings, and lasciviousness. Vs 4 of the same chapter says that the Gentiles now look at them and think that the Christians are strange because they won't live the same way.


Separation from the world's system and lifestyle is a concept forgotten by Christians today for the most part. We are called to be different. Because we are a separated people, our lifestyle should be holy. 1 Peter 1:16 quotes the book of Leviticus when it says "Be ye holy for I am holy". Holiness is a separation from sin. Our Father is holy; so as His children we should be too. Christians do not give in to the pressures of the culture around us to give in to sin. We stand apart.


Challenging Culture


Challenging the Culture may not be the easiest way to engage the culture around us because we want to be accepted by those around us. Challenging the culture may cost us something. This is where the soft persecution begins. The central text dealing with this aspect of our relation to culture is in 1 Peter 3:15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. As believer's we are not called to be silent, standing by while the world goes to Hell. This stage involves saying something. It is interesting that the end of the verse tells us in what attitude we are to give our defense: gentleness and respect. How often does the Christian act just like the world in the way we stand up for our beliefs? How often does the world reject what we have to say not because of the stand we take but because of the attitude we have when we present it. Challenging the culture means not just believing different but also acting different in our behavior and our attitudes.


Changing the Culture


We are not called to disengage from culture. Peter says that our lifestyle is to have an impact on the culture around us: to change those around us. We may never have a universal effect of changing society, but we can change some people and in the end, the world ought to be different after having made contact with us. 1 Peter 2:12b says that our good works should lead men to glorify God in the day of visitation. This seems to me that our lifestyle should lead other men to listen to the message of the gospel and get saved. This doesn't happen if you have nothing to do with the lost around you. A hunker in the bunker mentality is antithetical to biblical Christianity.


Not everyone is going to see our lives, hear the gospel and get saved, but our lives should silence the opposition. 1 Peter 2:15 says that our obedience to the kings and governors will put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. One of the biggest arguments against Christianity leveled by the militant atheists is Christians themselves. We live as hypocrites and we don't portray the reality of our salvation. Something is missing in Christianity today. Where is the love for others? Where is the joy? We walk around with depressed or bitter attitudes. Where is the hope for our future in Christ that produces rejoicing. Maybe the world just needs a fresh expression of the Church as it is supposed to be.


If we continue in the context of 1 Peter 3:15 we see that our lives ought to cause shame in the lives of the lost. The world today has a false sense of morality, but this is excused by how worldly and sinful Christians are today. The world does not blush over their sin because we have excused or accommodated it. Leonard Ravenhill once said The world has lost the power to blush over its vice; the Church has lost her power to weep over it.