Wednesday, June 04, 2014

1 Peter on Slaves

1 Peter 2:12 gives us the central point of the letter: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." Scot McKnight has considered 1 Peter somewhat of a defensive strategy in the face of persecution. [1] How are Christians to live in a world that is hostile toward them?

Should Christians confront their culture head on in blazing glory all the way to the cross? Should they try to blend in and not make waves until Christ returns, living holy lives of sacrifice? Should they not pay any attention to the surrounding culture at all and just do their own thing, come what may?

I suspect the answer to this question is, "It depends." It seems like we find instances where God wants prophets to confront the culture around them. Certainly the prophet Amos confronted the northern kingdom when he happened to be in the north on business. Esther certainly blended in, becoming the wife of a foreign king who would never even have known she was Jewish if a crisis had not arisen.

1 Peter's strategy is also to hunker down and endure until Christ's return. "The end of all things is near," Peter says (4:7). The judgment has begun, and it has begun with the household of God (4:17). Imagine, Peter says, what it will look like when God finally judges the ungodly!

Peter thus considers the suffering of the Church as a purifying of the Church. 1 Peter has several difficult verses, at least from a Protestant perspective. For example, 4:1 says that "whoever suffers in the body is done with sin." The most obvious way to take this statement, it seems, is that suffering can have an atoning effect of sorts. Indeed, some Jews saw death as a kind of atonement. [2]

This is very important background for reading Peter's instructions about slaves and wives. There were many Christian teachers in the time before the Civil War that used the instructions of 1 Peter 2 to argue that Christians should not fight for the abolition of slavery. [3] But, then again, prior to the 1900s, most Christians had little sense of the historical context of Scripture. The context of 1 Peter 2 is clearly one of oppression by non-believers, not the sort of society Christians would set up if they were in charge.

The kind of master 1 Peter especially has in view is a harsh and unjust master. "How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God" (2:20). Peter reminds such slaves that Jesus also suffered unjustly at the hands of evil men.

Clearly, the strategy here is to endure unjust circumstances until Christ returns, which Peter seems to think will take place sooner rather than later. [4] However, when it became possible for Western culture as a whole to do away with slavery, many Christians jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, of course, many Christians also resisted, as many Christians resisted the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Indeed, many pastors were part of the KKK in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In Peter's day, however, it was not the ripe moment for the structure of the culture to move closer to the kingdom of God. Paul gives similar advice to slaves for similar reasons: "Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so... What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short" (1 Cor. 7:21, 29).

This same dynamic applies to 1 Peter 3's teaching on wives...

[1] Scot McKnight, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 131-35.

[2] Notice that 1 Peter 4:6 seems to talk about how some of the dead from the Old Testament were judged by their deaths. Now, however, presumably on the basis of Christ's resurrection, they can become alive in their spirits. Paul may also speak of death as a kind of atonement for sins (Rom. 6:7). And Colossians 1:24 has the curious statement that Paul's suffering is filling up what is still lacking in Christ's afflictions.

I call these sorts of verses "naughty verses" because they don't fit the usual paradigm of how we think about atonement. "Naughty data" is often the seed of paradigm shifts and development in understanding.'

[3] See Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2006).

[4] We are called to live in the imminent expectation that Christ will return even if it does not place in our life times.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this post.