Good Deeds: By The Church For the Church

The latest piece on the exile conversation published in Eternity newspaper by Morling College New Testament lecturer, David Starling raises some good points, not least of all the truth that we have been here before as God’s people.  No surprises there. And it’s got a great irenic tone, especially important in the current climate in which many Christians are riling against any cultural pushback

I do want to push back, however, on David’s understanding of the nature of the “good deeds” mentioned in 1Peter  in the hope that this adds to the conversation (in an irenic way!).

David’s article underplays an important aspect of what it means to live as God’s people in exilic times. This aspect, although I am sure he is aware of it, needs to highlighted.

And it’s this: In our determination not to withdraw or assimilate we underplay the tension of being a distinct community that practices good deeds among its own before a watching world. I think that’s Peter’s point here.

In pushing against a withdrawal mentality for the church, David states:

Like the exiles addressed in Jeremiah 29 (and the similarities can hardly be accidental) the readers of the letter are to “do good … seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet 3:11). They are to live “such good lives among the pagans” that the slanders of their enemies are silenced and their neighbours are drawn to worship God (2:12, 15). The “good deeds” that they are repeatedly urged to perform include not only the abstention from evil desires that ought to characterise their private morality (2:11) but also, for those with means to perform them, the kind of public acts of benefaction that might conceivably meet with the governor’s commendation (2:14).

While I am nowhere near the calibre of NT exegete as David, I would respectfully disagree with his assessment of this crucial passage on two fronts.

  1. Who the recipients of the good deeds are
  2. When the glory being offered by pagans to God occurs

David highlights a private morality and a public square benefaction, but skips over one crucial locus, the very locus that Peter is most interested in – the church’s behaviour towards its own in a hostile culture.

Peter’s primary focus is the good deeds the church performs within the church before a watching world (as I would argue is also the intent of Jeremiah 29). In fact the term “good deeds” in the New Testament letters and Acts is primarily, if not exclusively, used for activities within the church and between the churches.

As a result, says Peter, pagans will glorify God not because they want to but because they have to, something the last few words of 1Peter 2:12 makes clear.

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

In line with the central thrust of the letter, this verse is simply saying that one day there will be a great role reversal for Christ’s church.  Present cursing will be turned into eschatological blessing.

In that end time those who do not acknowledge God in any saving way will have to admit that his church was right and they were wrong in relation to the church’s good deeds.

They see the deeds now and scorn them, but the goodness of those deeds will be proven to them on the last day, when their opportunity for salvation has ended.

Now this sounds completely grumpy, and not a little sacrilegious to an evangelical culture that has invested a lot of emotion, time, money and focus in the purported evangelistic side effects of good deeds done “out there”.  And no doubt this exists.  But I do not think that is what Peter is saying here.

I can be hard for us as privatised westerners to get this. Why? Because we do not live in a society such as the Graeco-Roman world in which alternate communities were not simply viewed as quirky, but as a dangerous threat to the established order.

In our Western world spirituality is assumed to be private.   Good deeds are therefore done in the public square as an addendum to the Christian community, stripped of any strong proclamation. And as long as we keep it that way, the culture is happy.

But for Peter the church is a direct challenge – and proclamation – to the authorities and powers of the day, in terms of both belief and practice.

How did this play out in the 1st century world into which Peter writes to these exiles? Here are just a few examples:

The pagan community valued pride and power: The church community valued humility and weakness.

 The pagan community practised sexual immorality: The church community practised sexual purity.

The pagan community valued public conformity around Emperor worship for those who wanted to be involved in its social settings and get ahead: The church community declared that Jesus is Lord and suffered the opprobrium and isolation for saying so.

The pagan community practised infanticide and abortion: The church community saw all human life as made in the image of God and refused to kill, instead caring for the weak and vulnerable within its community.

The pagan community did not care for its own poor:  The church community cared for its own poor, and yes, eventually, the poor of the pagan world too.

And how did the pagan community respond to this alternate community in its midst? With hostility, suspicion and threats.  This breaking in of God’s kingdom into the kingdom of this age threw down the gauntlet, and the culture accepted the challenge with spite, persecution and rejection. As it had done to Jesus, so it did to his church.

Perhaps this sounds like when it comes to doing good deeds we are being let off the hook (Phew – I knew all those gospel deeds were not required, I can get on with my own life). It does precisely the opposite.

It says to all-too-easily-privatised Christians that the community to which they belong requires a level of commitment, costly love, and  benefaction among its members that has no equal in the culture.

To belong to the Christian community will demand a self-giving love for others that will thin out your wallet; bulk up your patience; and increase your commitment to each other well beyond the consumer mentality the culture encourages among its groups and communities.

Faced with that, a few good deeds out in the culture that leaves my own comforts pretty much untouched seems a decent trade off.  Besides, as the culture becomes less and less Christian, it will – as it is currently doing – redefine what “the good” is. Anything that does not fit its rubric will be rejected. Watch this space.

David’s article reads a Christianised cultural framework into a pagan setting. Peter was not thinking public benefaction to the needy pagan culture, but brotherly/sisterly benefaction before a suspicious pagan culture.

Let the conversation continue….

(Part 2 to come: Good Deeds: By the Church For the Glory of God)

9 Comments

  1. I agree with you, Steve. With part 2 coming you may address this, but it brings to mind Gal 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

  2. Thanks for the pushback–it keeps me on my toes! A few quick responses:

    1. I agree with you about the “when” that Peter has in mind in 2:12, when he speaks of pagan neighbours “glorify[ing] God on the day when he visits us.” Yes, the vision here is definitely focused on the last day, and not on some future, better time within history when the church will come to be socially accepted. But I’m not convinced that the vision of the last day that Peter has in mind is one in which still-unconverted pagans will be retrospectively convinced through the goodness of Christian good works and compelled to turn “present cursing” into “eschatological blessing” (through gritted teeth?). More likely, I think, is that he is looking forward to an eschatological future in which (some) as-yet-unconverted pagans will end up offering glory to God from a willing heart, having been converted in the mean time, while the opportunity was still open. And in 2:15, where Peter says that God’s will is for the good works of Christians to silence the slanders of the foolish, I think he is referring not to the eschatological silencing of pagan slanders by the judgement of God, but the present apologetic effect of Christian conduct.

    2. I agree with you, too, that the mutual good works of Christians, within the church, are of enormous importance to Peter, and that part of their importance lies in the fact that they are performed before the eyes of a watching world. I should probably have said more about that! But I’m not convinced that Peter’s understanding of the scope of the “good works” Christians are to perform is restricted exclusively to the good works that we are to do for each other. In the quotation from Psalm 34, for example (quoted by Peter in 3:10-12), “do[ing] good” and “seek[ing] peace” seems to me to make best sense as a description of conduct that includes the way in which righteous deal with their enemies, not only the way in which they deal with their fellow-righteous. (The way that Peter frames the psalm quotation in 3:8-9, 13-22 seems to have both in view.)

    3. I wouldn’t to the stake on this third issue, but it does seem to me that the language in 2:14 about governors being “sent … to commend those who do right” implies a scope to “do[ing] right” (or, better translated, “do[ing good”) that includes works of public benefaction. It’s hard to imagine a context in which a first-century reader would see it as part of the governor’s brief to “commend” the mutual kindness of Christians (unless, perhaps, we presuppose some sort of Pliny-style inquisition into the movement). Bruce Winter makes an argument for including public benefaction within the scope of some of the 1 Peter “good works” texts in his book, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). If you’re interested, I can also email you a copy of the 1 Peter chapter in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, which gives a heavier emphasis to the mutual good works of Christians than my Eternity post did.

    Blessings

    David

    1. Hey David
      Thanks for the erudite response. I wonder if we are looking at two side of the same coin. I would love a copy of that chapter if you have it handy. I will write a little about this in the second post which deals with how the flow on from within the Christian community naturally goes out into the rest of the world. Just figuring how to put that together in a short post!
      Perhaps some of my thinking is being shaped by how the church as witness in and of itself as an enacted and visible manifestation of the kingdom is critical and can fall off the map. But I want to keep exploring if my desire for that to be central is also what the text says!
      And as I said – I really did like that article in Eternity, and quite a few people were asking me about it. It’s been an interesting year or so engaging with others, including academics such as yourself.
      Cheers

      Steve

      1. Yep: overflow (i.e. “naturally goes out into…”) sounds to me like a good starting point in how we are to frame it. It fits well with the “especially” (but not exclusively!) of Gal. 6:10, plus the logic implied by the sequence of ideas in passages like Rom. 12-13 and 1 Peter 3:8-22. And it has a good intuitive fit with the notion of a household as a formative community in which we are trained in the habits of mutual truth-telling, hospitality, generosity, service, etc, which we take with us into all our dealings in the wider world.

  3. Hi Steve and Dave. It seems to me that the flow of thought in 1 Peter 2-3 pushes us to see that the ‘good deeds’ of 2:12 are intended to be seen by and have an effect on non-believers in the now. The ‘good deeds’ flow into ‘submission to human authorities’ (2:13) which gets applied to slaves (2:18-25) and wives married to non-believers (3:1-6). For wives the explicit hope is that the husband be ‘won over by the behaviour of their wives’. I can’t see any contextual reason for taking this to mean anything other than their conversion in the here and now. If so, Peter has at least one instance where ‘good deeds’ are directed towards the outsider, with the hope it will change the outsider’s attitude. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Tim
      Yeah – that would seem to be the gist of that passage regarding wives of unbelievers husbands. There is certainly a church-centric focus to this, yes? Perhaps the primary focus for me is the church aspect and it flowing out. Is there is a sense that submission to authorities is less about them being convinced by the gospel as it is in assuring the authorities that the church is not a threat to the existing order?

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