August 25, 2016

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)

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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