Christian Living in a Post-Christendom America

The following is a modified manuscript/outline from a sermon I preached on 1 Peter 2:11-25 at Lake Drive Baptist Church in December 2013.
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I’ve entitled my sermon, “Christian Living in a Post-Christendom America.” What do I mean by “christendom”? “Christendom” refers to the “Christian Empire,” where Christianity is associated with the state, promoted by the state, or the dominant religion within the state.

In a sense, one could have previously referred to America as a form of this Christendom. But now days, it’s quite clear that we live in a post-Christendom America. –Not only non-Christian, but even increasingly anti-Christian.

A mere casual awareness of the news makes one aware of the rapid pace of secularization in our country. For example, only 17 years after President Clinton signed DOMA into law, President Obama successfully pushed for its repeal. And keep in mind, he entered office opposed to gay marriage. And the rapidness of this shift only mirrors trends in the general population. Or again, it only takes a brief glance at recent headlines to demonstrate this:

  • “Starbucks Enters Same-Sex Marriage Boycott Wars.”
  • “Supreme Court Will Consider Hobby Lobby Contraception Mandate Case.”
  • Referring to Chick-Fil-A: “‘Eat More Ignorance’ Is More Like It.”
  • “Southern Baptists Convention Fighting ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal.”“Should the Boy Scouts of America Lift Its Ban on Gay Members?”
  • “New Mexico Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Discriminating Anti-Gay Photographer.”
  • “Judge Orders Colorado Bakery to Cater for Same-Sex Weddings.”
  • “‘Duck Dynasty’ Star Suspended for Anti-Gay Remarks.”

And without necessarily endorsing any of the parties in these conflicts– And no matter what you think about these controversies on a political level, they nonetheless indicate an increasing hostility and threat to Christian thought and values. … We live in an ever-increasingly secular culture.

So, how are we as Christians to respond? What does Christian living look like in a post-Christendom America? 1 Peter has much to say about how Christians should live within a non-Christian and even anti-Christian society.

Today we’ll be looking specifically at 1 Peter 2:11-25, in which we will focus our attention on three main instructions:

  1. Embrace your foreigner status.
  2. Conduct yourselves honorably within society.
  3. Be willing to suffer well.

The first main point that I want us to take notice of in this text is the call to…

Embrace your foreigner status.

Notice, Peter begins by addressing his readers in verse 11 with, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers…” Notice he also addresses them as “aliens” in 1:1 and in 1:17 figuratively refers to their current exile. In other words, this notion of believers as exiles, aliens, and sojourners is a favorite of Peter.

And this is a very important truth for us today. Therefore, I’d like to tease out three implications from this idea of Christians as foreigners that I think are especially important for us today in our current situation.

Now, by definition, foreigners, exiles, and sojourners are individuals who currently reside in a different culture and society from their own. Consequently, they often have different customs and values. Now, some of these differences are quite trivial. But some are much more significant and foundational. And likewise [implication #1] as “spiritual foreigners,” we have different values, priorities, and morals from the society in which we live.

Now, when we talk about these differences, we all know individuals who “go above and beyond the call of duty” in making themselves aliens in this culture. But we’re not talking here about superficial, legalistic standards that make unnecessarily bizarre. We’re talking about differences that are much more foundational–our value system; our view of morality; the very lenses through which we see the world.

And I don’t know about you, but I feel this way all the time. For example…

  • Going to seminary – Spending lots of money on a seminary education, all in hopes of getting a job that doesn’t even pay well– People think I’m crazy. “It’s ridiculous.” “It’s immature.” “It’s a waste of talent.” “It’s foolish.”
  • Getting married young. When Ann and I got married when we were 21 and 22, people thought we were crazy for getting married so young. Now days, if you run into a young married couple, or a young married couple with kids, generally speaking, you’re pretty safe betting they’re Christians.
  • Christian couples – And if you’re a Christian dating couple, you’ve probably run into people who have assumed you’re living together, or at least wouldn’t have any problem with the idea.

You see, as a Christian, you shouldn’t feel at home in our society. You should feel like a foreigner, when it comes to you’re morality–what you understand as right and wrong… when it comes to your life values and priorities, e.g., what you spend your time doing; where you spend your money. In other words, it’s not abnormal for Christians to feel abnormal.

Embrace your foreigner status by orienting your life around Christian values that will inevitably make you feel like a foreigner.

Now, by nature of often being captured and deported people, exiles were often quite vulnerable within society. And foreigners or sojourners, even if having some sort of privileges and rights, were nonetheless marginalized and susceptible to harassment.

And so, the second implication of Peter addressing Christians as “aliens and strangers” is that [implication #2] The natural state of Christianity is marginalization and vulnerability. And this speaks volumes to our situation right now here in America with its rapid secularization and suppression of the Christian worldview.

Now, what Peter is saying here, may make some of you quite uncomfortable… particularly those belonging to generations prior to my own. My generation grew up in a different America; and consequently, our experience makes this teaching more palatable. But for many of you, you grew up thinking of America as a “Christian nation,” you grew up in a society in which Christianity was held in much more high regard than it is today, a society in which Christianity seemingly had much more privilege and influence. And so, I understand that, for many of you, the implications of what Peter is saying here may be difficult and uncomfortable to receive. But they are vitally important to come to grips with if we are going to respond properly to our ever increasing secular country.

What Peter is saying, is that the natural state of Christianity is marginalization and vulnerability within society. This is quite different than thinking of America as a robustly “Christian nation.” This is a far cry from the idea of a “moral majority.” We are not playing with “home field advantage.”

Now, hear me out– I’m not saying that the increasing secularization of our country is a good thing. Nor am I saying that we should passively embrace and accept it. With the proper attitude and proper means, we should promote Christian values and engage ourselves politically. As Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”

But, by overlooking this reality–that the natural state of Christianity is marginalization and vulnerability–we have fallen into at least two unhelpful responses. (1) For some of us, we’re shocked. Our response is simply to let our jaw drop. We’re paralyzed. Our response is a complete lack of response. We’re so utterly shocked that all we can do is talk about how shocked we are! For others, (2) we freak out. Our response has been to throw an adult-style temper-tantrum. We act as if something has been stolen from us. In a political sense–sometimes, maybe. But, in another sense, as Christians, this is exactly what we “signed up” for.

Both of these responses fail to realize that this is Christianity in its “natural habitat.” As 1 Peter 4:12 says, don’t be surprised when this sort of thing happens, “as though some strange thing were happening to you.” Or as 5:9 tells us, similar experiences our occurring to our fellow Christians throughout the world. So, whether we’re in shock–let’s snap out of it. Or if we’re freaking out–let’s shake this false sense of entitlement as if “some strange thing were happening to” us.

Now, heading towards our final implication– Contrary to some previous conceptions that so wedded Christianity and Americanism together that they were inseparable or even coterminous, the idea of Christians as foreigners shows that [implication #3] Christians and Christianity are distinct from the culture and society in which they exist. A similar message was presented by Augustine in his City of God, written shortly after Rome was captured in 410 AD.

Many Christians at that time were under the impression that Christianity and its fate were bound up with the “Christian” Roman Empire (similar to many conceptions of America). And so, when the Roman Empire fell, many Christians were distraught and thought that Christianity itself was in peril. But Augustine argued that the City of God is distinct from the City of Man. The fall of Rome is not the fall of Christianity. Rome was not necessary for Christianity’s success; and if the earthly empire of Rome fell, God’s eternal kingdom would nonetheless triumph.

Augustine’s message is extremely relevant for us today. We need to be reminded that America and Christianity are not wedded. And, therefore, the increasing secularization of our country does not mean the downfall of Christianity. And this distinction means that our Christianity and our Americanism are not one and the same. As foreigners, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ; we are Christians first and foremost before we are Americans.

And so, as we seek to investigate Christian living in a post-Christendom America, the first point we draw from this text is to recognize and embrace our foreign status.

This point is foundational to the rest of the passage. We cannot truly live rightly in this world until we rightly understand our status in this world. It is from this orientation, as exiles and sojourners, that the remaining instructions in this text must to be implemented, which brings us to our second main point.

Conduct yourselves honorably within society.

Christians are quite different from the cultures in which they live. And consequently, the non-Christian society will often view Christianity with suspicion and hostility. For example, in the early church, Christians were often accused of being…

  • Cannibalists – because they “ate the body and blood of Christ” in the Lord’s supper.
  • Committers of incest – because they called each other “brother” and “sister” and had “love feasts.”
  • And atheists – because they did not worship idols and refused to participate in the Emperor cult.

 But of course, these were all misunderstanding and misrepresentations. Likewise, we face false accusations and misrepresentations today as well.

In a similar way, foreigners were often viewed with suspicion in the society to which Peter writes. They had different values and practices. People were a worried that such differences might disrupt the order and stability in society. Consequently, foreigners did well to demonstrate the respectability of their beliefs and customs.

Therefore, Peter sees this concept of a “foreigner” as instructive for how Christians should act in a society that is suspicious or hostile to Christianity. As Peter says in verse 15, that “by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” So, just like a real foreigner would do well to demonstrate that his culture’s values and customs are not harmful or disruptive to the well-being of society, Peter instructs Christians to live in such a way that is honorable even to the surrounding society… at least as much as possible.

And therefore Peter says in verses 11-12, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles [that is– representative here for those outside of God’s people], so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

The goal or the purpose of this behavior is so that when this society, which is skeptical of Christianity and makes accusations against Christians, those accusations won’t stick. Our behavior won’t give them any ammunition. As 1 Peter 3:16 says, “Keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.” In other words, they won’t have a case. Rather, our actions will only give them reason to glorifying God.

In sum, believers are to conduct themselves in such as a way that their actions adorn their faith, that their life matches with their witness, that we’re not giving the society any more reason to be against us, and that ultimately our lives within society glorify God. And this is the foundational idea that Peter teases out in the rest of the passage. In the following verses, Peter will flesh out exactly what this excellent behavior looks within the realm of society.

Notice, in verse 17, his focus is on all spheres of life. Verse 17–“Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” In sum, no matter what sphere of life, whether to our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow Christians, God, government, etc., we are to conduct ourselves honorably. And although we have received many liberties in Christ, we are not to exploit them at the expense of our witness. Verse 16–“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”

And so, his general focus is on conducting ourselves within society at large. But he focuses particularly on our relationship and response to government; and that’s where I want to focus our attention.

And so, he instructs us in vv.13-15, to submit to governing authorities (vv.13-15): “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

In verse 13, Peter instructs us to submit to these governing authorities, which obviously involves obeying their laws and being a good citizen. But part of that, as is often repeated throughout scripture, is respecting and honoring their governing authorities. … And this is the part we tend to have more trouble with. When the Bible tells us to honor our governing authorities, it’s not saying, “only if you like them.” “Only if you agree with their policies.” “Only if you voted for them.” Or, “there’s an exception clause for everyone in that political party.” It’s not saying to only give them lip-service respect; or pray really cynically for their salvation because we all know how terrible of politicians they are. … It’s talking about genuine, heartfelt respect and honor.

But the Bible doesn’t tell us to submit to and honor our government without reason. We have reasons for honoring our governing authorities. (1) Governing authorities exists–verse 14–“for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” Generally speaking, governments promote good behavior and discourage evil. We have reason to respect and appreciate our governing authorities because even a poor government is almost always better than no government at all. (2) We submit to our government in obedience to God. Verse 13–“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake…” And in v.15 he refers to this submission as “the will of God.” And the reason it’s God’ will, among other things, is (3) because respectful submission to the government demonstrates the integrity and respectability of the Christian faith. As v.15 says, it “silences the ignorance of foolish men.” It demonstrates that Christianity is not dangerous or volatile to government. Christianity is submissive, obedient, and respectable.

Now, whenever someone preaches on a text like this that talks about submitting to government, the question inevitably follows, “To what extent? Do we submit no matter what, even if the government instructs us to do evil?”

I don’t believe this text disallows absolutely all cases of civil disobedience, that Peter is telling us to obey the government even when it means directly disobeying God. Notice, Peter tells us to obey the government because in so doing we are obeying God. In other words, God is the ultimately authority. It makes no sense to say that we should obey God by obeying the government to disobey God.

Further, as this text applies to us as American’s who have been given a voice in politics– This text is not calling for some form of political disengagement or passivity. But it does inform how we engage ourselves politically– We do so respectfully, honoring our authorities, and careful not to support subversive movements that could mar our Christian witness. In other words, we engage politics with our Christian witness at the forefront of our mind.

The final area Peter addresses within this social sphere is the relationship between slave and master. But this brings us to our final main point.

In this final portion of our text following text, Peter addresses slaves. Now, as we approach this text as Americans, we want to be careful not to import our preconceptions of slavery on to the text. Slavery, in the Greco-Roman world, was not based on race like the slavery in our American heritage. Rather, it was much more economically motivated. In fact, many slaves were quite privileged and well educated. This leads some (as many of you may have been taught) to say that what Peter is addressing here is more like an employee-employer relationship. But that’s not quite true either. It was definitely slavery; and although some slaves were well off, many were treated quite poorly.

But then the question is, “If Peter is talking about slavery, is this applicable to us?” My answer to that question is yes. (1) In this section, Peter grounds his argument in the sacrificial suffering of Christ, which is applicable not only to slaves, but all believers. (2) Peter is fleshing out what it looks like to live honorably as a foreigner in one’s specific context. Therefore, Christian “foreigners” of any status, culture, or time period can apply the attitude and sentiment of these instructions to their own situation. If anything, the slaves is the par excellence vulnerable foreigner.

Now, up until this point in the text, Peter has talked about how we ought to conduct ourselves in such a way that is praiseworthy even in the eyes of our society. But what happens when appeasing our culture conflicts with obeying God? As Peter himself said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” And we must be willing to suffer the consequences.

And so, our third point is…

Be willing to suffer well.

The main thrust of the remaining text is that we must be willing to suffer unjustly. Notice, our continual submission and good conduct– our gracious enduring of suffering is not conditional on the moral goodness of those inflicting and oppressing us. Verse 18–“Servants [or slaves], be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable [lit. morally crooked].”

Now, as American’s, having been pumped our entire lives with talk about “our rights,” we immediately want to object to this and say, “But that’s not right!” Well… exactly! That’s why Peter calls it suffering unjustly, unrightly. It’s not right. But that’s the point. We endure it anyways.

But what about seeking change? For example, if we face injustice, are we allowed to use our recourses as Americans to defend ourselves? Yes, I believe so. For example, in the book of Acts we see Paul appealing to his rights as a Roman citizen. And nothing in the text suggests he was wrong for doing so. Second, it is important to note that Peter is addressing individuals who did not have such privileges–they were slaves. The most God-honoring thing they could do in their circumstance would be to patiently endure injustice without retaliation.

But nonetheless, this text informs us how we should go about taking such action– Respectfully; patiently; and most of all, willing to suffer injustice without retaliation if some day our current privileges are taken away from us. In either case, this text says that our witness comes before our sense of entitlement.

But Peter doesn’t stop there. He provide us with reasons and motivations to suffer well. First, Peter says that it is favorable in God’s sight when we suffer unjustly because of our obedience to Him. Verse 19-20–“For this finds favor–if for the sake of conscience toward God, a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if, when you do what is right and suffer for it, you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.” As is a common theme in 1 Peter, if you suffer for doing what’s wrong, there’s nothing honorable in that. But if we suffer due to our obedience to God, God looks upon this with favor.

But not only so, Peter continues. We are to suffer unjustly because in so doing we are following the footsteps of Christ. Verse 21-25–“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”

Christ is the perfect example of one who suffers unjustly. In fact, in this section, as Peter is addressing servants who are suffering, Peter draws heavily from Isaiah 53, which speaks of the ultimate suffering servant. And notice, Christ suffered for sin although He was sinless. He suffered unjustly, but did not seek revenge. And as believers we are to following His example.

This word, “example,” was used to refer to a tracing tool used by students in order to learn how to write the alphabet. As one commentator, Karen Jobes, puts it so well,

He [Christ] is the paradigm by which Christians write large the letters of his gospel in their lives. … Jesus Christ left us this pattern over which we are to trace out our lives. … One cannot step into the footsteps of Jesus and head off in any other direction than the direction he took, and his footsteps lead to the cross.

And, as Peter explains in several places throughout this book, as we follow in Christ’s footsteps by suffering unjustly and trusting “the one who judges righteously,” we also follow in Christ’s path to glory. Just as Christ had to suffer before He was glorified, so too, Christians, who will share in Christ’s glory, must also share in Christ’s sufferings. As v.21 says, “you have been called for this purpose.” If we have been called to glory, we have been called to suffer.

Conclusion.

But this salvation of which Peter speaks–that Christ (in v.24) “bore our sins in His body on the cross”— This is what keeps us going when we face difficulties in trying to live the Christian life in a post-Christendom America.

  1. It’s what continues to motivate us as we seek to recognize and embrace our foreigner status in an ever increasing secular America.
  2. The Gospel is what propels us to live honorable lives within society, so that our conduct might adorn our witness to this Gospel.
  3. And this pattern of Christ suffering in accomplishing our salvation is what we follow as we too seek to honor God by suffering well.

This Gospel–that Christ took on Himself the punishment for sinners– This good news is what we trust in as believers as we wait for the final realization of our salvation. And this Gospel, for all those who have not yet accepted it, we call them to do so today and be saved.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24-25)

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