Theology in the Public Square

By T. R. Robertson

Polarization. Insults. Railing against wrong. The apostle Peter showed approaches better than these for Christian response to injustice in government and society.

A once great nation is in the throes of transition from a democratic republic to a de facto dictatorship. A neophyte has been given the reigns of power, to which some critics maintain he has no birthright. The gap between the super rich and the middle class is widening.

People from other countries covet the benefits of citizenship, yet the nation’s reputation among the rest of the world is declining.

dv1992008Christians find themselves increasingly at odds with the policies and morals of the nation. They’re seen as dangerous dissenters by those in charge and are increasingly marginalized and persecuted for their beliefs.

No, the neophyte leader’s name is not Obama and the nation is not America.

I’m describing the Roman Empire during the reign of Nero. This was the world in which Christians were living when Peter wrote his first epistle to the saints in Rome. Many will see parallels between their situation and ours.

In one important regard, the situations are far from similar.

Peter, advising his readers how to respond, does not lay out a plan for political action. He doesn’t even mention Nero by name and drops only a few veiled hints to let them know he’s even aware of the current political situation in Rome. He doesn’t speak disparagingly about the government, doesn’t insult the leaders, and doesn’t pass along the latest rumors and jokes about the emperor.

Peter, faced with a political situation similar to what quite a few Christians see as our current circumstances, is somehow able to respond in such a different manner from so much of what is heard in many churches and posted by believers on social media today.

Who would have guessed that Peter, best known for blurting out the first awkwardly blunt thing that pops into his head, would be the one to let theology be his guide for how to be a Christian in the public square?

Theology of Polarization

Politics in America have become increasingly polarized over the past few decades. Christians not only haven’t been immune to this trend, they’re highly susceptible to it because of a misapplication of biblical teaching about polarization.

Jesus said he came to bring division on earth (Luke 12:51-53). Peter is no less “extreme” in his writings. He describes the Roman Christians as “foreigners and exiles,” living among “pagans” (1 Peter 2:11, 12). He advises them to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15, 16), emphasizing the need to be different, set apart from the world.

This doctrine of polarity has given birth to an “us vs. them” approach among some believers throughout the history of the church. In spite of clear biblical teaching to return good for evil, to answer questioners with meekness, and to love your enemies, the temptation is always there to revile those with whom we disagree, to be sharp-tongued in defending our opinions, and to lead with judgment rather than love.

Some Christians have carried over this “righteous combativeness” from their religion to their politics. Believers vs. nonbelievers spills over into Republican vs. Democrat, with the same ungodly behavior bubbling to the surface.

Peter’s theology describes a better way.

Theology of Goodness

According to Peter, the key characteristic of godly and holy behavior in the public arena isn’t a political strategy or even a unified worldview. It’s goodness.

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. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves (1 Peter 2:12; 15, 16).

Goodness in the New Testament begins with what you are, but always moves on to what you do. Peter’s theology of living among “pagans” and “foolish people” is to live in such a way that they don’t just hear you saying good things, but they see your good deeds.

This is another doctrine we’ve distorted over the years. The church, which has battled against the drift toward legalism since its birth, has sometimes exchanged doing good for being right.

Nonbelievers too often see Christians asserting their political opinions in ways that are anything but good. On social media I see joyful expressions of wonder at God’s creation followed up by rude and malicious jokes about the president.

Peter didn’t leave much wiggle room for such things when he advised followers of Christ to “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1).

Because we are a people “chosen by God and precious to him” (1 Peter 2:4), there is no amount of holding the right opinions and saying the right things that can possibly justify saying them in a manner that doesn’t reflect God’s goodness.

Theology of Mission

Peter describes the mission of the church in metaphors, with a kicker that’s as clear as can be: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Peter goes on to describe an approach to God’s mission that has been embraced by the modern “missional” movement.

Christians can declare God’s praises in many ways, including preaching the gospel, helping the needy, and, yes, political action. Peter says to always be ready, no matter what good things we’re doing, to give an answer to people who ask why we’re doing these things (1 Peter 3:15, 16).

For Christians involved in political activities or in casual political conversations, Peter’s teaching has at least two implications.

When someone asks you the reasons for your political stance, do you remember to mention your faith and the name of the One who motivates everything you do? Or would a missional approach conflict with the tone and tenor of your vehement response?

Also, have you considered whether your freedom of political expression might interfere with your ability to be heard when you talk about Jesus?

It’s all well and good to preach about the need to “seek and save the lost.” But what happens if a seeker is met on a Sunday morning with a display of voter’s guides presenting a one-sided political philosophy? In this age of bipolar politics, there’s at least a 50-50 chance that political message will make it more difficult for that seeker to hear the gospel message.

Theology of Respect

Into a culture where the Christians were being persecuted and tortured for their faith, Peter reiterates Christ’s teachings about submission.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (1 Peter 2:13, 14).

To that he adds an additional way for believers to go the extra mile beyond grudging submission, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).

When I hear Christians being disrespectful toward the president or other elected leaders and candidates, I often remind them to be respectful. It’s not only the way I was raised (respect the office, even if you disagree with the man in the office); it’s also doctrinally sound.

I often receive the response, “I’ll show the president (or some other politician) respect when he starts respecting us.” Peter knew this would be a common response from Christians who feel mistreated, but again reminds them of the way Christ handled similar situations.

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23).

Much of the political rhetoric bandied about by Christians fails the test of following Christ’s example, choosing instead to imitate the example of our rancorous culture. It seems we’re still “like sheep going astray” from the sound doctrine of the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.

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  1. February 25, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Half of this article is very well done.
    Yes, let’s preach the Gospel to the lost.
    Yes, let’s do good, especially for the poor.
    Yes, let’s refrain from baseless insults.
    Yes, let’s submit to governing authorities.

    You didn’t mention a huge difference between Peter’s time & ours: We get to help choose our leaders.

    I see no problem with informing our church members.
    You criticized the “voters’ guides” displayed by many churches that inform about candidates’ views on topics such as abortion & homosexual marriage, because you fear alienating the “seeker.”
    Shall we also refrain from preaching about abortion & homosexual marriage to keep from offending seekers?

    Jesus alienated a lot of people.

    John the Baptist was beheaded for preaching against King Herod’s sins.
    Nathan pointed a finger in King David’s face & said, “You are the man!”
    Many prophets & preachers in Scripture railed against evil in governments.

    Here in the Philippines, the leading candidate is a serial adulterer (who often jokes about that), a God-mocker who punctuates his speeches with profanity, a homosexual-marriage advocate, & an accused accomplice to murder (which he brags about!).
    Shall I refrain from preaching against his wickedness, & from warning the people I love about the evil that will befall this country if he leads it?

  2. Gail Wilson
    February 26, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

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