I Peter 4 contains a passage which in my schooldays I found a bit confusing. I had no problem with the first bit, about being prepared to suffer for the name of Christ, but the next bit – well, here is the passage…
Be not surprised, dear friends, at the fiery test that is being applied to you, as if you were experiencing something odd. Instead be cheerful for sharing to some degree the sufferings of Christ, so that at the revealing of his glory you may be triumphantly cheerful. If you are defamed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, yes, the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Of course none of you should suffer as a murderer or a thief or a criminal or a meddler in other’s affairs; but if you suffer as a Christian, do not feel ashamed; but honour God with that name.
My reaction to this was “How could that be? How would Christians be suffering for being murderers, or thieves, or criminals?” After all, to Christians those things would be sinful. The bit about ‘meddlers’ was confusing in a slightly different way – it just wasn’t clear what was meant, what would be the limits of ‘meddling’, the difference between that and other legitimate concerns? Like many other things that puzzled me as a teenager, things got clearer as the explosion of violence in Ulster led me to look into ‘Church and State’ issues.
Because there in Ulster people were effectively committing murder and theft and other criminality in the name of Jesus, as paramilitaries threw bombs, shot people, and stole and extorted (including intimidation of their own ‘side’) to finance supposedly Christian campaigns for either a Catholic or a Protestant cause. That is, they didn’t see the murder, theft and criminality as just ordinary crimes of personal greed or whatever; they thought they had the justification of fighting for God’s people in God’s name. Peter, I realised, in a letter to a church facing imminent persecution, was almost certainly referring to that kind of thing, and saying “That’s not the Christian way!” In Peter’s day, he probably had in mind the ‘Zealots’ and ‘Sicarii (daggermen)’ of the Jewish resistance against Rome. About ten years later movements like that would lead to the Jewish Revolt, so there would be a live possibility of that kind of Christian reaction to persecution unless Peter made things clear.
Once I’d made that link I could see many episodes in Christian history where Christians who would not have committed ‘private’ crimes did commit rebellion and other crimes for supposedly Christian causes; the English Civil war is just one of the bigger examples, starting in lesser resistance to the authorities and ending in full warfare. This in turn was a consequence of the ‘establishment’ of the Church in the Roman Empire and the development of the idea of the ‘Christian country’. Having or trying to achieve a ‘Christian state’ appeared to justify such conduct. This general issue I’ve explored elsewhere in the blog and will probably keep coming back to.
‘Meddling’ – well now I’d revised my interpretation of the background ideas, could I find a better and clearer meaning for the ‘meddling’ as well? Going back to the Greek was an obvious starting point, and the Greek is ‘allotriepiskopoi’. ‘Allos’ is ‘other’, ‘Allotria’ is ‘other people’s affairs’ and ‘episkopos’ is the same word as ‘bishop’ though in those days it hadn’t acquired a distinctively church meaning and just meant a ‘manager’ or ‘overseer’ (‘epi’ is ‘over/above’ as in epidermis, ‘skopos’ is ‘seeing’ as in the far-seeing ‘telescope’). Peter doesn’t just mean ‘meddling’ in general; this is being a ‘manager of other people’s business’ and I don’t think it would be wrong to suggest an implication of ‘self-appointed manager’. We might also informally use the phrase ‘bossy-boots’.
One risk in thinking you’re ‘on God’s side’ is the risk of becoming a Zealot, or a member of the UVF or similar bodies, thinking that killing and coercion in God’s name is justified, even mandated and praiseworthy; another risk is to become a busy-body, an interferer, pushing your views and standards on others in God’s name. But Peter is saying that being such a ‘meddler’ is also inappropriate conduct, conduct which will get you into trouble with the non-Christians around you and bring disrepute on the faith; even get Christians persecuted. As Peter sees it, Christians aren’t entitled to that management role; we are humble resident aliens, people who must be prepared to follow Jesus’ example of suffering unjustly. In our dealings with our fellow-men we show self-sacrificing love and care, not self-righteous domineering. This is arguably Peter’s version of Jesus’ words about how the princes of the gentiles ‘lord it over’ others – ‘but it shall not be so with you’. Not only Christians won’t lord it over each other – they also won’t treat non-Christians that way! Of course we care about other people’s affairs; but we are also careful to respect them and to offer humble help that doesn’t demean our neighbour or act self-righteous and haughty.
Another side to this; of course when there is a ‘Christian country’ it will appear to Christians that there are, in a way, no ‘other people’s affairs’ to improperly manage. Everyone’s a Christian by being born in that country and baptised as an infant, so their affairs are also the church’s affairs and interfering with them can’t be meddling …. This is a great idea if you’re an inquisitor, or just a ruler looking to Christianity to unify his realm. The problem is, of course, that the New Testament doesn’t teach the Christian state in the first place, and actually rejects the idea that spiritual rebirth as a Christian can be achieved by human will/legislation etc. Nice as it sounds to the would-be busy-body, this situation is simply not supposed to happen. And if ever there was a case of ‘allotriepiskopy writ large’, it’s the bishops, the ‘episkopoi’ of a state church; their very existence in that role, defies NT teaching. Think it through….
Finally, Peter wrote this to a church which wasn’t running anybody’s country, to advise them against this inappropriate bossy-boots stuff; I can’t believe that he intended the church to actually end up as an institutionalised bossy-boots by becoming ‘established’!