the shape of leadership

Neighboring for the Common Good

Amid all the noise, Christians are called to strike a gracious note of love

Don Everts on September 2, 2020

While the divisiveness of our current moment in the United States may be regrettable and fatiguing, it also represents an incredible opportunity for Christians. Amid all the noise, we are uniquely shaped and called to strike an elegant and gracious note of love. But we will miss our opportunity if we do nothing more than add to the rancor.

As church leaders, our job is not only to help Christians recognize the temptations we’re facing, but also to highlight another way: a way of neighborly love that can cut through all the yelling and point others to the beauty of the gospel.

Scripture, Church history, and the latest research all confirm this hopeful path of neighborly love is possible — and ideally suited for our cultural moment.

Threefold Temptation

Before we get to the hopeful path, we have to confront our temptations with honesty. Christians in the U.S. today face a threefold temptation to respond to our current moment not with neighborly love, but with bitter antagonism.

First, there’s the political season. Every presidential election cycle brings with it a heightened level of rhetoric that is often anything but gracious. Every four years, Americans get a little louder, a little more on edge, a little more extreme in their rhetoric. As social media posts reveal, at times Christians jump into the fray with more hostility than humility, and more venom than virtue.

Second, a cultural shift influences how people talk to one another. In Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller suggests the art of gracious conversation, historically nurtured and celebrated in the West, has been eroding for decades.

Pete Carlson observed in The Washington Post that ours is increasingly the age of “the screed, the rant, the tirade, the jeremiad, the diatribe, the venom-fueled, white-hot harangue!”

Yelling has become normative. This shift from conversation to diatribe is well documented and undoubtedly affects Christians and non-Christians alike.

Not only are Christians not immune from the temptations that come with such an environment, but we are actually predisposed to give in to them because of a third temptation that is unique to us: We increasingly feel like exiles in our own country.

Wanting to Punch Back

As our nation has shifted from modernity to postmodernity in recent years, the Christian Church has moved from the center of society to the margins. As a result, Christians, who for a long time have enjoyed a sort of home-field advantage, are beginning to feel more like a visiting team.

Our situation in the U.S. is nowhere near as precarious and perilous as what other believers face in many areas of the world today. Yet Christianity in our country has entered a tougher season than it’s seen for some time.

According to Barna Group, many U.S. Christians today feel misunderstood (65%), persecuted (60%), marginalized (48%), silenced (46%), and afraid to speak up (47%) because of their faith.

The ground is shifting beneath our feet, and many of us are feeling it. Beyond a sense of displacement, some feel personally injured by these shifts. This can lead to defensiveness and bitterness — and a desire to join in the yelling. In short, we may want to “punch” back at the postmodern shifts, at changes in culture, at influential non-Christians, at people who post anti-Christian messages on social media, and even at our non-Christian co-workers and neighbors.

Jesus once quoted a popular saying from His day, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43). This captures the posture many Christians are tempted to assume in our present moment. Sometimes hating your enemy feels as right as rain.

Of course, we know better. After all, Jesus went on to say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But how do we navigate life as exiles? Should we circle the wagons and wait for things to change? Are we supposed to yell louder than others to get our message across? It turns out there is another, more hopeful way — the way of exiled Christians who came before us.

Just Like Us

Consider the Christians in Asia Minor during the first century, just a few decades into the life of the Church. These brothers and sisters were living through a time of increasing hostility toward Christians.

Even before a wave of violent persecution began, Christians regularly endured insults, defamation of character, and verbal abuse — all of which were particularly painful in an honor-and-shame culture. There were economic consequences for Christians as well.

Perhaps the changing winds of hostility shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, Paul had told Timothy the gospel would sometimes be “in season,” and at other times “out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Sometimes the wind would blow fair upon Christians and their message; at other times, it would blow harsh and hostile.

How were these Christians to respond to this change of weather? Certainly, some felt the temptation to blend in with their culture. Others wrestled with the urge to punch back at the hostility, at their enemies, even at their non-Christian neighbors. This, in part, is why Peter wrote his first letter.

One of the main themes of 1 Peter is that Christians may suffer because of their faith. In the opening verse, Peter addresses the letter to “God’s elect, exiles.” Throughout the letter, he deals head-on with the issue of suffering.

According to Peter, Christians in Asia Minor needed to reorient their self-understanding and come to terms with their status as exiles in their own hometowns.

Peter says Christ followers should expect times of suffering: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

According to Peter, we should also be aware of the unique temptations that come with such seasons.

Overcoming Temptation

The Early Christians were tempted to punch back. This is why Peter writes his letter when he does — to stay their bitter hand and remind them the desire to punch back may be innately human and very understandable, but it is simply not an option for Christians.

Peter is clear in this regard: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

Peter’s instruction may seem upside-down, but it is the way of Jesus. Peter points to Jesus himself as the example of this refreshing, unexpected response to hostility: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ... 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).

These words have profound implications for exiles. It is natural for people to punch back when they feel attacked, maligned or misunderstood. It is natural for people in a hostile environment to raise their hackles in response. It is natural for hate to blossom in the hearts of those who are mistreated.

Yet Peter invites these early Christian exiles to take a very different path. He proposes they strike a surprising, elegant, gracious note of neighborly love.

On the Contrary, Bless

Not only did Peter bar the way of revenge in his letter — “do not repay evil with evil” — but he pointed to a gracious alternative: “On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.”

It’s one thing to ask those who are suffering for their faith not to strike back. It’s quite another to call them to bless their neighbors. But that’s exactly what Peter does.

Peter then asks these brothers and sisters a fascinating question: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Peter 3:13).

With this question, Peter invited the newly exiled Christians to step into this way of living enthusiastically and joyfully — “being eager to make good things,” as the Greek text could be translated — not grudgingly or halfheartedly.

It’s not just an attitude, but a heart change that leads to action. First Peter 4:10 says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

This is as practical as it is hopeful, as everyday as it is refreshing. Peter calls these suffering Christians to respond to their tough season by, of all things, blessing their neighbors in tangible ways.

The high call to neighborly love is essentially the same call God gave the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The people hated exile and dreamed only of a quick escape. But God had Jeremiah write them a letter to remind them of their call to pursue the common good right where they were.

Jeremiah wrote, Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).

When the Jewish exiles were tempted to simply hold their breath until their captivity ended, God called them to pursue the welfare of their new city. When the Christian exiles in Asia Minor were tempted to punch back, God called them to use their gifts to bless their neighbors.

Seemingly there are not only common temptations God’s people face during tough seasons, but also a common call: to respond with neighborly love rather than hatefulness or withdrawal.

As social media posts reveal, at times Christians jump into the fray with more hostility than humility, and more venom than virtue.

Rediscovering 1 Peter

It has been observed that whenever Christians are a minority, 1 Peter takes on renewed significance for the Church. It is a letter ideally fitted for Christians who suddenly find themselves feeling like the visiting team.

During the summer of 1992, I was in the jungles of the Yucatan with a group of college students, and we were studying this epistle together. Most of the passages about suffering landed casually on us. As Christians living in the waning light of the modern era, we hadn’t really suffered for our faith. We still felt like the home team.

Sure, we experienced discomforts that summer without air conditioning and familiar food. But even then, I suspected our domestic manner of suffering was not what Peter was writing about.

In the gathering winds of postmodernity, Peter’s words about suffering have since come alive for me in new ways. I know, a little more than I did then, what it is like to have the winds shift against the Christian faith. I feel the pull to blend in. I feel the urge to strike back. I feel predisposed to jump into the yelling fray that is growing louder every year.

It seems this is the perfect time for me and all Christians in America to rediscover 1 Peter and the call to neighborly love.

Hunger for Neighborly Love

Our neighbors are hungry for neighborly love. According to Barna, more than a quarter of U.S. adults live alone, and it is not uncommon for people to have no regular visitors in their home. What psychiatrists call “chronic loneliness” is common in modern American life.

The neighborhood used to be where people could predictably find friendship in the midst of loneliness and help in time of need. But since the end of World War II, that’s been changing.

As Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic detail in their book Becoming Whole, the local neighborhood is no longer a place where we are known or meaningfully connected. Isolated people now purchase from professionals the care previous generations received from neighbors.

The time couldn’t be more ripe for Christians to resist yielding to bitter antagonism and instead choose the ancient path of neighborly love Christian exiles before us faithfully walked.

What if we, too, refused to blend in, refused to strike back, and instead became zealous to pursue the common good of our neighbors? What if the non-Christians around us began to see a wave of Christians who were humbly pursuing the welfare of their neighborhoods and cities rather than joining in on the electoral yelling or divisive culture wars?

Surprised by Neighborly Love

For starters, our neighbors would be surprised. As Barna’s research reveals, our non-Christian neighbors do not associate Christians with good deeds in the neighborhood.

While 70% of practicing Christians believe “people of faith and religious organizations provide the majority of good works in the country,” only 27% of non-Christians are convinced of the same. If Christians across the country started showing neighborly love, it would likely get the attention of our neighbors!

And they might just welcome this neighborly love for the simple fact that we are their neighbors. When Barna asked non-Christians who could best solve community problems, 42% ranked the government as their top option, compared to only 7% preferring churches and Christian organizations.

It seems distrust for Christian organizations is high. However, 26% of non-Christians chose “community members” as the best solution for community problems. There is more trust for those who live in the neighborhood.

In the modern era, people trusted churches and Christian organizations. In the postmodern era, they are more comfortable with community members — actual neighbors. Could this become the age of the hopeful Christian neighbor?

Perhaps this is part of why pastors have such a high view of lay leadership these days. According to Barna, 92% of pastors agree or strongly agree that they “prefer lay initiatives to new church programs.” Church leaders understand the power of everyday Christians living out their faith.

Can you imagine what would happen if Christians all across the country rediscovered God’s call to exiles — not to escape or fight back, but to seek the welfare of their community? If history is any indicator, the results would bring glory to God, and bring many of our non-Christian neighbors to faith in Christ.

Power of Neighborly Love

Peter signaled this hopeful outcome was a possibility when he wrote, 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(1 Peter 2:12). Peter understood neighborly love would speak louder than any caustic words believers were tempted to lob back at their neighbors.

There’s a reason Peter assumed good deeds would ultimately bring glory to God. During His Sermon on the Mount, this is what Jesus had taught him. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The behaviors of Christians are in themselves a sort of message. This message in action is not just unexpected and intriguing, but it can also influence how others think about God.

Peter understood Christian deeds were a powerful part of Christian witness. He knew neighborly love really stands out in an age of hostility, and their non-Christian neighbors would eventually try to puzzle out why these Christians were behaving so differently. The neighbors would naturally wonder, Why aren’t they defending themselves or getting bitter?

This is why Peter encouraged the brothers and sisters in Asia Minor to be ready with an answer: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

When this neighborly love inevitably attracted attention, Peter wanted Christ followers to interpret their deeds with gentle and respectful words about the hope they had in Jesus.

Apologetic of Neighborly Love

As it turns out, this is exactly what happened. The persecuted Christians in the Early Church loved their neighbors. For example, we know they sacrificially cared for sick and dying neighbors during two devastating pandemics. They also quietly took in and raised babies who had been discarded in the garbage heap outside of town by their pagan neighbors (an accepted behavior at the time).

The earliest Christians, often at great cost to themselves, were zealous for the common good and pursued it in the name of Jesus.

What was the result of all this neighborly love? First, they literally saved lives and benefited their local communities in profound ways. Their unexpected neighborly love also brought glory to God as a lived-out message of the gospel.

Believers’ pursuit of the common good turned out to be a powerful apologetic. The early Christian leader Origen wrote that the whole world was like a theater filled with spectators, watching Christ followers to see how they would respond to persecution. This was a common view in the Church at the time.

In light of this, Origen understood apologetics (the defense of the faith) as a discipline of obedience and everyday living rather than rhetoric and ideas. As he put it, Christ “makes his defense in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts.”

The earliest apologists didn’t write arguments about the faith or fashion clever answers to pagans’ questions. Instead, as historian Alan Kreider has observed, they “wrote extensively on behavior because of their Christian conviction that the way people live expresses what they really believe.”

And what did non-Christian neighbors think of the loving behavior of Christ followers? In the words of writers from the Early Church, these neighbors were “deeply impressed” by their “eloquent behavior,” their “exceedingly attractive” patience, and their “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.”

As the early Christian author Tertullian wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.”

The Christians’ neighborly love brought attention and glory to God. Ultimately, pagans throughout the Roman Empire wanted to join the ranks of Christians because their good works convinced the pagans of the veracity of their message. Marcus Minucius Felix observed in the early 200s that the Christians’ “beauty of life” encouraged “strangers to join the ranks.”

Thank God, Peter was faithful to write his letter to this group of newly exiled Christians in Asia Minor. In the midst of their temptations, this epistle carried a simple message of love and hope they desperately needed to hear. Peter’s message came just in time.

Our Moment

Peter’s letter comes at the perfect time for us as well. At a time when some of us are tempted to feel anger and bitterness, Peter’s words arrive to arrest our fears and illuminate our path forward, reminding us to pursue the common good of the people and place around us.

Could the divisiveness and rancor of our current moment actually represent an opportunity for the gospel? Could this be our moment to exhibit our own “eloquent behavior,” as neighbors who are not angered or embittered by our newfound status as the visiting team, but called to a hopeful path of neighborly love?

In a room of yelling people, an elegant note of love stands out. People are likely to notice and ask about the source of such love and hope. God’s Word, Church history, and the latest research confirm this is exactly what happens when Christians pursue the common good.

Paul wrote that it was possible to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). What if we made that our default strategy today?

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of Influence magazine.
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