Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

June 2003
Slave AND free
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column I WAS ATTRACTED TO THIS VERSE because of the paradox. 1 Peter 2:16 – "Live as free people... live as God's slaves" (TNIV). So much of what I love about Christianity is bound up in the great paradoxes of the faith, things which, by classical human logic, should be mutually exclusive.

Looking at the verse quickly, I figured that I'd be writing about free will and determination, or about how we surrender our identity to God and find he gives us back our true individuality.

Alas, rather than a convenient springboard to talk about my theology, it's really an exhortation to me about my attitude. The Bible has a way of doing that when you stop to read and re-read it.

The context is not a discussion of personhood or self-expression, not even about election and decision. The context is about Christians' attitudes to the governments and cultures under which they find themselves. These practical guidelines for living in various circumstances continue on well into chapter 3, but the immediate context is 1 Peter 2:13-17, and concerns our attitude – well, let's face it – my attitude toward authority.

IN THE WAKE OF EVENTS SUCH AS the US/UK invasion of Iraq and powerlessness to stop or even slow down monopolistic corporations, I, like many Christians, have been left with a pretty negative view of government. Closer to home, the growing bureaucratic and commercial emphases of the British higher education scene have similarly left a bad taste in my mouth.

1 Peter 2 is calling us to acknowledge secular (and even, in Peter's day, outright pagan) authority, and to respond to it not with bitter sarcasm or destructive protests, but with constructive and creative ideas. Rather than working to bring down the corporations who have cynically won the lucrative contracts to "rebuild" Iraq, I should be working toward enabling organizations who will do good to get in there.

Rather than simply subverting the ridiculous paperwork and terminology, I should be actively and positively transforming those so that they might become occasions to reflect and understand teaching.

I'm convinced that there are still times one has to stand against governments and corporations, and all Christians need to be prepared to follow the call of God to speak prophetically and stand up and be counted. But our default setting should be to answer evil with good, bureaucracy with insightfulness, moribund mediocrity with creative innovation.

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

God help me: I'm even praying through my attitude to Microsoft.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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