June 18, 2008

Going Against the Flow

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.—1 Peter 2:9, KJV.
2008 1517 page5 cape often receive letters here at the Adventist Review from readers who seize on the word peculiar in the above text and register their concern that today’s Adventists are so much like the world. In their opinion, too many Adventists wear “worldly” clothes, listen to “worldly” music, engage in “worldly” recreation, and eat “worldly” food, etc.
That word peculiar, however, has taken on a much different connotation than it had when it was used by the translators of the King James Version. Today peculiar means “weird,” “odd,” “strange,” “unusual.” Nearly 400 years ago it meant “bought” or “purchased.” So in the New International Version, instead of “peculiar people,” the phrase is translated “a people belonging to God.” The word peculiar doesn’t even appear in the New International Version.
So, what?
Some Adventists nurture this notion that the more we are unlike the world, the better witnesses we are for God; that if our diet, dress, and recreational activities are sufficiently odd or peculiar, God is somehow honored.
The problem with that conviction is that there’s nothing inherently virtuous about being strange; especially if an outward behavior doesn’t reflect the enduring principles behind our Christian virtues.
2008 1517 page5Jesus had to deal constantly with people who assumed an outward conformity to religious standards set by the established power structure. But in His sermon on the mount (Matt. 5–7) He challenged them to something greater.
Said Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ ‘Don’t break your oath,’” etc. (see 5:21-48). Then He invariably said: “But I tell you” (verses 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44), and went on to set a standard that requires inner transformation over mere outward conformity.
He reached a crescendo with the words “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (verses 43, 44). And He ended the section with the famous words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48).
Evidently, the genuineness of our profession as Christians is not primarily about matters of food, clothes, music, and recreation as much as about how well we reflect God’s character to each other and to the community around us.
Notice how Eugene Peterson treats 1 Peter 2:9, 10 in his paraphrase: “But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted” (Message).*
Our message to our communities is not about us; it’s about God, and the difference He makes in our lives. And we do that best by proactively reflecting the enduring principles of the everlasting gospel: love, mercy, justice, loyalty, integrity, purity, humility. In the process we will surely embrace behaviors that promote health, modesty, chastity, and moderation. But these are just vehicles to help us share our message; they aren’t the message.
In our diverse and complex society, lots of people don’t wear jewelry. That doesn’t make them witnesses for God. Lots of people don’t eat meat. That doesn’t mean they reflect God’s character. And even those of us who care about how we reflect God’s character would do well to remember that our witness is enhanced more by what we do than by what we don’t do.
Christ surely calls us to flee worldly influences such as pride, greed, gluttony, hatred, violence, and promiscuity. And when we do, we will certainly create a counterculture. But unfortunately, it takes more than a change of clothes or a behavior modification to influence our cynical society; it takes an encounter with Christ, “who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (verse 9).
*Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright ” 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.