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An upside down world 

Continuing his exploration of 1 Peter, Terry Young explains how Peter subverts traditional notions of strength


Peter’s phrase, ‘the weaker vessel’ (KJV) is probably the most controversial in his letter, so let’s face it head on.

His audience is suffering. They are travellers, exiles, foreigners (1 Peter 1:1 & 17; 2:11, quotations from the NIV). The old-fashioned KJV word was sojourners – people who stay for a while in places where the rules are set by others. First the emperor and his governors, then masters, since many were slaves, then the people around (1 Peter 2:13-19; 4:1-4). Husbands also set rules, and many were not believers (1 Peter 3:1-6).

Critically, breaking the rules meant physical punishment (1 Peter 2:18-20), so Peter is writing to people who lived under constant threat of violence (1 Peter 3:13-19), where the strong made the rules and the weak complied. What is his response?

His priorities are not ours: he doesn’t see suffering as bad in itself and even sees where it may be important. He also distances himself from any believer who is (1 Peter 4:15): ‘a murderer, thief, or any other kind of criminal, or even… a meddler.’  ‘But how is it to your credit’ he asks, ‘if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?’ (1 Peter 2:20). Not quite our way of thinking.

That said, his priorities are nothing like those of the society around him, either. While he supports the law – from the emperor on down – and its right to reward or punish (1 Peter 2:13-17) he imposes a new idea on top of it. Bizarrely, he believes in suffering for doing good, for what is right, in line with God’s will, or as a Christian (1 Peter 2:13-23; 3:13-18; 4:12-19). What distinction is he making?

He’s taking a difficult line here: authorities – civil and at home – have the right to punish but not to define what is right. Sometimes this results in unjust suffering. He doesn’t complain or encourage others to complain but does something much more subversive: he connects their suffering to the suffering of Jesus. When they suffer, they ‘participate in the sufferings of Christ,’ who also suffered unfairly (1 Peter 4:13; 2:18).

‘Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?’ Peter asks (1 Peter 3:13-14) before saying, ‘But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.’ So, where God’s framework clashes with that of society around and they, ‘suffer as a Christian,’ they should ‘not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name’ (1 Peter 4:16).

In this way Peter has turned the world upside down. Strength and authority do not put people on top of the blessings pile. Instead, that goes to those who (1 Peter 3:6), ‘do what is right and do not give way to fear.’ 

Next – and germane to our quest – Peter tells believing husbands not to dole out violence, as their peers do. Physical strength and weakness don’t relate that way in an upside-down world. Instead, Peter puts two checks to stop the household head lashing out. First, he tells believing husbands that their world has no value gradient! Their wives are, ‘heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.’ Second, he warns that failure to treat their wives respectfully will ‘hinder your prayers.’ (1 Peter 3:7).

Abuse by the powerful has overshadowed history since then. So how has Peter’s perverse approach fared? Damon Runyon parodied the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 9:11): ‘The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.' It’s amusing and sounds sage, but history leans against Runyon and traditional thinking, towards Peter and the Preacher. 

Tom Holland (e.g. Dominion, Millennium) presents a troubling finding: the dominant have failed to dominate while the meek have repeatedly inherited. In, Why I was wrong about Christianity, he asks how society’s values (compassion, respect for the weak, even human rights) could have come from ancient Greece and Rome when those empires cared not a jot for the weak. Those who cared about the weak followed a Messiah who had been executed in a subjugated land. How could that have happened?

He’s not a Christian, but wherever he looks, Holland sees mystery as fragility overcomes strength, even in passing. For instance, Abd Al-Rahman, the 8th Century Umayyad Caliph who founded a dynasty across Iberia that lasted nearly three centuries had blue eyes (Dominion, p  95), inherited from centuries of European slaves who became royal concubines. At other times, secluded monks and scholars built legal frameworks that toppled kingdoms. It’s a puzzle but I suspect Peter knew it had to work that way.

I’ve been following the aftermath of slavery in another direction, after watching Hidden Figures, to discover more about the black women who made their mark in maths and engineering at the Langley research complex, and to understand the communities from which they came. My grasp is incomplete, but four things stood out.

First, these communities were emphatically Christian with active pastors, although tragically the whole church failed to unite around its members in the weakest positions. Second, they repudiated violence as the way to oppose power.

Third, they appealed to the law, so that sustained progress was made by changing the law and then pursing causes through the courts. It was an exceptionally prescient and self-controlled approach. Finally, they made a priority of education and used skills and qualifications to climb over barriers. It was an impressive way to implement Peter’s teaching that bears review in our present turmoil.

Peter’s guidance to struggling churches sounded as suicidal then as it does now. Winning is about superiority and strength. The world around knows who is strong and who is weak and what needs to be done about it. The world in which Peter wrote was wrong about strength and weakness, and ours is, too.

What, then, can our generation do about weaker vessels that people might still admire in another 2,000 years?

Image | Julian Hochgesang | Unsplash

This is part of a series where Terry explores 1 Peter
  1. Calling and being called 
  2. Alert and sober
  3. Suffering and glory
  4. An upside down world 
  5. Peter and baptism

Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.

After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and moved to Datchet with a position as a university professor. He is a member of a Baptist church


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Baptist Times, 18/01/2021
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