Reconciling the seemingly contradictory messages of conformity to expected social behavior and resistance of these same societal norms was the focus of the third session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College.
Continuing the study of how the author of I Peter’s understanding of and interaction with his surrounding world affected his instructions to the early Christians of Asia Minor, Dr. Travis Williams said that the author instructs his readers to follow a path of minimal conformity and cautious resistance. Williams, assistant professor of religion at Tusculum, is leading the annual lecture series, now in its 24th year and sponsored by the college with partial funding from Ron Smith.
While Biblical scholars agree that I Peter was written as a response to persecution that early Christians were experiencing, Williams said, they are split regarding whether the author is instructing his readers to conform to societal expectations or to be resistant to social norms.
Two Biblical scholars released books in 1981 with opposing views about I Peter that have shaped the debate. In his book, David Balch argues that I Peter’s instructions for submissive behavior by wives, children and slaves is a call to conformity to the social norms of the Greco-Roman world of the time. However, John Elliott takes an opposite stand in his book, arguing that the author of I Peter is encouraging resistance to those social norms by telling early Christians to not return to their former behaviors and reinforcing their identity in Christ, which makes them different.
Scholars have come to a stalemate in the arguments and what is needed is a fresh approach to understanding how conformity and resistance would have worked back then, Williams said.
One way is to understand the situation of a disadvantaged minority group in that society through postcolonial criticism, he said. Postcolonial criticism provides a new way of reading the text by examining the relationship between the Romans (the colonizers) and the citizens of Asia Minor, including the early Christians (the colonized).
A dominant power that colonizes another area seeks to control it by not only changing the behavior of the people in the colony but also their way of thinking by changing the language, education system and religion to that of the colonizing power. In that situation, the oppressed people often respond with a mixture of conformity and resistance.
In I Peter, a surface reading seems to indicate instructions for the readers to align their behavior with society, however, a closer look at these instructions finds both conformity and resistance, Williams said.
The early Christians for whom I Peter was written were in a disadvantaged, minority position with few rights of refusal, he continued. For example, a slave who became a Christian and faced the hostility of a master, who was not a believer, had a choice of running away and facing death, disobeying and facing beatings or death, steal from the master and face punishment or try to lead a rebellion and again face death.
“There was no other choice than conformity for those in that situation,” he said. “However, the prescribed conformity [in I Peter] is only the minimum level required for a powerless social group in the Roman empire, a low level of conformity.”
For example, I Peter 3:1 instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands, which would be following the expected social norm, but includes a restriction to that behavior, Williams noted. Wives are told to submit to their husbands so that some may be won over to the faith by their conduct, confirming wives’ freedom to choose their own religion. “In the ancient world, it would be a flip of the social for a wife to convert her husband.”
Another passage where this can be seen is in I Peter 2:17, in which the readers are told to fear God and honor the emperor. Williams said that while this looks like conformity, the wording of the passage makes it clear that God is the one on top of the hierarchal order, not the emperor. “It is conformity, but with an understanding that Christians are serving a higher master than the Roman emperor, he added.
“In conclusion, we can say yes, the author advocates a minimum level of compliance with social norms, but there are some things they can’t do, which amounts to a cautious resistance,” Williams said.
The resistance encouraged in I Peter can be called “everyday” resistance, actions that subtly oppose the societal norms and undercutting the power-base of dominant social and political structures, he said.
That can be seen in the passages about the emperor, which subtly refute the Roman belief in the emperor as a god, he said. In addition, the epistle challenges Roman imperial judgments about Christianity by adopting and redefining the label that Romans considered a condemnation.
In I Peter 4:15-16, the readers are told to not consider it a disgrace to be punished solely for being a Christian, but to “glorify God because you bear this name.”
“The author of I Peter says to adopt the stigmatized name and embrace it,” Williams said.
The author of I Peter tells his readers to not go back to their former behavior and practices, to stay away despite the consequences, he continued, noting that by following the instructions for this subtle resistance, early Christians would still face persecution.
The series concludes next Tuesday, Feb. 25, with a look at the how the instructions in the New Testament epistle for early Christians to do good works has an underlying current of resistance.
The sessions begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. There is no charge to attend the lecture series, but reservations are required as lunch is provided in the college’s cafeteria. For more information or to register, please call 423-636-7304 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.