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The Teachings of James and Peter

We have now finished laying the foundation of all that the NT writers will refer to when making a case for any given principle. We had to know, to the best of our ability, what the recipients of those letters would have understood about the scriptures they had, and the events they learned about as a result of the twelve apostles’ witnessing. The apostles will add no new interpretations (but certainly some new applications), because they are using what is already there.

Let us begin with what is believed to be the earliest of the apostolic writings, the book of James. It is a very practical, non-theological letter, a charge to individuals to examine their own behavior. Many have mistaken it for a weapon to use on other believers who do not have exactly the same package of personal convictions, or a doctrinal thesis on what it takes to be saved. But remember that this is the same James who led the Jerusalem Council, who added no requirements to salvation by faith and only asked for some minor concessions to Judaism. His message in this letter is a plea for consistency with that simple faith, an urging to think things through. They had to un-learn things like fawning over the rich and despising the poor. Note that in those particular instructions (James 2:2) he only mentions “meetings”, not “services” or anything like that. And his simple definition of pure religion was also very practical: “… to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).” We need to remember that it is in this practical theme that he discusses faith and deeds.

But aside from ignoring the context, the most critical part of this letter that is typically ignored is the reference to teachers (James 3:1). They are to be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. Yet how many more scandals will it take for us to grasp this principle? We put leaders up on pedestals and excuse their sins. We fawn over them while tolerating the most vile behavior and false teachings. We need to stop following anyone who acts in ways that are clearly un-Christlike, beginning with the issue of pride, and we need to start holding them to their claims of spiritual maturity.

Now to Peter, whose tone in his writings is much different than the personality traits typically assigned to him by many commentators. But of course it is fitting that the one whose name means “stone” would describe us all as living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5) comprising a spiritual house. But he also calls us “a royal priesthood”. Every believer is a priest! There is no special “clergy”, no earthly intermediary between ourselves and our Savior. He even repeats this in verse 9 to emphasize the point.

“But,” some will object, “starting in 1 Peter 2:13 he tells us to submit to the authorities.” But Peter never mentions spiritual leaders there. He is talking about Christians being model citizens so that unbelievers will have no grounds for maligning the name of Jesus. While this does begin a passage on the topic of what is typically translated “submission”, this injunction to honor authority is not tied to any sort of hierarchy among believers, but only on how believers must behave in society.

After that Peter addresses slaves, but as we’ve already discussed, this is no endorsement of slavery but an instruction on how to behave as believers in this situation. So why is it, then, that when the topic shifts to women a few verses later, somehow this is treated differently by many teachers and commentators? If Peter did not endorse slavery by telling Christian slaves how to behave, then he is not endorsing male supremacy by telling Christian women how to behave. Both issues are very much a matter of considering society; this important aspect of context cannot be dismissed on a whim. Note in 1 Peter 3:3 that he uses terminology Paul will later use: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands.” Please see the later discussion on the significance of “own” under the writings of Paul.

But what of the word translated “submit yourselves”? This Greek word, hupotasso, is in the passive voice and therefore means “to be attached to, to be a support of”, as in supporting documentation for a legal claim. It certainly does not mean “to obey”. This same word was used earlier for slaves as well, and also for believers under civil government, both radical ideas for that culture. And note that this is only part of a sentence; Peter gives us the scope of this teaching: “so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives” (emphasis mine). We see that this is no blank check for Christian husbands to have the last word over their wives, but for Christian women married to unbelieving men to be extra careful about how they “witness” without words, since their options were severely limited. Unbelieving men were considered owners of their wives, another detail we must leave for later discussion. But the point here is that this has to do with believing wives witnessing to their unbelieving husbands.

Peter then continues with this instruction to believing wives of unbelieving husbands, telling them to emphasize the inner person instead of outward beauty. In the culture of the time, women were thought to be devoid of such character. He appeals to the depth of character of Hebrew women of old, who were likewise seen to hupotasso their husbands. Christian women are to have that same inner strength and dignity, regardless of the culture. Sadly though, today we see not only Christian women held in the same degree of contempt as did the unbelievers of the first century, but that Christian men are being told to emphasize the external, dressing in certain ways and acting more like the ancient barbarians than the holy men of old. This new emphasis on the flesh is a giant step backwards, a move away from the teachings of the apostles.

But again, betraying their jealous grip on male supremacism, some will point eagerly to 1 Peter 3:6 and say “See? Sarah called Abraham her master!” But the only recorded instance where she used that term for her husband was when she used it in derision, in Gen. 18:12, where she thought to herself, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” In Gen. 16:5 she clearly stood up to Abraham and called God as a witness between the two of them. And we can’t forget that Abraham had tried on two occasions to pass her off as his sister (Gen. 12:12-13, 20:2). So what point is Peter making here, as we remember the principle of not adding to the scriptures in order to support an argument? Peter explains in the next sentence: Christian women are like Sarah when they do what is right and do not give in to fear. Sarah clearly had no fear of Abraham, social norms notwithstanding.

Now when Peter addresses believing husbands he begins with “Likewise”. This is mutuality; this is reciprocity. A husband and wife are to be considerate of each other, but the husband, because of his social privileges at the time, had the greater charge to be considerate, since women of the time had “the less stable income”. The term translated “weaker vessel” is inaccurate; the two Greek words used together, asthenes skeuos, form an idiom meaning one who is in a disadvantaged position to support themselves financially. We have confirmation of this in Peter’s own words following, when he states that Christian husbands must treat their wives with respect “as heirs with you”; it is actually a play on words as well. And that word translated “respect” has the literal meaning of a treasure, something highly valued and honored. So the Christian husband is to honor and value his wife, lifting her up and seeing to it that she is not harmed or belittled by a society that gives men all the rights. Yet now, many are seeking to hand those exclusive rights back to Christian men and take them from Christian women, thus “bowing to culture”; that this culture is ancient and has been the norm for most of history does not make it any less true. Finally, Peter gives men added incentive to go against their culture: God will cover His ears and refuse to hear the prayers of men who fail to treat their wives properly (the Greek word literally means “to block”; Peter is not saying the husband’s prayers will merely be unheard, but that God will oppose them)! To emphasize: Peter is not just saying that men must not abuse their wives, but that they must also honor them and be at one with them.

Then at the end of chapter 3 Peter talks about Jesus having gone to make a proclamation to those who had died in the Flood. There is much in that passage to discuss, but I want to focus on that which concerns the topic of this book, and the issue of water baptism is certainly a divisive issue among believers. But in verse 21 Peter states in the clearest possible terms that such physical immersion (the literal Greek meaning) is not “what now saves you also”. Salvation is only in faith in the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And in the last verse we see once again the word hupotasso in the passive voice, regarding how “angels, authorities, and powers” relate to Jesus. Some see a chain of command at every turn, but the Greek grammar does not allow it.

In 1 Peter 4:10 he makes a statement about spiritual gifts: they are to be used to serve others. Nothing is said about which gifts are for which groups of people, or that some people can only use their gifts for a restricted subset of believers. We are to be “stewards of God’s grace”, and a steward must be faithful in those things they have been entrusted with. To tell some believers (women) that they cannot have certain spiritual gifts, or that their gifts are only for other women, is to bind and restrict the Holy Spirit.

In chapter five Peter address elders. The Greek word is presbuterous, but use caution in applying some kind of official meaning to the word. Its counterpart is found in verse 5 and is the word neoterou, translated “young ones”; the two are related in this context. And if the second term is not a special group but a general term for the young, then there is no contextual warrant for assigning special status to the first term either. Peter was likely advanced in years at this time (the letter was written in the early 60s A.D.) and thus an elder in the normal sense of the word.

Yet Peter does tell these people to watch over the flock. But note that this flock belongs to God, not to them, and that they are to watch willingly and without desire for making a profit. This is not, as has been practiced for centuries, a career! It is a service, and a noble one. But more importantly, Peter commands them this: “not lording it over those entrusted to your care, but being examples to the flock.” The elders are not to boss or command; their leadership is to come solely from the examples they set to others. This reinforces our earlier discussion concerning James, about not excusing the sins of leaders but holding them to a higher standard. This is no chain of command but leadership by drawing, by example, by service. The sheep are not to follow the selfish “vision” of a CEO known as a “pastor” but to know the voice of their Master and follow those who have that same voice or example.

So it is the “young ones” who follow the elders, who by their examples show themselves to be proper guides and not overlords or would-be intermediaries or hired hands. And there we see that word hupotasso again, describing the relationship of the young to the old. And in case the elders missed it somehow, Peter makes sure everyone is covered in humility, not just the young.

We can deduce from all this that the elders are the experienced, the wise, the tested and approved, while the young are those who are still working toward that state. The context supports both the literal meaning of old and young, and the meaning of experience versus inexperience. As Paul will tell us later, no new believer is to be recognized as an elder because of the danger of conceit, and that those who ignore this warning will be held responsible for what those inexperienced ones may teach. Yet we see this grave blunder repeated endlessly. Young men are sent to seminary on the basis of an alleged calling that is somehow different from anyone else’s, and upon graduation are deemed Pastors or Bishops or some other titles of un-Biblical offices. The young can even be found teaching classes for senior citizens! This must stop.

In his second letter Peter mainly warns against false teachers, and note that the emphasis is not on exactly what they teach but how they live. It should go without saying that whatever is not in agreement with the teachings of the apostles is therefore false, such that listing specific falsehoods would be unnecessary. But it should be no different for us today. We have the true teachings in the NT, and we have several lists of behaviors that identify false teachers. We need to insist that both correct teaching and correct behavior are evident before listening to any given teacher. The two must be present together; doctrine alone is cold and lifeless, while external behavior and feeling alone is vulnerable to every idea that sounds good. But together they are a strong defense. And no believer is exempt from Peter’s many warnings about how we all should live.

In chapter three Peter makes what must be the greatest understatement in scripture since “And [God] made the stars also” (Gen. 1:16): he tells us that Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16)! But in all seriousness, shouldn’t this be a rebuttal to the “plain reading” defense for those who think everything Paul wrote is crystal clear and not possible to misunderstand? And if it was difficult for people of the day, speaking the same language, knowing the culture, then we must face the fact that it will require diligence on our part to properly understand Paul’s writings. And Peter does equate those writings with the OT scriptures, citing the fact that “ignorant and unstable people distort” Paul’s writings “as they do the other scriptures” (emphasis mine). Note also the strong terms Peter uses to describe those people. Today we are effectively gagged from using such speech because it is declared to be too divisive and negative.

If anyone could have pulled rank, set up religious practices, or claimed some special title, it would have been Peter. Yet he did no such thing; neither did James, who only called himself a servant of Jesus though he was physically His half-brother. Humility and leadership by example were the hallmarks of the NT writers, no matter how close they had been to Jesus in this life. Yet through history we have seen believers set themselves over others and construct various buildings and systems which more resemble a business or political party, with their chains of command and micromanagement. Coercion, not example, has been the primary glue holding these institutions together. Now this is not to say that all the people, having known no other way, have been deliberately and knowingly engaging in something un-Biblical. No, the blame goes to those who teach and perpetuate such things, since they claim to know the scriptures. Just as Jesus took the Pharisees’ claim to having sight as their condemnation (John 9:41), so also will God hold responsible all those who are esteemed as teachers and theologians for anything not in accordance with the teachings of the apostles, and of course the Lord Jesus’ own words and example. If they want the recognition, they must take the blame.

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