New Testament 102: Seeking the Welfare of the City in 1 Peter

You know you’re on a good thing if you’re preparing for an exam and the lecturer’s pet topics share the title of his books… Bruce wrote a book called “Seek the Welfare of the City” where he picks up that the New Testament picks up Jeremiah 29:7 “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile, Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.” No. Bruce doesn’t pull one of those eisegetical fallacies and suggest that urban ministry is the only way to go – he suggests Christians have certain responsibilities when it comes to the welfare of their fellow citizens.

For the purposes of this exam it pays to be aware of this theme as it presents in 1 Peter, and in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. There’s a chapter in his aforementioned book Seek the Welfare of the City drawn from 1 and 2 Thessalonians and a journal article called The Public Hnouring of Christian Benefactors on 1 Peter and Romans 13. It’s on Ebsco’s journal article collection.

1 Peter

1 Peter 1:1 addresses the “elect sojourners of the dispersion” – a theological, rather than social description, and an allusion to the Jeremiah passage. One of Peter’s big arguments is that Christians weren’t saved to just keep doing what they were doing. Salvation involves a change of heart, and a change of heart involves a change of action. And the change of action is a change to loving those around you… and that change will be noticed by others. Which is kind of the logic in 1 Peter 2:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1617 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.

Bruce uses evidence of the first century practice of epigraphically honouring benefactors to show that the government did indeed make a practice of recognising the good deeds of civilians, and that this result was essentially guaranteed, as Paul also suggests in Romans 13:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

I’m using the NIV here, because the ESV has a bunch of footnotes and they’re annoying to delete. But the ESV translates will be commended as “you will receive his approval” and many have commented on the certainty these two passages demonstrate in terms of the reward for being good.

We have some evidence that a Christian did indeed step up in this way – Erastus the Aedile of Corinth is mentioned in Romans 16, and an extant inscription in Corinth to such an Erastus has been a matter of some scholarly dispute. Mainly because some scholars are idiots and believe that all the Christians in Corinth were paupers (despite Paul saying “not many of you were of noble birth… etc” they read that as “none of you were…”

When we were in Corinth, Bruce said that being a benefactor, and the commands in Romans, referred to indi­vid­u­als act­ing in what­ever capac­ity they had to serve the city. He says this looked like mak­ing a finan­cial bene­fac­tion for a project, or run­ning for office.

Peo­ple who ran for office had to promise bene­fac­tions, and this foot­path inscrip­tion says that it was pro­duced under the Aedile­ship of Erastus.

Bruce asks:

Given these non-literary sources as well as the literary evidence of authorities praising benefactors, and the reference to this same activity in the New Testament passages, what conclusions can now be drawn about the New Testament meaning of the terms which promised to evoke this official response?

The Greek words used to describe good deeds in Rom. 13.3-4 and 1 Peter 2 are used in inscriptions to refer to a public benefaction.

Would the congregations, however, have understood the terms to refer to a public benefaction? Apart from the political context of both New Testament passages, which would have readily suggested the meaning of benefaction because of the praising by rulers, Paul in Rom. 5.7 refers to ‘the good’ man. His argument is that for a righteous man one would hardly be prepared to lay down his life, “although perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die’. The order is firstly διακαιος, and then αγαθος. Paul believes that the latter is a greater possibility because of obligations established through the receiving of a benefaction. This has been rightly taken to refer to one’s benefactor.

So Bruce concludes that these imperatives to act as benefactors in 1 Peter are indicative of at least the presence of some people of means within the church. Being a benefactor didn’t come cheap. His argument is also that the rulers of a city were hardly likely to notice small good deeds, so the implicit guarantee must be something bigger.

The cost of a benefaction was very considerable and would be beyond the ability of some, if not most, members of the church. However, there must have been Christians of very considerable means to warrant Paul’s imperative in v. 3 and also that of 1 Pet. 2.15.37 This further supports the view that there were some members of significant social status and wealth in the early church.

These wealthy Christians had a special role to play in earning some PR air miles for the early church:

The writer of 1 Peter, as does Paul, endorses public benefactions per se but in 1 Peter there may have been a need to press home the importance of ethical conduct expressed in high-profile good works. This could well have been because of the natural tendency to withdraw from them in the face of possible persecution… The New Testament stance is clear that their light was so to shine in this arena also that men would see their good works.

This interpretation also raises the question of “living quietly” as advocated by 1 Thessalonians 4.

But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Yep, Bruce is aware of the apparent contradiction.

The conclusion of this paper also runs counter to the view that Paul encouraged his converts ‘to stand aloof from public life’, an argument based on a possible parallel thought in 1 Thess. 4.11 and the Epicurean stance of withdrawal from society.

Before we get on to resolving what 1 Thessalonians 4 means, Bruce makes this point about the function of benefaction:

“It was done to bring good to the life of the citizens in terms of their physical and environmental needs. This teaching is in keeping with the highly important theme of the Christian lifestyle, expressing itself in the doing of good in all aspects of life. Verses 14-15 are set within such a context in 1 Pet. 2.11-3.17…There is no suggestion that the Christian endorsement of this socio-political convention in the city was done in order to maintain the status quo but because it brought good to the life of the city… The committing of one’s soul to a faithful Creator is accomplished by doing good and this again reflects the strong encouragement given to Christians to make positive contributions to the everyday life of others. “

These good deeds were done to the dual end of silencing unwarranted criticisms of Christians (particularly those who thought Christian conversion meant withdrawing from society).

The public acknowledgment of a generous Christian benefactor by crowning him as a noble person, and the permanent reminder of the benefaction on an inscription would be the means of refuting unfounded rumours against Christians as being men of ill-will, subversive to the peace and well-being of a city.

1 Peter 2:12 gives another reason for doing said good works:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.