It’s almost become a cliché to say Canada is living in a post-Christian era. However, in the 2019 installment of its recurring survey of Canadian religious attitudes, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found for the first time since it started polling such things almost 30 years ago that the numbers definitively confirmed this reality.
More than half of Canadians in this major survey of 5,000 people reported being either agnostic, atheist or unreligious, while just 11% of Canadians report attending a weekly religious service. Compare that to the 67% of Canadians who attended a religious service once a week just after the Second World War and the 30% who attended as recently as 1996 and you realize Canada is now post-Christian. That fact is now statistically demonstrable.
This sobering reality raises the question: How should the Church behave in a post-Christian era? Many voices are offering perspective on this vexing issue, and it’s imperative that we marshal as much historical, sociological, cultural, psychological, political, and theological data as possible to answer it. However, we mustn’t forget that Scripture itself speaks to the question, even if not immediately framed in our own modern terms and context.
In the following short series of blogs, I’ve chosen 1 Peter 2:17 as a compact piece of inspired instruction to a church that found itself, early in its history, on the fringes of society. Even if the Church here in Canada enjoyed a period when it was more central, we can perhaps hear with greater appreciation Peter’s Spirit-inspired words, given that we now feel a bit more what it is like to live on the edges—or even the outside—of the dominant culture.
Peter’s fourfold imperative reads: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Although it may not be obvious at first, I can’t think of a biblical text that more concisely addresses how the Church should conduct itself in this thing we now call a post-Christian era.
Now let’s be honest: The first of Peter’s four commands seems almost impossible to obey. “Show proper respect to everyone”? We might be tempted to pass it off as just a bit of a pleasant advice that sounds good, but which is really just an abstraction. Who, after all, could show proper respect to everyone? What could that possibly mean?
We need to start with the obvious. Showing proper respect to everyone doesn’t mean trying to make some kind of artificial connection with an entire population. Peter obviously means, “Show proper to everyone we might encounter, formally or informally, along the way.”
Moreover, showing everyone respect doesn’t mean the Church’s primary task is to just to be nice. That may fit (all too!) well with a Canadian way of thinking, but surely Peter’s command demands more than blandly going about being “nice.” So what then does he mean?
The key here is Peter’s language of respect, or “honour” as some translations put it. No, it’s not enough simply to be nice. Rather, for Peter, to show respect to everyone means whenever and wherever we encounter people, we need intentionally to engage them with the respect due them. That’s because all people—great and small, near and far, rich and poor, male and female, whatever nationality, race, religion (or non-religion!), sexual orientation or, yes, even denomination!—are made in God’s image. And perhaps even more importantly, let’s never forget God loves us all and Christ died for us all (2 Corinthians 5:14–15). We can only imagine how our dealings with people would be transformed if we always stopped to remind ourselves of these two crucial truths before we open our mouths to speak.
In this age when technology and social media extend far beyond anything Peter could have anticipated or imagined, it also means we have a bit of a bigger job to do. On average, we probably have more friends on Facebook alone than perhaps the sum-total of personal relationships an everyday first-century person would have had in a lifetime.
Yet for some reason, we sometimes seem to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to our interaction on social media. What we would never say in person out of respect we are quite willing to say on social media—with great vigour, verve, and flair, and yes, sometimes, unChrist-like aggression. As we seek to develop a Christian ethic of interpersonal interaction, Church leaders and educators need to keep in mind that many of us spend more time in online forums than in actual face-to-face interaction. That’s especially true in the emerging post-COVID era we are approaching.
But what else might Peter be getting at in this first command?
When Peter says we are supposed to show proper respect, I believe he is alluding to verse 12 earlier in the chapter where he says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Peter, we’ll recall, was the principal apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:8). We also know he seemed to struggle a bit more than Paul about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. So when Peter says to show proper respect to all, he is perhaps preaching to himself as well as to his hearers. That is, Peter is saying due respect is not restricted only to those of our own tribe or ethnicity. For Peter, this means respect even toward the pagan Gentiles, especially those Gentile political authorities who so often were responsible for the persecution of the Church, including the Jews who originally made up the early Church.
Although the distinction between Jew and Gentile remains something the Church ought never to forget, the application here is simply to remember that whether Jew or Gentile in the Church today, we are called to extend respect toward even those outside of it who might otherwise be seeking to discredit or destroy us. It can be far too easy to deride those outside the Church, in deference to those within. But given the context in which Peter wrote (he who was the Jewish apostle to the Jews), his plea is meant for us to break out of that unhelpful way of inner versus outer thinking. Respect isn’t a virtue only extended to fellow believers—it extends to those outside the circles of our faith community as well.
We might intuitively acknowledge the need to show due respect to everyone, but we know it doesn’t come naturally. Showing respect toward outsiders is a spiritual discipline that requires practice and intentionality. But let’s be honest: it’s been difficult for the Church to live this out. In these days when we find ourselves pushed further and further to the margins of society, we have to ask the Spirit to help us resist the temptation to despise or shun those outside the Church. Rather, we need to respect people for who they are: fellow creatures made in God’s image, people who God loves, people for whom Christ died.
I am proud to be part of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and one of the things our organization has long stood for is being a respectful voice in the public square. But please note: Being a respectful voice may or may not coincide with our organization being respected. Being respectful is something we can aspire to; being respected is truly beyond our control. Nevertheless, we work hard to control what we can to ensure that when we are speaking, for example, with our political and judicial leaders or even our detractors in the Church (and there are some there, too), we show proper respect to them in their positions regardless of whether we happen to agree or even strongly disagree with them. And we show the same respect speaking about them when they’re not present. Our goal is not primarily to gain respect—although it’s nice once in a while when we receive that. And most certainly our goal is not to paint our opponents as ugly, sub-human or even demonic. As the Apostle Paul trenchantly reminds us, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, the very structures and forces of a society that largely is forgetting the ways of God (Ephesians 6:12).
Notice that Peter doesn’t seek to motivate us toward showing proper respect by saying, “If you do respect everyone, the Gentiles will speak well of you.” On the contrary, Scripture and history alike tell us the Church, even when doing the right thing, sometimes suffers for doing it. But Peter does console us with this: Even if today the post-Christian society doesn’t speak well of us, someday all will need to glorify God when Christ comes again. In other words, we don’t console ourselves by being spoken of well today when what is most important is that God would speak well of us when he returns. So remember: our goal is to treat others with respect, even when that respect may not be reciprocated. Our motivation is not the world saying, “What a great person! Or “What a great church!” or “What a great school!” Rather, we seek to respect everyone we encounter so that when Jesus returns, he is able to say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
[Editor’s Note: This blog is part one of a four-part series. When they are available, the subsequent parts will be accessible here.]
David Guretzki is Executive Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*