Addressing Church Stereotypes with Teenagers in Exile

This article is the next in a monthly series that will examine the theme for this year’s upcoming conference, Rooted 2022: Living Hope, Walk Through 1 Peter. As we experience the pains of a perishing, defiled, and fading world, our hope can feel distant or idle. Yet, in Christ, we are born again to a hope that is both living and active. We no longer have to count our trials as foes, but can rejoice in a hope which does not put us to shame, knowing it is offering us a gift more precious than gold — a tried and true faith. As we survey 1 Peter together, our prayer is that we would have renewed eyes to see that which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us by our living hope!

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Recently I was leading a Bible study with some teenagers, and I asked them “what are some stereotypes about the church you’ve observed in your school and social circles?” Their list included the following:

They are too judgmental.

They have too many rules, no fun.

They are full of hypocrites, saying one thing, and doing another.

They hate LGBTQ+ people.

They are all about money.

They take pride in making people feel miserable.

They are backwards and uninformed in their views on science.

They think they are better than everyone else.

These statements are a microcosm of how the greater society perceives the church, as an institution that society must marginalize or eradicate. Who wants to join and be part of a community that has this as their identity?

On one hand, there are aspects of the Christian life that just won’t be appealing to people no matter how hard we try to present the beauty of the gospel. For example, someone who believes strongly in universalism will likely be offended by the gospel’s claim of exclusivity—that Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

On the other hand, some of the issues people have with Christians are sadly the result of Christians’ living incongruently with the gospel. This is why the apostle Peter spends considerable words on this topic in his first epistle addressing this problem. In 1 Peter 2:11-25, he lays out three strategies for living faithfully in a hostile world: recognizing our position in the world, submitting to authority, and enduring unjust punishment.

Recognize Our Position

Peter writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world” (v. 11). In other words, followers of Jesus are different. Peter spent the first part of this chapter describing the heritage of the people of God, calling them “a people belonging to God who have been called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v. 9).

Celebrities understand this concept of being different. Wherever they go, they are noticed; people examine their every move. Similarly, belonging to the family of those called by God for His purpose makes us different than others in the world. We have a unique identity and culture, a unique set of expectations. Step one in changing stereotypes is understanding that we are strangers and aliens in the world.

Some of the complaints I mentioned earlier are about people who claim to be believers but are acting like everyone else. Many of the people who make these accusations about the church know people who have done these things and they may even do it themselves! But why are only believers given the “hypocrite” label?  Because they are assumed to be different. Teenagers need to understand their true position as believers as they live in the world and share the gospel.

Properly Submit to Authority

Peter tells his readers in verses 13-14 to “submit for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

To respect authority is to “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” (v. 15). In our world today, this is one way we can shed many of the false stereotypes plaguing the church. By submitting ourselves properly to authority, we refuse to give the unbelieving world grounds for unnecessary criticism. Because we have a Lord who saved us and has called us to live as aliens and strangers on this earth in submission to him, he has also called us to model that submission to the earthly authorities.

I must clarify that the heart of this command is not mindless obedience or concession to abuse of authority. On the contrary, it’s love, others-centeredness, and humility. Verse 16 says, “live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.” We have been given freedom through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross—and that freedom is from sinfulness, from ourselves, and from the destructiveness that our sinful selves can cause. Peter concludes this string of commands by telling the believers, “show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” Showing respect to authority and in particular political authority is just one way in which humility and others-centeredness is manifested in our lives.

Enduring Unjust Punishment

Peter takes the intensity of this command up a notch in verses 18-25 as he discusses not only obeying leaders, but enduring unjust punishment from them. It is important for us and our students to remember that our democratic government in the Western World is a far cry from the Roman Empire; if we don’t like leaders we can remove them from office in the next election. By contrast, emperors had total control and could keep it as long as they lived. So the context in which Peter gives the command “submit to the king” has a radical aspect to it. His fellow believers had no recourse for mistreatment. When they were sentenced to be eaten by lions in the arena, they had no way to appeal the decision on political grounds. In calling believers to submit to earthly leaders, Peter is urging them to exhibit the attitude of Christ, who handled opposition in this same way.

Peter writes of Jesus, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’ (1 Pet. 2:23-24).

Christ went obediently to the cross, and because of that, salvation is available to all who have faith in him. If he retaliated against the Roman soldiers to save himself and his reputation, there would be no forgiveness of sins.

We live in a culture that seeks to exact revenge at almost every corner. Cancel culture is seen as an effective way to exact justice and teach the morals of society. In other words, public revenge is what is needed to enforce morality, not grace, mercy and humility. When the church sinks to this standard, her witness is lost. So much of teenage culture today is about extracting revenge and getting even. In the cultural narrative, if someone makes a remark I find offensive, I must challenge them to a fight or excommunicate them out of my life. Instead Peter urges that we take the insult, forgive, and pray for our oppressor rather than trying to get even or “canceling” that person. So we invite teenagers to lay down the desire to impose their own standard of justice as they experience the love of the one who does not give us what we deserve in our sin.

We must not compromise the integrity of the gospel in trying to change the Christian stereotypes many in our world believe. But we can challenge the teenagers in our care to subvert these stereotypes by heeding the words of 1 Peter 2:13-25. Because of the power of the cross, responding with humility to those in power enhances our ability to impact the world around us.

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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