maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears. – 1 Peter 2:12 (NET)
The Gospel is inherently social. Because it is the declaration of Jesus’ Lordship, with this Lordship being the Lordship not just of individual lives and souls, but over the whole of the cosmos, it has a social element. This is a far cry from the Gospel being reduced to a “social gospel,” but rather, it is to say that the implications of the declaration demand to be worked out in a tangible, visible way, on display for a society to see. Just as the worshipers or proponents of Caesar declared his Lordship, and in doing so, were not asking people to make a private confession of faith in Caesar or to cultivate a personal and private holiness that would somehow be pleasing to Caesar, neither were the proponents of Jesus. The Gospel was and is public. The reaction to the Gospel demanded a community context. The presentation of Caesar’s gospel resulted in certain activities (the erecting of statues, sacrifices, festivals, submission to his earthly rule, etc…) that made it clear to all that this gospel was being accepted, so it would be expected that an alternative Gospel would demonstrate the same.
When the Gospel was preached into a world that was accustomed to a regular hearing of a gospel message, it was preached into a world that was prepared to hear such a message, and it was preached into a world that would have expected public, community oriented demonstrations of what it was that was being trumpeted. Yes, the Gospel was and is meant to be transformative, but that transformation was and is to be manifested in public behavior. That public behavior is not, as we so commonly propose, merely that which takes place in our church gatherings, where singing, praying, lifting up hands, and giving are taken as the evidences of the power of the Gospel and of transformed lives. Public behavior is not that which is primarily concerned with a dramatic abstention from participation in life’s pleasures, accompanied by thinking that it is by constant refraining efforts that holiness is demonstrated. Those things can certainly be evidentiary, but they are only the primary evidence if we exalt the individual, rather than the body, and if we place private spirituality in the context of a personal quest to achieve heaven upon death higher than offering tangible service as and for a community. Such a focus seems to run counter to the movement of Scripture, in which God is constantly calling a people to Himself, beginning with Abraham, so that they might exemplify divine blessing. Persons are called, and they are called to be a part of a people, for the primary purpose of being a blessing to the world so that the God that calls them into covenant might be glorified.
Yes, the Gospel will effect transformation in the lives of its adherents, and those effects will be seen in interactive relationships, as Christians live out their ambassadorship on behalf of their Lord and their God with respect to their interaction with others and the world. This is the love that we see in Romans twelve and in first Corinthians thirteen, which demonstrate the tangible working out of that love based on what is learned at the meal table of the body of the church. It is this basic demonstration of love and of preferring of one another, and of the awesome transformative power of the Gospel that is then put on display by individuals (functioning as and for their communities), which is what we then see worked out in the thirteenth chapter of Romans. Not that Paul’s writings are determinative for the way that we approach Peter, but it is with such things in mind, as early evidences of the way in which Jesus (His death and Resurrection) is being interpreted and understood, that we look to Peter and hear him being so incredibly insistent on the social nature of the Gospel.
It is worthwhile to first understand this aspect of Peter’s first letter before we move to what becomes the rather obvious dealings with the church’s meal table (recognizing that the church constituted itself around a meal table). Peter insists that the church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9a), declaring that God calls the church to be “a people of His own,” that they “may proclaim the virtues of the one who called… out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9b). Though there is certainly a mysterious power to be found in the very proclamation of the message that Jesus is Lord, we’ll see that the proclamation that Peter has in mind is more deed-based than word-based (though the word is not to be neglected---deeds would lead to the opportunity for words to be heard). To this end, Peter calls this church to “maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears” (2:12).
In that day, Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship Caesar or the Roman gods, cannibals because of what was said at their meal table (eating the body of their God that they also claimed was a man who had been killed and physically resurrected), and usurpers of the social order because they refused to acknowledge the standard divisions of society in their public or private gatherings. Eventually, Christians would become scapegoats, as blame for all manner of maladies and calamities would devolve upon them. Peter understood that this was happening and would happen, and that much of this was owed to the fact of the radical nature of the lived-out Gospel. For this reason, Peter, using the language of public benefaction, calls the church to be civic-minded, doing good deeds that will be recognized as beneficial for their community. In this way, contrary to being singled out and maligned for being a negative force in society that would be specifically tied to claims about an alternative Lord, their good deeds would bring glory to the God to which their allegiance was sworn through Christ. This would be learned at the meal table.