Every so often I stumble upon a book that merits repeated readings. One of those books is He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Rich Mouw, the philosopher and now-retired president of Fuller Seminary. I first raved about it two years ago, paying particular attention to Mouw’s conviction that there are “multiple divine purposes in the world”—a conviction that has significant ramifications for our public life, to say the least.
Having just read it for the second time through, I want to highlight another couple of insights. In a chapter on seeking the common good, Mouw adapts some of the things he has to say in Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (another of Mouw’s books that warrants multiple, careful readings—see a pattern here?).
Mouw argues that “the case for Christian civility”—which is closely related to Christian efforts to seek the common good—rests on two key principles. First, he writes, “Christians must actively work for the well-being of the larger societies in which we have been providentially placed.” This is spelled out perhaps most evocatively put in Jeremiah 29:7, in which the people of God are commanded, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The second principle is that “sanctified living should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions—those virtues, if you wish—that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.” Mouw notes that in the second chapter of I Peter, the apostle urges his readers, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles” (v. 12) and to accept “for the Lord’s sake… the authority of every human institution” (v. 13). We’re warned that even while seeking to do good we may very well be maligned, but we’re also reminded that our being liked isn’t what ultimately matters. More important is that “they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (v. 12).
Perhaps most instructive for us, however, are the four obligations Mouw notes in I Peter 2:17 that have direct bearing on us as we participate in public life as “exiles” of one kind or another:
1. We are to fear God.
2. We are to love the family of believers.
3. We are to honor our fellow citizens.
4. We are to honor our governing authorities.
For most Christians, the first two are recognizable, and presumably reasonable, commands (despite our difficulties in observing them). But I wonder about the second two. These days, I hear a lot of Christians who believe that we are under attack for our beliefs, and in some ways I agree (more of my thoughts on that here). But while many of the most vocal defenders of religious freedom communicate certainty about their Christian convictions, I’m afraid this certainty isn’t always clothed in the conviction that we are obligated—for Christ’s sake—to honor everyone, to have regard for their well-being.
We may not have the luxury of convenient cultural conditions. Neither did the people to whom Peter and Jeremiah first issued their instruction in two very different times and places. Even so, as “exiles” of a somewhat different kind today, we have the obligation to do good and to honor our fellow citizens and our authorities—even when we are ignored, disrespected, or maligned with outright hostility for doing so.