Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.
1 Peter 2:17
The chameleon’s claim to fame is his amazing capacity to change colors depending on his mood, often making him almost indistinguishable from his surroundings. The musk ox, native to arctic climes, is a burly, thick-furred animal that travels in herds. Like settlers who circle their wagons in the face of a threat, musk oxen form an outward-facing ring to defend themselves and their turf.
The two animals couldn’t be more separated by climate and distance, and yet they each metaphorically represent a particular orientation to the world that churches too often assume. So goes the thesis of Dick Keyes in his book Chameleon Christianity.
Sunday we heard the contemporary equivalent of what it means to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). But all political considerations aside, how does the church remain the church in whatever environment she finds herself? Peter summarizes the church’s call in three succinct commands: “Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God.”
Their simplicity and straightforwardness notwithstanding, honoring and loving as Peter exhorts may be more of a challenge than we might think.
If Keyes is right, we have to beware of letting our honor of men slip into accommodation of all men’s ways—like a chameleon adapting to his surroundings. We’re chameleonlike when we adopt the practices of our culture uncritically: when we accrue, expect, schedule, make purchases, and prioritize in ways essentially indistinguishable from those without any interest in the glory of God. We’re chameleonlike when we consciously or unconsciously adopt the prevailing wisdom that our faith is merely a private matter, a choice relevant only to our own circle and situation. The fear of what we might lose keeps us from showing our true colors. The honor of men deteriorates into an honor of our reputations among men.
If Keyes is right, we must also beware of understanding love of the brotherhood as a rationale for stringently insulating ourselves from any and all who are not presently part of that brotherhood. We’re musk ox–like when we take no interest in working for the good of those outside the church, and when we never take the time to translate the very vocabulary of our hope into the dialect of those with whom we’re to share that hope. We’re musk ox–like when we view the parts of this world that have no interest in Christ as regions we ought not tread. The fear of what might become of us if we get too close to what appears antithetical to righteousness keeps us from loving those outside the fold.
The fear of what we might lose and the fear of what might become of us are potent, and yet they creep inconspicuously into our orientation to life. What, then, shall keep us from this often unconscious drift into accommodation or insulation?
Thank God for what Peter reminds us: The fear of God must always complement this kind of honoring and loving. Seeing God’s fearsome holiness keeps us from being too enamored with all that this world defines as good. Seeing His immeasurable love for us keeps us from being content to celebrate that notion only among those who are presently resting in that love. Keeping those realities before us stems the drift.
Then, in whatever her circumstances, the church remains ever the church, as Jesus prayed she would in John 17. We can be in the world without becoming indistinguishable from the world. We can refrain from being of the world while still remembering that we’re here for the world. Then, rather than assuming the features of the chameleon or the musk ox, we live as exiles, for the glory of God and for the good of our locales.
In which direction does your life trend—toward the ways of the chameleon or those of the musk ox? Where might the fear of the Lord—of His holiness and His love—need to push you out of the inclination toward accommodation or insulation?