Much like the Red River Rivalry or the rivalry between Celtics and Lakers, biblical scholars have their own legendary rivalries. The driest, most boring of which is manifest in the Balch-Elliott debate.
The controversy is centered on the themes of 1 Peter, particularly on the book’s household codes (husbands act this way… slaves act this way…) found mostly in vss. 2:13-3:7. On one side, you have David L. Balch who argues that 1 Peter is leading its readers toward assimilation with the ultimate goal of easing their persecution. According to Balch, the author wants his audience to gain the favor of locals through righteous conduct so they can serve God in peace. This approach is related to Christian realism and thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and is suggested in verses like 2:17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
On the other side, you have John H. Elliott, and as you might expect, he disagrees. Elliott claims that the author of 1 Peter is reminding his Christian audience of their internal solidarity and external distinction. One might point to vss. 4:1-2 as an example of this: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” For Elliot, the message of the epistle is to understand that Christians live a different sort of life and sometimes that brings suffering. This way of thinking has been popularized by Stanley Hauerwas and postliberal theology.
There is an obvious tension here in interpretation, and the issue is not a trivial one—understanding this question completely dictates our ethics. Are 1 Peter and other New Testament passages promoting a life that is good though similar to the secular? Or are they suggesting that persecution is an inevitable result of holy living?
In the passage on household codes, we can see much of the Balch-Elliott debate playing out. Studying these verses, one can find that the customs prescribed in the letter are very much like contemporary Greco-Roman customs; one can also find that Christians are called to a higher order of morality, one that doesn’t always pay off. Yet the author of the letter doesn’t choose a side. In fact when discussing slaves, he deliberately skirts the issue. When he could give us an answer—when he could give us true Christian ethics—he instead starts to talk about Christ.
It has a poetic grandeur to it: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” It is not totally relevant to the passage, but it rings with power and beauty. That’s how Peter chooses to answer the question—with beauty.
The Bible often solves its problems with sheer beauty. Plenty of issues and difficulties come up—the justice of God as seen in Romans or Job, the mechanics of the atonement, the immanence of Christ’s return—but over and over again, Scripture opts not to explain but to deliver a tour de force, to solve with beauty—the glory of the gospel and Resurrection, the majesty of God and his infiniteness, always with beauty.
This doesn’t sit well with a lot of readers—myself included. But, the more we force ourselves to accept these answers, the more we reorient ourselves as to what answers are. And, perhaps, that is the ultimate answer.