Does 1 Peter 3:15 Support Friendship Evangelism?
Friendship Evangelism is a form of evangelism commonly practiced in American evangelicalism. The idea behind friendship evangelism is to befriend an unsaved person with the hope of one day having the opportunity to share the gospel with him or her. Many Christians assert that 1 Peter 3:15 supports the practice of friendship evangelism.
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect; . . . " (1 Peter 3:15).
Does 1 Peter 3:15 support “friendship evangelism"? The affirmative argument goes something like this:
1 Peter 3:15 supports the practice of “friendship evangelism”; and this is why. The verse makes it clear that Christians should be ready to give a reason (or an answer) for the hope that is in them to anyone who asks. People are only going to ask such a question if they know you. There would be no reason for a person to ask unless they’ve seen something different in you. And in order for a person to be that close to you, close enough to see how you live from day-to-day, they must be in relationship with you. Therefore, 1 Peter 3:15 affirms the practice of "friendship evangelism” or “relational evangelism.”
In this article, I will put forth the argument in the negative. 1 Peter 3:15 does not support the practice of “friendship evangelism.” This is not to say Christians should not engage in “friendship evangelism” (so long as it is practiced biblically).
Using the basic hermeneutic principles of observation, near and far context, historical context, and an understanding of the writer’s intent, it is obvious that 1 Peter 3:15 has nothing whatsoever to do with “friendship evangelism.” And any effort to use 1 Peter 3:15 in such a way requires eisegesis.1
The Recipients of Peter’s Letter
Let’s begin by identifying the primary recipients of 1 Peter.
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you,” (1 Peter 1:1-2)
The English word “dispersion” is translated from the Greek word diaspora. The word is most literally defined as follows: “dispersion, i.e., (specially and concretely) the (converted) Israelite resident in Gentile countries--(which are) scattered (abroad).”2
CARM defines the word diaspora as
“Diaspora literally means dispersion. Biblically, it refers to the dispersion of the Jews outside of Israel from the time of the Babylonian Captivity until now. It has also been applied to the dispersion of Christians after 70 A.D. when Rome sacked Jerusalem and thousands of Christians fled and dispersed throughout the Mediterranean area.”3
James, the half-brother of Jesus who was likely one of the first leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem, wrote his letter to many of the same people that Peter addressed.
“James, a servant[a] of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, 'To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: “Greetings'” (James 1:1).
James used the same Greek word Peter used to describe and identify his audience--diaspora.4
In addition to “dispersion,” Peter almost poetically uses two more important words to describe his readers: “elect exiles.” There is no doubt as to whom Peter was writing. He penned his letter to brothers and sisters in Christ (the elect) who were presently living as exiles far from home as a result of the systematic persecution of Christians by the Roman government.
Peter did not write to Christians who were readily accepted in their communities. It is unlikely the recipients of Peter’s letter could boast of many friends outside their own Christian enclave. Peter wrote to Christians who were living and dying for their faith as we will see in the verses surrounding 1 Peter 3:15. He wrote to persecuted Christians, which is dramatically made evident in the verses surrounding 1 Peter 3:15.
The Near Context of 1 Peter 3:15 and Friendship Evangelism
To rightly interpret and understand Peter’s intended meaning in 1 Peter 3:15, we must consider what he wrote immediately before and after the verse in question.
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’ Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:8-17, emphasis mine).
Peter’s readers were not living a life of peaceful coexistence with unbelievers. They were suffering persecution. The above passage tells us that the Christians Peter was writing to were being reviled by others for their good behavior. Unbelievers sought to do Christians harm. They were slandered--subjected to malicious, false, and defamatory statements. Peter acknowledged his readers were suffering for doing good. It is very unlikely these persecuted Christians were being asked by unbelievers to share the reason for the hope that was in them because they wanted to learn more about Jesus. It is more likely the Christians were being commanded by unbelievers (particularly the governing authorities in their areas), with malicious threats of slander and physical harm, to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. This is why Peter encourages his readers to “have no fear of them”--their persecutors. It is a reasonable assumption that Peter, as he wrote these words to his persecuted brethren, harkened back to a similar admonition he received from Jesus Christ.
“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:26-33, emphasis mine).
Here’s an historical example of what Peter’s dispersed Christian brethren were likely facing, which led him to encourage them to be ready to give an answer.
Polycarp (70-154 AD), while a generation after Peter was a contemporary of the apostles. In fact, Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. A website dedicated to the ancient church father shares the following testimony about Polycarp’s death.5
“Polycarp's greatest contribution to Christianity may be his martyred death. His martyrdom stands as one of the most well documented events of antiquity. The emperors of Rome had unleashed bitter attacks against the Christians during this period, and members of the early church recorded many of the persecutions and deaths. Polycarp was arrested on the charge of being a Christian--a member of a politically dangerous cult whose rapid growth needed to be stopped. Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, ‘Caesar is Lord.’ If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar's statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, ‘Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.”
Polycarp gave an answer for the hope that was in him. In the face of death, he did not deny Christ. He did not cower. He did not beg for his life. He would not blaspheme his King. He endured the flames of death as an act of worship to his Lord and Savior who gave him life.
In 1 Peter 3 :15, Peter is not describing a relational conversation (i.e. friendship evangelism) between an unbeliever and a Christian. Rather, Peter is preparing his readers to stand firm in the faith--to be ready to valiantly testify that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior--the very hope that was in them--in the face of persecution and hatred. Peter had an eye upon his readers’ likely persecution and potential martyrdom. He did not have an eye upon his readers’ ability to make friends with unsaved people.
1 Peter 3:15, when viewed in its proper context, makes it clear that Christians must be ready to testify to their faith in Jesus Christ in the face of death. They must be ready and willing to persevere for Christ’s sake until the very end (see Matthew 10:22).
One of the reasons many Christians misinterpret 1 Peter 3:15 as a verse that supports friendship evangelism is that they focus their attention entirely on the phrase “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” There are no commands for Peter’s readers in this phrase. The command is found in oft-forgotten first phrase of the verse.
The Command to Be Sanctified, Not to Friendship Evangelism
1 Peter 3:15 begins with these words: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” The NASB translates the phrase this way: “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” The KJV renders the phrase as “but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.”
The verb in the first phrase of 1 Peter 3:15 and the primary verb in the verse is translated from the Greek verb hagiazo. The word means: “to make holy, i.e., (ceremonially) purify or consecrate; (mentally) to venerate--hallow, be holy, sanctify.”6
What does it mean to honor and/or sanctify Christ in one’s heart? John Gill’s commentary on the verse is most helpful.7
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, . . . Still referring to Isaiah 8:13 not by making him holy, which need not, nor cannot be, he being essentially, infinitely, and perfectly holy; but by declaring and proclaiming his holiness, as the seraphim in Isaiah's prophecy, and the four living creatures in the Revelation did; and by glorifying of him, praising and applauding all his perfections, and among the rest, this of his holiness, and giving thanks at the remembrance of it; which he has so much displayed in the works of creation, providence, redemption, and grace; hence the Arabic version renders it, bless the Lord God in your hearts: the Lord God is sanctified by his people externally, when they regard his commands, attend his ordinances, and call upon his name, and praise him; but here an internal sanctification of him, a sanctification of him in their hearts, is intended, and what is opposed to the fear of men, and unbelief, and lies in the exercise of the grace of fear upon him; see Isaiah 8:13 and which has for its object his goodness, and is a fruit of the covenant of his grace, and is a child like and godly fear; and in the exercise of faith upon him, upon his covenant and promises, his faithfulness, and power to help, assist, and preserve; whereby glory is given to him, a witness borne to his truth, and he is sanctified: some copies, as the Alexandrian, and one of Stephens's, read, sanctify the Lord Christ; and so read the Vulgate Latin and Syriac versions; and certain it is that he is intended in Isaiah 8:13 as appears from 1 Peter 3:14 compared with Romans 9:33.”
Bible commentator Matthew Henry wrote:8
“We sanctify the Lord God in our hearts when we with sincerity and fervency adore him, when our thoughts of him are awful and reverent, when we rely upon his power, trust to his faithfulness, submit to his wisdom, imitate his holiness, and give him the glory due to his most illustrious perfections.”
Peter commanded his readers to sanctify Jesus Christ in their hearts--to worship and adore Him (John 4:24), to be conformed to His image (Romans 8:29), to be imitators of Him as His beloved children (Ephesians 5:1). The way they were to do that in the face of various forms of persecution and the real potential of martyrdom was to give an answer for the hope that was in them--an answer to anyone who asks--even the very people who would kill them if they refused to recant--refusing to deny the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 3:15 should serve as a banner high and lifted up for all Christians to endure suffering, to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to follow Christ, and to tell the world about Jesus Christ and eternal life--the answer for the hope within them.
Only an eisegetical approach to and application of 1 Peter 3:15 could lead anyone to believe the verse is a proof-text for friendship evangelism. The near and far context surrounding the verse rightly assessed, the historical context rightly applied, and the intent of the author rightly understood should render the meaning of the verse obvious. As a result, 1 Peter 3:15 cannot serve as a slogan for the man-made evangelical tradition of friendship evangelism.
- 1. /dictionary-eisegesis
- 2. http://biblelexicon.org/1_peter/1-1.htm
- 3. http://carm.org/dictionary-diaspora
- 4. http://biblelexicon.org/james/1-1.htm
- 5. http://www.polycarp.net/
- 6. http://biblelexicon.org/1_peter/3-15.htm
- 7. http://biblecommenter.com/1_peter/3-15.htm
- 8. http://biblecommenter.com/1_peter/3-15.htm
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