Flipping the World on Its Head (Acts 17:6; I Pet. 2:91)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 2, 1990, p. 459, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Even a persecuted Christianity had a humanizing impact on the culture at large.

"These people who have turned the world upside down have come here also".

"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light".

It is fascinating that the ministry of the apostle Paul would be seen as turning "the world upside down." Paul did not see himself or the church as an agent of change. He so vividly expected the imminent return of Jesus that the goal of social change was hardly relevant. Time was too short. Many of his social comments sound quite conservative to our ears. He was prepared to live with the institution of slavery (Philemon) , the secondary status of women (I Cor: 14:34-36) , and authoritarian magistrates, who did "not bear the sword in vain" (Rom. 13:4) .

Nonetheless, the charge that the otherworldly Paul was upending the world would not have been laughed out of court. Paul’s preaching was, in fact, undermining the status quo. Indeed, if it were true that the one holy God entered humbly into the world in the person of Jesus, then Paul was merely broadcasting the news of a fait accompli. The first-century worldview and the whole hierarchical world order had already been turned on its head. If God became human so that he might confer divinity upon the creature, then it follows that the last must be first, that the poor are blessed.

After it became clear to the church that God was in no hurry to bring in his kingdom, the sociopolitical indifference of a Paul gave way to a new form of living in the world. Yet even before this de-apocalypticization of the faith, the earliest Christians, though-they made no attempt to change society, inevitably challenged it by their very example of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23) .

Such a vision of life has implications for questions of war and peace, infanticide and abortion, slavery and the rights of women, justice and privilege, orgyism and gladiatorial amusements. Even a persecuted Christianity had a humanizing impact on the culture at large. Ironically, when the church permitted itself to be coopted by Constantine, along with gaining an increase in worldly power and security it lost much of its capacity to cause upheaval.

Christianity’s cultural triumph has shaped much of atheism’s agenda in the modern era. It is a cliché that Western atheism is "Christian" in that it rejects the Christian God. Thus it ought not to be surprising that much Western atheism opposes God in the name of moral sensitivities that have been shaped by Christianity.

Another kind of atheism also hoists Christianity on the petard of its own success.. This second type of unbelief might acknowledge Christianity’s influence and might even condone its celebration of love, its ethics of mercy and its passion for justice. In this cultural sense the vast majority of Westerners have been more or less Christianized. But the very triumph of Christianity has in another sense made the church and its God superfluous. The church conceived as it is in I Peter as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" would have to be regarded as a sacerdotal throwback, a repristinization of an archaic vision that Western civilization has consumed and digested -- drawing from it nourishment for altogether new purposes: Thus, as the command "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28) helped inspire Western civilization to create science and technology, so Jesus’ celebration of love has been culturally recombined with the materialism of the Bible to produce the vital hedonism of our civilization. The Christian church had its era for turning the world on its head; now the world is returning the favor.

Peter is clear that we are this "chosen race," pursuing the calling to "declare the wonderful deeds of God." This does not mean that the church can preach Christ in a historic vacuum. But it might help us to focus on the origin of the power to turn the world on its head.

On the one hand, the church is not the people of God because its leaders sound off on sociopolitical issues. Often the contradictory pronouncements of the churches simply reflect the pluralistic babble of society at large. On the other hand, sometimes there is a broad-based recognition of God’s will in the church. For example, many saw that in the nonviolent campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr., God had raised up a prophet. Conversely, the claim that the Vietnam war was God’s command was obscene to many. Even a working consensus vis-à-vis the concrete will of God is rarely achieved. What is the Christian position on multinational corporations, abortion, use of fetal tissue, the Democratic and Republican parties, rain-forest management, atomic energy or euthanasia? ‘There are times when God’s silence is almost as deafening as his word. We often discern God’s will only in pious generalities or after the fact and are reduced to aping the world’s own wisdom or mouthing Christian truisms.

Yet even this situation contains a wonderful possibility: we are privileged to speak of God’s deeds in Jesus Christ, confident that this truth can spark responses not only among believers but even among unbelievers. Christ’s love is more powerful than atheism or the often puny faith and insight of the church. It can work its own victory out of both. Let us never suppose that the power of the love of Christ to turn the world upside down depends upon our capacity to calculate the physics of the maneuver. God works through the word we have been called to proclaim, but God is free to flip the world over his shoulder in ways that confound our calculations.