Conversation Guide #8: The Dynamics of Exclusion and Inclusion in 1 Peter – by Kobus Kok

This paper examines the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in earliest Christianity by focusing on 1 Peter. Peter was one of the most important early Christian leaders and apostles of Jesus. In this paper we critically examine 1 Peter through the lens of Social Identity Theory. Social Identity Theory is a rather new method in New Testament Studies, and is interdisciplinary in nature in the sense that it uses tools that originated in social psychology. This theory is very helpful for us to make more explicit some of the implicit dynamics involved in the construction of early Christian identity and boundaries, that is, how exclusion and inclusion happened during the earliest decades of the formation of the Christian faith. Social Identity Theory helps one to see the manner in which groups create a positive sense of self-esteem, especially amidst conflict, and how they evaluate other groups or create their boundaries so as to differentiate themselves from outgroups and consolidate their identity to the inside. This is especially true in contexts of conflict.

The socio-historical background and social-scientific exegesis of 1 Peter

1 Peter is written within a context of conflict in the second part of the first century AD. Some argue that the text’s reference to suffering and persecution needs to be read against the background of Roman persecution. Some argue that there was not at that particular time official Roman persecution except under Nero and Domitian. They would rather opt for the view that the readers of 1 Peter experienced suffering because of social marginalization which resulted from the fact that they became believers in Christ and therefore deviated from the norms of society. Whatever option one decides to follow, the point is more to look at the manner in which the text itself sketches the situation of what they describe as one of suffering and marginalization (1 Pet 1:6; 4:16; likewise, Paul experiencing suffering in Phil 1:7, 13-14, 17, 28-29; 4:14). One of the purposes of the letter is that the author of 1 Peter wants to write a “pastoral letter” in which he wants to console his audience with a message of hope and an  understanding of identity that would help them to endure affliction and marginalization.

In 1 Peter, the author wants to shape and sketch the implications of the new identity that believers acquired after their conversion and how that creates in them a sense of identity which should result in a particular ethos within their socio-historical context. Michael Wolter points out that every group has inclusive ethics which they share with the rest of society and that helps them integrate, but every group also has an exclusive ethos which is not shared with the rest of society and serves as a way  to consolidate identity and boundaries between the ingroup and outgroup.

In 1 Peter 1:1 we already encounter a very interesting metaphor, namely that the believers to whom he is writing are described as being aliens or foreigners (he uses the term παρεπιδήμοις). The mere term “alien” presupposes a person or group of persons who are foreign, strangers, and outsiders, who find themselves in a situation where they are the marginalized “other”. But here the “negative” image of “alien” is used in a positive manner. Social Identity Theory shows us that it often happens that a negative label outsiders attach to a group is used by the group itself as a positive self-description.  This act thus becomes a metaphor which presupposes the implicit challenge of such people to either assimilate and do away with the boundaries of the host culture, or live in and with a form of social identity complexity.

Interesting to note now is how the author goes on to create boundaries that exclude the ingroup from the outgroup. This forms part of what social identity theory describes as the evaluative aspect.

  • They used to live in ignorance (1 Pet 1:14 – ἀγνοίᾳ)
  • They lived in empty, futile ways inherited from their ancestors (1 Pet 1:18 – ματαίας ὑμῶν ἀναστροφῆς πατροπαραδότου)
  • They participated in all sorts of things Gentiles do, like drunkenness (οἰνοφλυγίαις), lustful sensuality (ἀσελγείαις ἐπιθυμίαις), carousing (κώμοις), drinking parties and unlawful idolatry (πότοις καὶ ἀθεμίτοις εἰδωλολατρίαις (1 Pet 1:18)
  • They were not God’s people (1 Pet 2:10 – οὐ λαός)
  • They were those who have not received God’s mercy (1 Pet 2:10)

Positive ingroup dynamics and contrast between their past and present

This negative portrayal of their previous identity is contrasted with the current identity as exiles in the diaspora (1 Pet 1:1 – παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς) who have been elected and radically drawn into the new family of God and participate in Israel’s story. Their old identity is radically contrasted with their new identity. Old is bad, new is better. This is explainable by the evaluative dynamics in Social Identity Theory. The author of 1 Peter uses a cluster of family metaphors (birth, spiritual milk, growth to maturity, obedience, brother and sisters, etc.) to express the manner in which they should understand their new identity and group cohesion. He also links them  with the story of Israel and creates a meta-narrative in which they now participate in God’s plan and in which their suffering makes new sense against a larger cosmic narrative.

One would expect 1 Peter to motivate his readers such that they would stay in their little bubble and retract from the world. But he does not do that. He motivates believers to exemplify the utmost best of the values of their context. For instance, he says that believing wives should become even better in expressing the values embodied in the social context of their unbelieving husbands so as to make these men wonder why their wives are so exemplary and when finding out what the underlying motivation is, become Christ-followers themselves and be won over to the faith. 1 Peter does not want believers to react with violence or sectarian withdrawal, but to respond in ways characterized by non-violence, and breaking the cycle of violence as such (1 Pet 2:23; 3:9). We see a directive to love for the ingroup (3:8; 2:17) on the one hand, and remarkably, to submission to “every human institution” which exists outside of the confines of the ingroup. In that sense, early Christians showed what Miroslav Volf calls, a “soft difference” which was in that sense, inclusive and open.



  1. Reflect on the statement that during situations of conflict or affliction we tend to draw stronger boundaries between us and them.
  2. Think for a moment about who you are and what you stand for. How is that also directly related to who and what you stand against? Would you agree with a statement like “By saying who I am, I am also saying who I am not. By saying who I am, I am drawing boundaries.”? What are those boundaries? And how does that exclude others?
  3. How does 1 Peter’s idea of a “soft difference” and doing  good to all people help us to reflect on the manner in which our boundary-drawing could also be boundary transcending?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Kobus Kok, which can be found here: The Dynamics of Exclusion and Inclusion in 1 Peter.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.