Talking about the "fiery ordeal" they were suffering (1 Peter 4:12), this passage opens with strong words which are not easily reconciled with the experience of the Church in the 21st century, especially in Europe and in North America.
The Church and Suffering
At the time of Peter, Christ-believers could experience this fiery ordeal in a variety of ways. They could be mocked because their practices were considered strange. They could become isolated from their families because of their decision to join the Christ-believers movement. Or at a deeper level (if one dates 1 Peter during the rule of Domitian [81-96 CE] when organized persecutions of Christ-believers did take place), they could suffer at the hands of the state.
Being a Christ-believer in the Roman Empire
Even if one argues for an earlier date for the writing of 1 Peter and thus recognizes that there were no imperial persecutions at the time, one has to accept the fact that the first Christ-believers movements were unsettling for the Roman Empire. Christ's death was related to political issues. And the churches that Paul had established in Greece and Asia Minor were constructing modes of being in community that were in tension with the dominant imperial mode of understanding the organization of the world.
Christ-believers, whether Jewish or Gentiles, did not necessarily participate in the imperial cult and were encouraged to develop communities in which differences in social status did not play as much of a role as they did in the surrounding imperial world. As such, the Christ-believers could be perceived as a threat for the established order which made them the victims of mild to severe repercussions. As Miguel A. de la Torre points out, "the early churches were persecuted not for what they believed but for what they did. They preached a message of liberation. To preach good news to the poor, freedom to the imprisoned, sight for those blinded, and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) is to reject conformity with the prevailing power structures".1
Thus, suffering was not necessarily something that struck the early Christ-believers as strange or unexpected. In fact, the New Testament writers go to great lengths to show that suffering was more or less part of the experience of being a follower of Christ. 1 Peter does the same, reminding his addressees that, since Christ suffered, Christ-believers can expect to suffer as well (1 Peter 4:13).
Without developing a theology in which suffering needs to be pursued, the author of 1 Peter encourages his addressees to see suffering as the counterpart of the blessings that they will experience when God will restore them and the world (1 Peter 5:10). Part of their responsibilities as Christ-believers are to be in solidarity with others, who suffer in the world because of Christ, and to resist the devil, which, as the strong metaphor of the prowling lion represents well, will not rest until it finds 'someone to devour' (1 Peter 5:8). Since the devil is not resting, neither should the Christ-believers.
Should the Contemporary Church be Suffering?
If, as de la Torre indicates, suffering and hostility towards the church in the 1st century was profoundly related to the subversive role of the early church amidst the Roman Empire, should Christians today be wary of the fact that, in many places, the Christian church no longer provokes hostility? In fact, in many places in Europe, polite indifference is the most common expression towards the Church; the way most people relate to the church.
Perhaps the issue lies on the focus of Christian churches. 1 Peter reminds us that what is at stake in the sufferings of Christ-believers is not so much what they believed but what they did. Because they believed that Christ was Lord, and not Caesar, they strived to establish communities marked by love and solidarity rather than by hierarchy and a system of patronage and debt.
De la Torre suggests that contemporary churches might become more relevant if they again focused on "orthopraxis (correct action)" rather than on "orthodoxy (correct doctrine)".2 In seeking this path, contemporary churches might need to advocate for "social disorder"3 and accept that, with social disorder comes the fear of suffering at the hands of the privileged, without certain control over the outcome of their struggle.
1 See Miguel A. de la Torre, "1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11. Theological Perspective", in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year A. Volume 2. Lent through Eastertide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 533-534.
2 See Ibid., 534