Inherent in many traditions of Christian teaching is the notion that Christians are a “People of God”. While this has helped communities overcome persecution it also can has significant disadvantages.
An example of the People of God concept is found in the epistle I Peter which was addressed to a Christian community suffering persecution from both political authorities and non-believers. The teaching is intended to give comfort and strength to a persecuted community and to allow it to find a hope and courage that the knowledge of a caring God provides. From history, we can see how this kind of teaching has helped Jewish people to maintain their culture in the face of persecution.
But what are the drawbacks of such a teaching? Like all of the letters in the New Testament I Peter was addressed to a specific audience at a specific time. It is dangerous to apply teachings meant at one time to circumstances not foreseen by the original author. Centuries later when the readers of I Peter read it from a position in which they had political or secular power the notion of a chosen people gives a different impression to the reader, for example after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion made Christianity a state religion.
Rather than encouraging the reader during a difficult time of persecution it can now give the impression that the current status quo (wealth, political power etc) is justified by virtue of being God’s chosen. What was meant to be an encouragement to those facing persecution can very quickly become a judgment of those outside of the church – it is a short leap to thinking that there is no salvation outside of the church and that non-Christians do not also enjoy God’s favor. Some have gone so far in misapplying this teaching that they even teach that Christians from other traditions are not God’s chosen.
Christ served as an example ministering to those out of favor, to strangers and outsiders. We should not lose this, by misinterpreting scripture. Though basic truths do not change over time, circumstances do change. If our beliefs are alive they must evolve.