Introduction to General Epistles
The seven letters of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude are often called the General (or Catholic) Epistles because they seem to speak to the Christian church in general, rather than to individual churches. They are also united by their interest in practical matters such as organizational leadership, hard work, fairness, good relationships, and effective communication.
The General Epistles reflect the essential challenge Christians faced in the Roman Empire—how to follow Jesus in a tough environment. Early Christians faced problems such as slavery, favoritism, and abuse by the rich and powerful. They dealt with harsh words and conflicts. They dealt with the real tensions between ambition and dependence on God, and the fear that doing things God’s way would put them in conflict with those in authority. In general, they felt a sense of alienation living and working in a world that seemed incompatible with following Jesus.
Many of today’s Christians experience similar tensions at work. On the one hand, many Christians have more opportunity to serve God in their work than in any other sphere of life. Business, government, educational, nonprofit, and at-home workplaces accomplish a tremendous amount of good in society. On the other hand, most workplaces are generally not dedicated toward God’s purposes, such as serving the common good, working for the benefit of others, deepening relationships among people, spreading justice, and developing character. Because workplaces’ ultimate aims—generally maximizing profit—are different from Christians’ ultimate aims, we should expect to experience tension in our dual roles as followers of Christ and workers in the nonchurch workplace. Although most workplaces are not intentionally evil—just as many parts of the Roman Empire were not actively hostile to Jesus' followers—it can still be challenging for Christians to serve God in their work. Because the General Epistles were written to guide Christians experiencing tensions in the world around them, they can be helpful to workplace Christians today.
These General Epistles address such practical concerns head on. Two major principles underlie the variety of items treated in these letters:
- We can trust God to provide for us.
- We must work for the benefit of others in need.
From these two principles, the General Epistles derive instructions that have surprisingly practical applications in the twenty-first-century workplace. But perhaps we should not be surprised. God chose the Roman Empire as the place where God would enter human life in the form of Jesus Christ. God is also choosing today’s workplace as a point of his presence.