While I make the point in my sermon that peer pressure to conform to the world is a challenge to the follower of Christ that falls under the category of the cost of discipleship, I did want to take this reflection as an opportunity to think through the positive side of peer pressure. And to do that, we first need to think about peer pressure more generally.
Perhaps the most obvious point about peer pressure is that it requires peers, i.e. people of roughly the same age or status. Your peers are the people who are going through similar kinds of life events and life struggles as you. Though not always the case, these are the people with the most in common with you.
But for peers to put pressure on you, there has to be some connection between you and your peers beyond demographics or life situations. This connection need not be particularly strong, for example a whole mass of high schoolers is connected, but not very strongly. However, this connection does need to include a regular, and often public, interaction between you and your peers.
Finally, there has to be some group standard or goal that gives rise to the pressure put upon you by your peers. Peer pressure is then that internal urge to conform to the external standard that arises on account of seeing your peers conforming to the standard or being actively called out by your peers for your non-conformance. In Daniel 3, we see both the passive kind of peer pressure on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as everybody else under the sun falls down to worship the king’s golden image and the active kind of pressure as certain Chaldeans call out these three men for their non-conformance.
But while the challenge of peer pressure on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego raises the matter of the cost of discipleship, there is nothing inherently wrong in peer pressure. In fact, when the group standard or goal is something good and true and when your peers have your best interest in mind, there is a positive side to peer pressure.
In fact, Paul used peer pressure in his letter to Philemon. Remember that Paul’s letter to Philemon is explicitly about inducing Philemon to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus without reprisal. Implicitly, Paul pressures Philemon to free Onesimus. While Te-Li Lau describes Paul’s pressure from the perspective of shame, his commentary is adaptable to our look at peer pressure.
First, Lau points out that Paul does not write to Philemon as an apostle but as a prisoner and an old man. He does not position himself as a superior but as a peer. Additionally, he describes Philemon himself as “our beloved fellow worker,” highlighting a peer relationship between the author and recipient.
Second, Paul establishes his connection with Philemon in two ways beyond simply writing a letter to him. In the first place, this personal letter to Philemon is actually a public letter to Philemon, “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house” (v2). While Philemon may not have felt the pressure if he had just received a personal letter, his private issue with Onesimus is now a public matter.
But then at the end of the letter, Paul also includes his intention of visiting Philemon (v22), which gives rise to further peer pressure because Paul himself will see if his request of Philemon has been carried through.
Third, Paul applies pressure based on a group standard and goal. “Paul challenges Philemon not to be conformed to worldly patterns of relationship based on the roles of master and slave. Rather, he wants Philemon's perspective to be renewed so that it affirms the will of God—that which is good for the community, that which is good for Onesimus, and also that which is good for Philemon himself.”
From this brief look at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we can appreciate the power of peer pressure to positively transform us, others, and our relationships with others. Peer pressure has the possibility to build up rather than break down when the group standard or goal reflects God’s will. This, of course, means that we must have relationships that will lead to positive peer pressure in place. It also means that we must be open to the pressure of fellow brothers and sisters to conform to the will of God when our sins and blind spots are pointed out. But when we are willing to listen, there is great potential for positive peer pressure.