How is the church to live, move, and breath as as a church in exile?
The Church in Exile
Although exile is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament, it has not generally been a lens through which the history of the church has been interpreted. In his book Embracing Exile; Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in this World, T. Scott Daniels presents a thesis centered around the idea that the church, particularly the American, church, is in the process of being exiled. Indeed, he argues, it has been for quite some time. In this brief reflection I will argue that Daniels is correct—
the church is in a state of exile
—but not in exactly the same way as he envisions in his book. In recognizing the state of exile in which the church exists, there are both dangers and opportunities that must be recognized.
What is Exile?
Daniels explains from the beginning some of the ways in which the metaphor falls apart. These are important to recognize, but there is one additional aspect of this important metaphor that needs to be addressed. Mainly, exile means that we have left one place—either by force or by choice—and now exist in another.
The underlying implication is that the place left behind represents what should be, the place where all is right, and that the place of exile is less-than-ideal, the place where what should be is not.
In the same way, to understand that the the church in America is entering a period of exile has two basic implications. First, that the cultural, political, and religious context of the past, and the way in which the church functioned in this context, was the ideal, the way things ought to be. Second, the cultural, political, and religious context in which the church is feeling exiled is not ideal, not the way things ought to be.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, in The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth, that
…we are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.
The faithful people of God are in exile and always has been. In Genesis, after God separates, fills, and blesses as described by Daniels in chapter two of Exile, sin enters through the disobedience of humanity. The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer available. The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve, was broken. The world was no longer as it should have been, as it was created to be. This is the world in which we live.
Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and into the less-than-ideal world where sin works to break all that was good.
Their exile is our exile. This is the world in which church exists today, as it always has—as a people of God in exile.
As Peter reminds us,
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”
1 Peter 2:9
Therefore, he continues,
I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desire, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
1 Peter 2:10
Past generations were not more perfect or less broken by sin. The exiled reality of the church was a truth then as it is now. The difference now is that in the past the prominent and respected place of the church within the cultural, economic, and religious context of America made the reality of exile difficult to see. Comfortable people have a hard time seeing what it really happening all around them. Today, the clouds are clearing, the support systems are crumbling, and the plot of America’s cultural narrative is shifting.
A new reality is dawning for the church and it feels uncomfortable and frightening…
…but it’s not the reality of exile that is new; rather, the reality of a Christian-friendly cultural milieu is rapidly fading into the past.
The dangers of exile
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
The first danger of exile is seen in the church that forfeits itself to the world in which it exists. I have raised my children outside of the American context, so Daniels words regarding the loss of identity make sense–
The book of Daniel recognizes that if the Judeans weren’t careful, at some point their children would cease to be Judeans living in exile in Babylon and would instead become Babylonians who attended the synagogue on occasion
Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1078
In raising my children, I don’t want them to cease to have any sense of their American identity or their connection to their passport country–that cultural and national identity of their parents, grandparents, and home church. In the same way,
…the church in exile must not lose sight of its home country—the kingdom of light of which God’s people are citizens.
The cultural values of this kingdom define who we are, form the foundation of our faith, and inform our practices. We may not see it clearly yet, but the process of discipleship brings us to a deeper understanding of the values and ideals of our “home country” (the heavenly household of God). Yet, our day-to-day existence is lived out in a foreign kingdom of exile.
For me, that foreign kingdom is my passport country of the United States. Your foreign kingdom might also be your passport country or some other earthly national identity that is most comfortable for you–your “home.” The closer we come to Christ, however, the greater our awareness of the foreignness of our earthly home, our “comfort place,” our God-given national identity.
Just as Jesus was a man very much shaped by his earthly geographic, cultural, economic, and religious context, so we are a product of the context of our particular corner of the globe. To keep our home country (the new heaven and new earth promised in Scripture) always in sight takes no small amount of effort. As such,
…the first great danger of exile is that we begin to look more and more like the place of exile and less and less like Christ.
In doing so the church is no longer separate from the world. As a result, the church then loses its opportunity to fill and be filled by the Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. In the world of missions this is known as syncretism, a melding together of spiritual truth with cultural and philosophical values to the point where they can no longer be distinguished one from the other. As an American I was taught to carefully avoid syncretism in overseas ministry, but no one ever mentioned that my passport country, itself, may be one of the best of examples of near perfect syncretism in the world today!
A second danger lies on the opposite end of the spectrum; that is,
…while living in exile, the people of God fail to fill the earth with God’s glory while also failing to be a blessing to the nations,
…not because they identified too closely with world, but rather because they have separated themselves to the point of losing all meaningful impact and influence. N.T. Wright comments about the sort of “fortress mentality” in Surprised by Hope:
First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. If the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.
In other words, the second danger of exile is that life in this world becomes meaningless; nothing more than separation and withdrawal from the world, in such a way that the life of the church has no meaningful impact or influence in the community. As a result the church loses its ability to be filled with Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations.
Opportunities in Exile
The great opportunity in exile, from the perspective of Missio Dei (God’s mission and purpose for God’s people) can be seen clearly in the words of Jesus,
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”
While the church waits for its return to the home country, there is ample opportunity to bless the world in which we currently live.
In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter writes,
Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.
Not only is the church expected to “live properly” among the not-yet-believing community in which it exists, but to do so in a way that bring glory to God from the lips of unbelievers.
The lives of those who are called the church bring glory to God while being appropriately different than the surrounding culture but yet actively and meaningfully engaged at the same time.
Paul, writing to the Colossians, states,
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; making the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Clearly, for Paul, the life of the church in the greater community was of great importance; particularly the way they communicated with outsiders. The assumption for Paul is that the church will be engaged with the culture and community in which they exist, and in doing so have the opportunity to do good, speak grace, and be, as Jesus taught, the salt of the earth—
…a valuable, meaningful, preserving influence in the world.
Finally, in the fifth chapter of his letter to church in Colossae, Paul adds,
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”
Colossians 5:9-11 (italics mine)
For Paul, it is not the place of the church to build walls and isolate themselves from the surrounding culture and influence; rather, while living in the world the church must insure that its story remains clear, relevant, unwaveringly full of grace…and filled with love.
The church has always been in exile—all is not as it should be, hope for return to the home country remains yet unfulfilled, and even in the best of cultural, economic, social, and religious contexts, the church has, is, and will continue to face dangers and uncertainties at every corner. While the particular state of exile may differ from one village to the next, one nation to the next, or even one continent to the next, all face the same basic dangers–syncretism on one extreme and absolute irrelevance on the other. Each, as well, has within reach the same foundational opportunities–to be the wellspring of grace, hope, and life as they walk the way of Christ while inviting others on the journey.
Daniels, T. Scott. Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2017.
L’Engle, Madeleine. The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. Chicago: Shaw Books, 2002.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.