No, Western Christians are not in exile


If you attend a predominantly white evangelical church in the 2020s, you’ve probably been Told by your pastor that you are an “exile”. It is not by chance. He or she has learned to imagine himself, his flock, and the church in our country as exiles from our worldly culture.

At its heart, this modernized exilic setting laments the secular changes in Western culture and laments the loss of place the Christian church once had in our society. This is equivalent our situation with what the people of Judah experienced and suffered after being exiled from Israel – while living in Babylonian captivity after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC.

Much of this comparison began in the 1990s, drawing inspiration from the work of the German-American theologian Walter Brueggemann and those who rely on him. In The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After ChristianityChristian Alliance theologian and Canadian missionary Lee Beach abstract this state of mind exudes as “the experience of knowing oneself to be a stranger, and perhaps even in a hostile environment where the dominant values ​​go against one’s own”. Beach dispute that Christians should consider themselves exiles at all times and in all places.

As evidence of the exile status of evangelicals today, Beach points to the difference between Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967, which included Christian worship, and Canada’s post-9/11 memorial service, which did not. . He Remarks“If such national gatherings provide insight into the ethos of the nation, then in thirty-four years Canada has gone from a nation in which the Church played a major role to a nation in which it was not. not included at all. »

The problem today with labeling North American evangelicals as exiles is that it becomes a form of cultural appropriation that minimizes the suffering of true exiles and distorts the original Jewish exile. Further, it does not reflect the past or present status of the Western church and is therefore not an appropriate, factual or biblical metaphor for modern ministry.

In the 2000s, the rate at which most white, male, classically trained evangelical theologians and pastors in the West embraced and preached the exile pattern in their churches has been overtaken by the rate at which millions of refugees and asylum seekers faces true exile throughout the world.

Yet living in what Beach describes as “perhaps even a hostile environment” (emphasis added) – or going from a “major role” in a nation to no role “at all” – is not what true exiles experience. Refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean because their dinghy capsized did not go from a “major role” in society to no role “at all”, but rather from clinging to life to no life in the everything.

Think of the Uyghur, Syrian, Afghan and Ukrainian refugees who will soon arrive in our churches and neighborhoods. Do we use rubber rafts to escape our country or throw our children over barbed wire to avoid “re-education” on an industrial scale? are we Sending in progress our women and children at the border while the men remain to fight the invaders?

I preach regularly to the English ministry of a Mandarin church based in Toronto. Some of his elders were hidden by relatives in caves as children to be rescued from Communist purges before fleeing to safety here in North America. How does our use of the language of “exile” strike those who live among us and who have lived real exile?

Evangelical proponents of “exile” are at best deaf when they complaint the status of exile because of Christianity “slowly shifting from the center of culture to a more peripheral role”. Using exile as a metaphor for today’s ministry distorts what the church in the West is currently experiencing – compared, for example, to the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who are still trap on the southern border of the United States.

Using exile to describe our cultural situation is a bit like using the word holocaust refer to something other than “the Holocaust”. To equate our declining social status, cultural weight, or political power with what true exiles endure is an injustice to their suffering.

Instead, I would say that the reality – which is found both in the New Testament and in the Western church today – is one of Occupation rather than exile. Occupation has many advantages over exile as an organizing metaphor for ministry, but I will list only two.

First, Occupation aligns more closely with the circumstances of the Western church than the Diaspora event from which the Old Testament concept of exile native.

Things are bad for Christians in the West, but they are not “bad in exile”; they are “bad for the occupation”. To be clear, my concern is do not that the western church cannot relate to the exile metaphor, but let us relate to it too well! Many pastors I know preach “exile” to their congregation – and yet this framework exaggerates our “outsider” status in society.

Our modern, Westernized conception of exile – in which Christians move from a major role to a marginal role in society – is not what the exiles of Judah faced in 586 BC when they been displaced by the Babylonian war in Israel.

The Jewish people lost their homeland, their freedom, their place of worship and their way of life. Many have lost their life, their name, their food (Daniel 1:6-8), their political autonomy (2 Kings 16:6), their human dignity (Ps. 137:3-4) compare to the past or present situation of the western church.

The second advantage Occupation count more exile it is that it is a more biblically valid metaphor for the backdrop of ministry found both in the New Testament and today.

Occupation, not exile, is the situation Jesus and the early Church faced, both spiritually and politically. This is the theological context for the concept of seeking God’s celestial kingdom on earth (Rom. 13:4) – as well as the fundamental idea behind the church’s first creed that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9 ). Salvation itself consists in acknowledging that there is a king superior to Caesar.

Occupation, not exile, is the backdrop to the nativity story. Herod was named “King of the Jews” by Rome, prompting him to order genocide lest a baby born under this title challenge his rule (Matt. 2). In fact, “King of the Jews” was the very title written on the panel nailed above Jesus to mock him as he hung on the cross (John 19:19).

The events of Holy Week, Pentecost, and the early Church era are meaningless apart from the political intrigue, social patterns, and religious nuances of Occupation— contrary to the simplicity of exile.

Occupation, not exile, is the framework for evangelization. The disciples were called to conduct themselves blamelessly, knowing that the political and religious authorities sought any excuse to persecute them (Matt. 10:16); and Satan is seen falling from heaven as the disciples carry out their mission in occupied spiritual territory (Luke 10:18).

Thus, occupation, not exile, should be our underlying theological framework for ministry today. God has placed the world under our stewardship in the Garden (Gen. 1:28), and it returns to God through the reign of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). Meanwhile, Satan, sin and death remain occupying powers in this land (Heb. 2:14-17), hostile to believers (1 Peter 5:8) and to the work of the church (2 Cor. 4). :4). ), and determined to usurp God’s authority on earth (Matthew 4:8-9).

Christians operate in territory occupied by the enemy, yet we are called to seek the kingdom of God. In doing so, we will continue to encounter resistance from various social forces, political institutions, and religious institutions that are not under the dominion of God.

For example, in Canada, the ruling Liberal Party was elected at the end of 2021 in campaign promise to revoke the charitable status of crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion organizations for providing “dishonest advice to pregnant women.”

As a Canadian, it is more difficult to find evidence Occupationleave alone exile, when it comes to the American Church, where evangelicals have a degree of influence in the sphere of education, politics and culture that Canadian, British and European evangelicals could only dream of.

However, I could point to not only the 2015 US Supreme Court decision to strike down the same-sex marriage ban, but also the fact that it only took 11 years for it to happen once that the state of Massachusetts authorized to show how Christian political influence is declining in the country.

In other words, it reminds us of the reality of occupation whenever the laws and practices of our homeland conflict with our own biblical standards of living.

But what is our task as Christians today?

Instead of clinging to our modern, Westernized conception of a church in exile, let’s embrace a more biblical, less offensive, and evidence-based metaphor of Occupation.

Peter’s advice to believers living as “strangers and exiles” was directed to a church under occupation. He was not content with them simply settling down and planting gardens (Jeremiah 29:4-7) or “singing the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3-4) until Cyrus’ liberating decree – a bit like those who waited for a gentle chariot to take them back to paradise. On the contrary, we are called to be on a mission and “to lead such a good life among the Gentiles that…they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-25).

Instead of yearning for a return from exile, we are called to witness to the return of our King Jesus here and now. Christ returns to bring with him a new heaven and a new earth that will reoccupy this territory (Rev. 21:1). This means that it is up to Jesus to end the age of occupation – and it is up to us to live as witnesses to his lordship as we make our way through Caesar’s world.

Our job this side of eternity is to preach and live so that those around us will be prepared, not for our escape from earthly exile, but for the return of our once reviled King.

Jacob Birch is an ordained member of Alliance Canada with 29 years of pastoral experience in Eastern Canada in Evangelical and mainstream churches. He is also a long-term part-time graduate student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.


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