The Church in Exile: A Social Politic

There are two opposite stances that churches fall into in regard to culture.

The first is sectarian withdrawal, most exemplified by the Amish or the Hutterian Brethren.  There is a sense in which the evangelical subculture is sectarian withdrawal even in the midst of the city, as a child can be raised going to evangelical schools, watching evangelical television shows and films, shopping at evangelical bookstores and get a degree at an evangelical liberal arts university.  Needless to say, there are sharp bibilical criticisms for such sectarian withdrawal.

But the opposite stance is far worse.  The opposite stance is the form of cultural imperialism we have come to call christendom – the reign of the churches.  The medieval Catholic church and quite quickly the Protestant churches represented the height of christendom, though the evangelical church paradoxically pursues as aggressively as possible a reinstitution of Christian cultural influence, through the passing of Christian laws, banning work on Sundays, abortion or gay marriage.

There are other positions, such as the total capitulation to culture that most of the mainline Protestant and state churches in Europe seem to be rushing toward, but those somehow strike me as subchristian.

For some time now I have been trying to work out how exactly to strike a balance between sectarian withdrawal (as the church most assuredly is an alternative polis to the political forces vying for our support) and cultural influence (as God is certainly working in the world as well as in the church and Christians should get in on that).  The evangelical options seems to be to do both and take them both to extremes, which generally works out in political terms as rejecting government while embracing nation, which seems doubly unsatisfactory to me.

Instead, following Tim Keller, I find the key to the Christian social posture in Jeremiah’s advice to those taken into captivity in Babylon, in present-day Iraq.  He said to them,

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (src)

To put it in a phrase, the church is to be a counterculture that serves the common good; the church is to live in exile.  This is exactly what Augustine was getting at in book 19 of City of God.

How does this work out?  Briefly put, the primary task of the church is to witness to the lordship of Christ.  We know what the world does not but needs to know, which is that Christ is lord over all the world, not only the church.  Task number one is to live like a people who know Christ is lord.  This will qualify all of our service to the common good.  Let’s take a few concrete examples, off the top of my head.

In my next post I want to explore how a handful of issues might be addressed from such an exile-politic position, specifically voting, military service, holding public office, and saying the pledge of allegiance.


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