The world we live in has changed, and the faster the church gets our heads around it, the better. And the past two and a half years of a global pandemic have only turbocharged the change. In a time of rapid, dislocating change, it becomes easy to want to get back to what we lost. Instead, we must embrace God’s call into what we are.
Last month Jacob Birch wrote a widely-viewed article at Christianity Today questioning the common use of Jeremiah 29 in the Western church. In short, Birch complains that the common refrain, “We live in a period of exile” in today’s Western church is an ill-advised framework to understand the church’s relationship to our broader culture.
We can understand the basic thrust of the article. In essence, Birch states, “It’s really not that bad to be a Christian in the West. And so, when the Western [and he presumably particularly means the American and Canadian] church starts talking this way, it cheapens people who really have been forced out of their homelands, experienced all sorts of horrors, and suffered mightily.” Birch raises a valid point. Those who have fled war, who have been forcibly deported, who will never see their homes again, those who have suffered, deeply – they may rightly take umbrage at comparisons which seem to imply, “Yes, we feel that too.” No, honestly, we don’t. We can agree with Birch’s concern at that level.
Yet, we shouldn’t entirely abandon the analogy. We shouldn’t abandon it because the bible itself talks this way. In fact, in 1 Peter 1.1, Peter calls God’s elect, Christians, exiles in the world:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:1–2, ESV)
Other English translations render the ESV’s “exiles” as “scattered,” “sojourners,” “strangers,” and the like, so we should be careful to note the potential range of meaning in Peter’s description. Not every sojourner is an exile, nor are the terms identical, but they do have overlapping ranges of meaning and signification. In other words, the ESV, though not the only possible translation of the term, is a legitimate and defensible rendering of Peter’s meaning.
And why that designation? Those who read the New Testament know what it means to be elect, and verse 2 confirms what Peter means – the ones who were chosen in advance by God the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, for obedience to Christ, redeemed in his blood. Peter writes to Christians scattered through the Roman Empire, choosing imagery that links them to the dispersion and exile of the Judeans following the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
According to Peter, the elect were scattered throughout the world. Why? They were scattered because of persecution. We should be careful not to read that too far – Birch has a point – the persecution wasn’t yet as bad as it could be…or would be. But Nero was probably already ruling when this letter was written, and it would keep getting worse. The Christians of the early church faced hardship and persecution – socially, economically, and eventually physically. And even when these early Christians experienced social and economic persecution, Peter wrote to them as “strangers in the world, scattered – exiled – among the nations.” They were in the same spot that the Jews in Judah had been centuries before – oppressed, harassed, living in the midst of a pagan culture that mocked all they stood for.
In other words, there’s nothing per se wrong with using the analogy of exile for Western Christians today. We simply must recognize that this is an analogy, and every analogy can be pushed too far. Our situation in the Western church is not nearly as bad as what many brothers and sisters around the world face daily, nor should we act like we have it so hard. Yet, we can still profitably look at and learn from the question of what it means to live as exiles in the world.
And whatever analogy we use, it is fair to say the Western church has moved and is moving towards a minority position in terms of its influence on culture. Now probably, from what all the statisticians say, the number of people who have really met Jesus, been born again, has not changed terribly much as a percentage of the population. Instead, the well-documented rise of the “nones” is driving this change. Christianity in America for a long time managed to live in a position of cultural hegemony, where the mainstream, whether or not it truly believed in Christian orthodoxy, still gave lip service, accepted many of its cultural claims, and voted with it, so to speak. We must remember that was often a hollow faith, but in many places in the West, including until recently in most of America, it was relatively easy, safe, and even socially helpful to say you were a Christian.
That, certainly, has changed in much of the West, somewhat earlier in Europe, then first in the American Northeast and West, then spreading more broadly to cultural centers across the nation; and we have no reason to think the trend will suddenly cease. The church is moving towards a position of less cultural influence, and whether we describe that as “occupation” (Birch’s preferred analogy) or “exile” (also valid), that requires rethinking how Christians relate to our world. And Jeremiah 29 remains not just helpful, but crucial in thinking through the question.
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:1–14, ESV)
How did we get here, to this cultural moment? We might start with how Israel got there. This is a letter from Jeremiah the prophet, back in Jerusalem, to some of the exiles deported to Babylon, a letter written near the end of the history of Judah as an independent nation. After Solomon, God’s people split into two separate nations, sometimes allied, often fighting each other. A couple hundred years later, the northern nation, called Israel, had been wiped out by the Assyrian Empire. Now, a bit past one hundred years later, the southern nation, called Judah, was in the process of being wiped out by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian judgment happened in three stages, and in each of those three stages the Babylonians deported a portion of Judah’s elite, exiling them, taking them back to Babylon for what basically amounted to a forced reeducation campaign, one that made them into Babylonian civil servants. Jeremiah 29 occurs in the midst of those three stages. The prophet Jeremiah, still back in Judah, wrote to God’s people who had been exiled to Babylon.
To understand this situation correctly, we must recognize that Israel ended up in exile because of both injustice AND false worship. Jeremiah 7:1-7 says – and the OT prophets had been repeating both these themes for centuries – that God had exiled them because of both their religious apostasy and the rampant injustice of their society:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.” (Jeremiah 7:1–7, ESV)
One can almost open the preexilic prophets of the Old Testament at random and find these two themes.
First, as to idolatry, this remained a very religious people. Atheism was a much, much later cultural movement. Everyone at this time was religious; the only question was which god you followed. Further, this remained a people who said they were worshiping the Lord. If you had asked the people themselves, “Have you turned to other gods?” they would have answered, “No, this is how we worship the Lord.” Of course, God didn’t see it that way. In his eyes, they were “going after other gods.” In other words, they had a religion that claimed it was still the worship of the Lord and even formally looked like, at least in many ways, it was the worship of the Lord. It had the same ceremonies, the same sacrifices, the same patterns, yet it was a false worship of the Lord. It had much of the form of Yahwism, but in God’s mind it was something else entirely.
Second, as to justice, this remained an incredibly blind people. Their stated faith and their market and societal ethics simply did not match. As long as the Temple continued its work, as long as the sacrifices were made, people considered themselves to be good with God, well set, having done their religious duty. No matter if one then went out and slept with a prostitute, exploited the poor, oppressed the widow, the orphan, or the refugee. No matter if one’s business practices were technically legal but corrupt. No matter if one’s faith had no impact once he exited the Temple courts. Jeremiah critiques, standing in a long line of Old Testament prophets, the worst of legalistic, formalistic religion.
And, we might add, Jeremiah rejects their complacency in the light of all of that. They cry out, “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.” In other words, they cry out, “We’re good, so long as we meet the obligations of the Temple sacrificial system. We have nothing to worry about. God will always protect Jerusalem, because he has promised to.” To which Jeremiah says, “The Temple’s presence will not save you. Give me a true religion, one that rejects idolatrous religious compromise and one that seeks justice.”
If the Western church has moved into a position that is much more exilic, even if in a very light form, how did we get here? Interestingly, the two warring halves of the movement formerly known as evangelicalism each concentrate on one or the other of those causes.
One of the two halves often traces the roots of the church’s loss of influence to false worship, particularly to the rise of liberal theology in the early 20th century, which then really flowered with the 60’s and the sexual revolution and then more recent cultural moves on gender and sexuality. The narrative goes as follows: