Friday, September 08, 2017

Exiles and the Kingdom

I think the New Testament is pretty clear that Christians should expect their experience of life in this world to be an experience of exile.  1 Peter is obviously the book that explicitly uses this imagery, but actually the whole of the NT is full of the discomfort, the being-out-of-place, that comes from being part of the new creation in Christ and yet living day by day in the old creation.  Some of the more radical explorations of that motif are in Paul: think of the way that the old extends even to my own body (and mind?) in the conflict of Romans 7.  I am in exile not only in the world, but in a sense in my own skin.  Stranger in a strange land.

Given the prevalence of this motif, I don't see why Christians would be surprised to find themselves a minority, their views ignored, their beliefs ridiculed.  We should be okay with that.

But there is another line in the NT, which represents one of the essential insights of Old Testament monotheism.  Along this line, the NT insists that the whole earth is the Lord's, with everything in it.  That is why you can eat meat sacrificed to idols - the meat is God's, the idols are nothing (even if they are demons!)  From this perspective, it is the Christian who belongs - this is our Father's world, and moreover it is the world which, whether it knows it or not, is decisively claimed for redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.  In a sense this is the deeper line, which cuts across the experience of exile: we are at home, deeply at home, in the world.  It is just that the world itself does not know that it has been brought home in Christ to its creator.

Given this, I don't see how we could refuse to hope for genuine improvement in the world.  I don't see how the church can acquiesce in the world's refusal to know itself and be itself in Christ.  We should be constantly calling the world - institutions and societies as well as individuals - to repentance and faith.

I suppose the key thing is that we speak from the perspective of confidence.  Those who fear that the exile is the more fundamental reality will speak in a shrill manner, out of anxiety and not out of the deep calm of prophetic vision.  It is only when we know that the world is Christ's that we can calmly and clearly - without being shocked by rejection, but never giving up hope that we might be heard - tell the world what it is in Christ, and what it ought therefore to be in experience.


  1. Super!

    In light of which you might be interested in:

    1. Looks good. Unfortunately I'm away most of the preceding week at the FIEC Leaders' Conference - not sure the family would appreciate it if I disappeared again as soon as I got back...

  2. It's funny reading this in that it feels we've both drifted to roughly opposite areas of a certain scale from where we were a couple of years ago, although I doubt you're now in favour of a fully-fledged Christendom as I was. A few scattered thoughts, more extensive than usual as this is a key item of interest for me and I enjoy your reflections on such matters:

    I agree with the first two paras, but I'd question your attempt to make this world still 'really' our home... Christ is Lord over all, yes, but 'all creation groans' under its curse until the very end... people will get worse, not better (2 Tim 3) and this age is defined as evil (1 John 6). This world will have to be burnt up (2 Peter 3) before a new one is made. Seems hard to fit with God reconciling all things through Christ (Ephesians), but then the same paradox is at work in our own salvation: we are reconciled to God by being killed off with Christ, so that it is Christ who lives in us. How we retain our own identity - and how the world will retain its identity - in this strangely brutal reconciliation is a mystery.

    But that's to say that I think pessimism is called for, not least because, as you said some time ago, only individuals and therefore the covenant community can be transformed by the Spirit, not abstract organisations. I've come to realise that some of the worst hypocrisy and sin was harboured by a Christendom that implemented moral principles through violent force, in contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12. A much stronger two kingdoms doctrine is needed, in my view, akin to that of the Anabaptists and many of the Waldensians and Lollards - i.e. that the State is providentially used for good as in Romans 13, but remains Babylon at heart (total depravity!), a kingdom we have as little to do with as possible as we are not to judge those outside the church (1 Cor 5).

    There's a sort of black irony that so many Reformed Baptists (not making assumptions about yourself here) see themselves in the line of the Magisterial Reformers and Puritans, not only because they’d be persecuted by some of their heroes. In discarding the MR’s political theology, though, it seems to me that an inconsistent liberalism is all that's left, as the more razor-sharp approach of the Anabaptists is usually waved aside by ignoring their witness due to their (problematic) Arminianism or by tarring them with the brush of the Munsterites.

    It’s hard to justify seeking coercive legislation to be implemented to dampen one evil rather than all of them on the basis of Scripture. But the early church seemed to feel no need to petition the emperor to ban infanticide or homosexual relationships (or gain authority to do such themselves), despite the evil nature of those things. We work on our own project, as the seed buried under the earth, through the suffering path of the cross, until Christ comes as warrior to sort things out.

    Which is not to say that things can’t get ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in certain moral senses in general society. But I would question any idea that the church should get involved in extra-church action… such leads inevitably to a distortion of the gospel, it seems to me. And although I can’t speak for many but myself (as I only know a few other Christians with such views), I do find this gives me a certain confidence in that I know I don’t have to fix the problems of the world, because they are unsolvable. I just have to ‘mind my own business,’ as one of the epistles says, seeking the health of the church, staying faithful, come what may. The shrillness I more associate with those groups who *do* want to legislate change in organisations outside the church – Christian Concern, for example.

    1. Ouch! Sorry - didn't realise quite how long that ended up...

    2. Interesting. Let me say at once that I'm (probably) not in favour of a full-fledged Christendom - although neither would I be particularly against such a thing. I do increasingly think there is no future for Western culture without Christendom. But maybe there just is no future for Western culture. That would make me sad, but God is still God no matter how the nations rage.

      I should say that the fact the world is really our home is deeply buried (just as the fact that we are really God's children is deeply buried - it does not yet appear what we shall be...) But I think it is true nonetheless, and important.

      That doesn't lead me to a position where I want Christian ethics legislated (as seems to be the case with Christian Concern). I do think it is legit to seek legislative action in some areas, and I think it would be negligent not to seek it in cases like abortion. I wouldn't particularly want to see homosexual activity recriminalised, for example! I think we avoid becoming shrill by knowing that everything is already won in the resurrection of Christ, and that our future inheritance of a world where righteousness dwells is secure.

      On the other hand, I want to push back a bit on the 'mind my own business' line. There's a legit place for that, but the church *always* has to be involved in extra-church action - there is a danger of becoming ecclesia incurvatus in se! To call for repentance and faith in every area of life and society seems right, even if we're fairly sure it won't be heeded.

      One interesting note: I'm not sure I'd stand by any comments I may have earlier made about abstract organisations - the Prince of Persia in Daniel 10 has me thinking more about the corporate spiritual identity of nations and societies...

  3. Thanks for the reply. It's great to chat with someone thinking through these matters rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction in whatever sense.

    A difficult thing for me was to realise that 'Western Culture' was/is not anything holy... and usually quite the opposite. But that may be said for any culture. Since the Kingdom is within us, the typology of new creation Eden inside the temple, cursed land outside, should probably drive how we see such concepts as a sacral society. Perhaps better to say the Kingdom is our home, partly here in this world?

    I suppose with legislation, the question is, by what Biblical principle do you choose your battles? Why just abortion, when homosexuality and adultery cause such massive (and measurable) damage in themselves and by example? All of the arguments for and against involve metaphysical assumptions in what a person or marriage is, etc., so I think theological justification is unavoidable. This is why I investigated full Rutherfordian theonomy... and had to pause and reconsider when he called for the prosecution of heretics. But I think he was consistent.

    It may be said that my argument from the NT having no secular political engagement is one of silence... but I do think that 1 Cor 5, 'not judging those outside the church' is of greater importance than realised here, as well as not taking vengeance, not taking people to court, not seeking to be as the kings of the earth, etc.

    And I agree utterly that the church can't become insular - thinking of the Amish here. We are to be salt and light, in the world but not of it. It depends what tactics we use to those ends - and whether we should use tactics that are 'of the world' - i.e. getting people to behave through force before accepting the gospel, rather than seeking them to accept the gospel first and helping them to live obediently within the church.

    That is an interesting note, and I agree about a collective spiritual identity (e.g. Deut 32:8-9, the sons of God assigned the nations). I'd just argue that the church is the only society that can ever have a holy and truly repentant character because it is the only society that can be in Christ.

    Very enjoyable discussion! Not all of the above is aimed at you necessarily.