Wisdom for a church in exile

The city of Babylon

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
For Sunday, October 13, 2013

The church of the West is a church in exile.  In Europe this has long been understood; in America the church is still coming to recognition. Where once the cultural consensus was based on a Christian worldview it is no longer.  A world governed by the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God”, as the Declaration of Independence put it, has become a world of “diversity and inclusion”.  In this new land tolerance lays moral claim to rule and is to be extended to everyone except those who would advocate for any other moral claim.  The late Chuck Colson puts it this way in his book, The Faith:

Tolerance once meant listening respectfully to all points of view, freely discussed in our common search for the truth.  But the creed for the new god of tolerance is that knowing truth is impossible.  So everyone is free to think and act as he likes, with one exception: those who have the audacity to believe that they know the truth, particularly if they think God has revealed it to them, are not tolerated.  The result is that those who crowned the new god of tolerance have become the absolute arbiters of culture.  The new god of tolerance becomes, in the guise of tolerance, an absolute tyrant.  (p.  68).

What is a church in exile to do?  In these verses the prophet Jeremiah counseled Israel in exile in Babylon as follows: “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” (Jer. 29:7).  “Welfare” is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’.  Shalom means peace and prosperity, or human flourishing.  There is some good news for us here: even in exile, the church itself can flourish and can have a positive impact on the surrounding culture.

What would this look like?  First, it would involve strong marriages and strong families.  This is why Jeremiah mentions marriage, family and homes in the preceding two verses.  Our greatest witness are our own marriages and families.  Each of our families are little embassies that desperately need to see forgiveness, love, and peace in action.

Second, it would involve prayer.    As Jeremiah says in the verse above we are not only to seek shalom but we are also to pray for the cities in which we live (… “and pray to the Lord on its behalf).  For me, this is Milwaukee.  What’s the state of my city?   56% African American unemployment; one of the most segregated cities in the country; and with the fourth worst poverty problem in the country.  What profound opportunities for prayer.

Third, it would involve work.  Jeremiah says, “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.”  What kind of work is he talking about?  Are we all to leave the trades and professions and become pastors?  No.  If we did, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fund the nonprofit work, nor would there be a redemptive influence in the trades and professions themselves.  What this does mean is that each of us should work to contribute to the common good.   It’s moving from, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,” to “how can I work today in a way that contributes to the shalom of everyone around me?”

Do you agree that the church in the West is a church in exile?  Why or why not?  If you agree, what does it mean for your local church and your own ministry as a member of it?

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About Steve Godfrey

Husband of one, Father of three, and seeker of classical Christian orthodoxy. Business Consultant, Writer, Musician. View all posts by Steve Godfrey

8 responses to “Wisdom for a church in exile

  • revthreads

    I completely agree with your comment about the church in the west being in exile, my question has to be, in the debate of marriage equality – what do you define as strong marriages and strong families? because we deny those in same sex relationships the opportunity to witness in this way, which for me goes against the call for diversity and inclusion which i believe is strongly the call of God.

    • Steve Godfrey

      Revthreads, thanks for your comment. On what grounds are you discerning God’s support for same sex marriage? To the larger point, on what grounds do we decide what is a just inclusion vs. an unjust one?

      • revthreads

        I begin always at the respect for the dignity of the whole of humanity. If we believe God created in God’s image then so to are people in same sex relationships. Jesus went to the very fringes of society and engaged with the people, he touched lepers, women, the sick – the people excluded from societal and community circles. This is an issue that we must grapple with from a perspective of love not prejudice or discrimination.

        I make the assumption that you are in the USA so we are very literally continents apart, but obviously both also part of the community of Christ in the church in exile. There is enough hatred, prejudice and discrimination in our world. The ancient and unique texts of the scriptures are living texts that need to be relevant to our world and society today and so need to address the issues that discriminate and outcast people.

        God had preference for the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden, alas there will always be areas of tension in the diverse world in which we live.

        I would still like to hear your understanding of strong marriages and families.

        Shalom

      • Steve Godfrey

        Revthreads, I agree that there is inherent dignity in each of us regardless of our sexual orientation or conduct. I also agree that Jesus went to the very fringes of society and gave real hope to the poor, vulnerable, and downtrodden (which covers us all). By strong marriages and families I had in mind the coming together of a man and woman in a way that would create a safe and nurturing place for themselves and the children their love either birthed, adopted, or fostered.

        Shalom with a fair dinkum back to you.

  • revthreads

    Steve, I figured that you meant the traditional understanding of marriage and family and I agree this is important. The perspective I am looking at is that there are many same-sex couples who would like to enter into the covenant of marriage, but are denied that opportunity. There are also many same-sex couples who have children either birthed, adopted or fostered. People in relationship either heterosexual or homosexual that are in loving relationships can provide a safe and nurturing place for themselves and children. To not include same-sex relationships, and I realise marriage for people in same sex relationships is not legal throughout the world, Australia included, as relationships and families that can be a great witness is to discount many people from being witnesses to the Kingdom of God. Children will continue to be raised in loving same-sex relationships, they will flourish and grow, so for me to discount their parents as great witnesses is to discount and devalue the children and the parents. So many people are denied the opportunity to celebrate long and loving relationships because of fear of persecution or discrimination because of their sexuality and I really believe that this is injustice. Our world is a global village, some people are still threatened with the death penalty because of their sexuality – so how do we as representatives of Christ in the world work with and alongside the people who are persecuted and discriminated against. I do understand that this is a topic of tension, but to ignore or to disregard leaves people ignorant and pre-judging. Jesus broke down barriers that separate, it cost him his life in doing so. As you probably realise I am a supporter of marriage equality because I don’t believe that people should be denied the opportunity to enter into the covenant of marriage, making a declaration before God and publicly about their love for one another and their intention to live their lives together forever.

    Shalom

    • Steve Godfrey

      Revthread,

      The problem from my reading of the Bible is that it is God who has created and defined marriage, not us. It’s more than a loving relationship. As you said, it’s a covenant. Part of what binds the covenant together is the sexual compatibility of male and female and the ability to procreate. This is something that two men or two women obviously cannot do.

      As a citizen, I support the right of same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. I believe further these relationships can indeed be loving and safe places for children. I am against denying homosexuals the right to live as their consciences dictate.

      As a Christian I must go on to say that Jesus didn’t die just to break down barriers (although he certainly did this). He died to save us from our sin, including our sexual sin (of both the hetero and homo varieties). I am a supporter of humanity. This compels me to speak the truth in love that we might together experience escape the judgment of God in the forgiveness offered through the sacrifice of his one and only Son.

      Sincerely,

      Steve

      • revthreads

        I believe that we cannot purely confine God to the bible, the bible is unique texts but have still been written by the hands of in general men. God I believe transcends any one theological understanding, scripture, tradition, reason and experience, I believe go hand in hand, each informing one another. The scriptures are a living document and I believe to apply them in their ancient form into today’s context misses the point. They are as relevant now as ever but they were written in a particular socio-historical context and this we should not forget. In Matthew Jesus basically says there should not be divorce, yet in our context we understand that it is a real need for some people who have been trapped in cycles of violence, etc. we all read scripture through a particular hermeneutical lens, but feel that all who believe in God and follow Christ do so with faith. Jesus was a Jew, without the event of Easter there is no Christianity, I often wonder would Jesus take up a denomination or rather slip in and out showing us each what we are missing?

        I do not read the scriptures literally, but respect others do and I think the biggest transformation that can happen for our church in exile is exactly this, it becomes public, people come together wherever they are respectfully grappling with the issues and concerns that affect our society today because without the respect and love we end up with extremism that denies dignity. Through discussion and openness I believe we give God the opportunity to work within.

        Shalom

      • Steve Godfrey

        Revthreads,

        I don’t read all the scriptures literally either (except for the parts that intend to be taken that way), but I do read them as being authoritative given their claim to be inspired by God. Jesus read them this way, and his resurrection for me is the linchpin both for the gospel message and for the authority of the Bible.

        I agree with you that the Bible was written for specific socio-historical contexts and that we have to understand those contexts in order to bridge from there to here in terms of interpretation and application. I also agree that Jesus would not be compatible with most of today’s denominations for one reason or another. Finally, I agree that respectful dialog is what is needed for God to work within all of us and I appreciate the opportunity to do this with you.

        Grace and peace.

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