What does it mean to be the Church in exile?

By Rachel Baarda

(Watch for more on this topic in the Jan/Feb Faith Today!)

Less than a week before the U.S. presidential election, the presidents of EFC affiliate institutions met in Mississauga for the annual Presidents Day gathering. One of the speakers was Dr. Lee Beach, author of The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (Intervarsity Press, 2015). He asked, “As believers, how do we maintain our cultural identity in exile?” In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, this topic seems more timely than ever.untitled

Beach said that today, Canadian Christians live in a place where our story is no longer known. More surprisingly, we’re losing sight of our identity as confessing Christians. A friend of Beach’s young son saw a nativity scene, and he asked what it was. Beach contrasted this with his own childhood biblical knowledge: even before becoming a Christian, he knew some Bible stories, such as Jonah and the whale.

With so few Canadians knowing the Christian story, we are starting to lose sense of who we are. Beach drew on the example of the Israelites in the Babylonian exile. They, too, faced challenges preserving their identities in exile:

  • The Babylonians were celebrating Marduk’s victory over Yahweh. The Israelites had to decide whether they believed that Yahweh would actually be with them.
  • The Israelites had to rediscover their identity in the midst of exile.
  • They had to rediscover a community distinctively opposed to the ways of the other nation.

Beach pointed out that in an era when faith is increasingly privatized, it’s harder to be encouraged in our faith. Christian faith is seen as antagonistic to our culture, so we have to find pathways through the marginalization of our own beliefs.

How did the Israelites manage? Beach reminded his audience that in Babylon, Israelites refused to give in to the surface narrative that Marduk had beaten God. Instead, prophetic leaders spoke meaningfully into the imagination of Israel, showing them that they had a future, that God was with them and that there was a role for them to play.

Church leadership today needs to address the discouragement and doubt in the Canadian church with a prophetic imagination, said Beach. We have to cultivate hope and holiness through missional initiatives.

Beach used the example of Nehemiah’s deep commitment towards his nation and towards the purposes of the people of God, as he sought to revive the spirits of the returned exiles and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In the spirit of Nehemiah, Beach asked us to work at finding initiatives that connect with our world and culture.

After the U.S. election, which spotlighted American disaffection with established political institutions (on the Republican side of course but also on the Democrat side), Beach’s question seems even more relevant. When the world isn’t how we hoped it would be – at the political level, in general social discourse, economically or in other ways – at what point do we accept defeat and “exile?” Will we let our sense of exile leave us feeling we no longer have a role to play?

As discussion was opened to a panel, Beach’s suggestions to Christians in exile became more creative. He noted that the evangelistic strategy in 1 Peter is “almost subversive.” 1 Peter 3:1 says, “Wives…submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” Beach noted that this was a countercultural strategy in a world where husbands were expected to influence their wives’ religious beliefs, not the other way around.

In other ways, biblical followers of God co-operated with the institutions of their day, including the government. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a Persian government grant.

In the wake of America’s November 8 election, Christians around the world are thinking about how much they trust their political leaders and reflecting on experiences of living under various forms of political leadership that are unsympathetic to Christians.

Believers in all parts of the world need to continue to find ways of living as citizens in exile who can still bring good to the societies we live in. As David Wells of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada said at Lee Beach’s panel discussion, “Jesus was the ultimate dual citizen.” We can follow his pattern of living a holy life imbued with vision and purpose, even while living in a religiously foreign culture.

Rachel Baarda of Toronto co-ordinates social media for the EFC. Watch for an upcoming essay on exile by Lee Beach in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the EFC magazine Faith Today. Subscribe now so you won’t miss it!

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