Conservative American Christians seem to feel culturally adrift and morally isolated today in ways they have never before experienced. While each generation needs to be careful about exaggerating the magnitude of its own challenges, certain moral sentiments have shifted markedly in a short period of time, in ways that raise difficult questions for Christians seeking to understand their place in civil society and their responsibilities within it.
This article does not analyze these recent cultural shifts, but reflects more broadly on how Christians should understand their identity in the world. Scripture indicates that the discomfort and homelessness that many American Christians now feel is in fact the ordinary and expected state of affairs. This is sobering, but it is heartening to know that Scripture prepares us for these circumstances, providing theological perspective and guidance for faithful life in our changing societies.
How does Scripture describe Christians’ place in society? First Peter 2:11 presents two important concepts: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Peter’s terminology is worthy of special attention since 1 Peter 2 as a whole addresses matters pertinent to American Christians’ concern about society’s changing moral ethos: the nature of the church, opposition from unbelievers, the legitimacy of authority structures, and suffering for righteousness’ sake. In this context, Peter instructs Christians to think of themselves as sojourners and exiles. Both concepts draw upon a rich Old Testament background.
A sojourner is one who has temporary residence in a place, but no permanent home. In the Old Testament, Abraham and his family were the paradigmatic sojourners (Gen. 12:10; 15:13; 20:1; 21:34; 23:4). God set apart Abraham’s house by establishing the covenant of grace with him (Gen. 15; 17), but he did not command separation from his pagan neighbors in the common affairs of this world. Even while giving up idols and clinging by faith to the true God, Abraham remained an active participant in the broader cultural life of the cities in which he wandered. He joined a military campaign (allied with Sodom and Gomorrah!) (Gen. 14), participated in legal proceedings initiated by Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 20), entered into a civil covenant with Abimelech (Gen. 21:22–34), and engaged in a real estate transaction (Gen. 23). Abraham had no permanent home in these regions, yet was involved in their affairs.
Exile is a similar concept in important respects. Exiles are people banished from their homeland and compelled to live in foreign places. In the Old Testament, the people of Judah taken into Babylonian captivity were the paradigmatic exiles, and Peter directs his readers to their experience as well. Jeremiah wrote a letter to some of the early exiles, providing perspective and instruction about how to live in Babylon. The prophet encouraged them to continue pursuing the ordinary things of life in exile: building houses, planting gardens, getting married, and having children (Jer. 29:5–6). He also exhorted them to “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” (29:7). This is remarkable: Jeremiah urged them to promote the welfare of the arrogant pagan city that was destroying Jerusalem. Now their own fortunes were tied to the political and economic fortunes of their host city. But at the same time they needed to remember that Babylon was only a place of exile, not a new homeland, for Jeremiah proceeded to prophesy that God would end their exile and bring them back to Jerusalem after seventy years (29:10–14). Like Abraham the sojourner, the exiles were to be active participants in the affairs of their city of residence without embracing the religion of their pagan neighbors or mistaking this city for their permanent home. Daniel and his three friends exemplified this sort of life (Dan. 1–6).
Given this Old Testament background, what does Peter communicate by calling New Testament Christians “sojourners and exiles”? Obviously our situation is not absolutely identical to that of the sojourners and exiles of old. We who live on this side of Christ’s cross and resurrection enjoy the Spirit’s redemptive blessings in much greater measure than did the Old Testament saints. One privilege the church has that Abraham’s household and the Israelite exiles lacked is God’s call to be a missionary community by actively inviting unbelievers to join us.
Despite these and other differences, Peter indicates that our similarities are profound. Perhaps at the most basic level, Christians, as sojourners and exiles, should view their societies as places of temporary residence, not as permanent homes. Believers have a homeland, but it has no earthly address. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), and we are looking for a city that is to come (Heb. 13:14). As with Abraham, our “homeland” is “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:14, 16). John Calvin asked, “If heaven is our country, what can earth be but a place of exile?” (Institutes, 3.9.4). Yet Peter’s terminology also suggests that Christians should be active participants in their communities of exile, promoting their welfare without mistaking them for “the city that has foundations” (Heb. 11:10).
In the rest of this article, I offer four reflections upon our Christian identity as sojourners and exiles that ought to be encouraging in our own time.
First, we may have great confidence in God’s providential government of our exilic societies. Our communities would not exist at all were it not for the covenant of common grace that God established with Noah after the great flood (Gen. 8:21–9:17). In this covenant, God addressed all human beings (9:9, 12)—along with all living creatures (9:10, 12, 15–17), the earth (8:21; 9:13), and the cosmic order (8:22)—and promised to preserve them for as long as “the earth remains” (8:22). God’s common grace preservation entails the basic maintenance of human society. He blesses human procreation (9:1, 7), provides food (9:3–4), and commissions the pursuit of justice (9:5–6). Thanks to this covenant, Christian sojourners may view their earthly societies as legitimate and God-ordained, while at the same time temporary, rather than permanent. Gerar, Babylon, Rome, and the United States have all existed under Noah’s rainbow, serving God’s providential purposes while being “like a drop from a bucket” and “as the dust on the scales” (Isa. 40:15). God superintends the rise and fall of nations (Isa. 40:22–24).
Second, our identity as sojourners and exiles reminds us that historical circumstances change drastically from time to time and place to place, and thus provides a proper perspective on our own situation. In his sojourns, Abraham had to deal with both the king of Sodom and the king of Gerar, rulers of two very different cities. The former was so wicked that God made it a type of the final judgment (Gen. 19:1–29; cf. Luke 17:28–30), while Genesis 20 presents the latter as a place of surprising propriety and justice. Today God calls Christians, having no earthly homeland, to live in a variety of places and circumstances. American Christians have long enjoyed extraordinary privileges and opportunities, but Scripture never guarantees their indefinite continuance. While they continue, we should be very thankful people, especially when we consider what our fellow believers now face in Syria or North Korea, for example. How shameful it is that conservative Christians so often gripe and complain about the state of America, rather than express gratitude for having so many temporal blessings that most Christians throughout history have lacked.
Third, our identity as sojourners and exiles reminds us of important differences between our ecclesiastical and civil associations. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exhorts the church to discipline an unrepentant sexually immoral person, but then immediately distinguishes ecclesiastical from civil relationships: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler” (5:9–11). The church must maintain its merciful discipline in the midst of cultural moral change in its cities of exile—as Peter said, “as sojourners and exiles” we must “abstain from the passions of the flesh” (1 Peter 2:11)—but Christians are not therefore to shun association in civil affairs with their non-Christian neighbors who fall into such sins.
Finally, our identity as sojourners and exiles encourages us to pursue excellence in our vocations and strive to bless our neighbors, albeit with modest expectations. Jeremiah urged the Israelite exiles to take up a variety of occupations and to seek the welfare of Babylon, while simultaneously reminding them that Babylon would remain Babylon, and that in seventy years they would leave Babylon for Jerusalem. In similar fashion, God calls New Testament Christians to work hard (1 Thess. 4:11–12; 2 Thess. 3:6–12) and to work well—for Christ’s sake (Col. 3:23), God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31), and our neighbors’ good (Gal. 6:10), even enjoying our labor as its own reward (Eccl. 5:18–19). But God does not promise how or in what measure we will see fruit from our work. Whether the outward signs are encouraging or discouraging, and whether our ambient social ethos is improving or worsening, we labor on as faithful exiles, confident that the all-wise God will prosper the work of our hands as he sees fit.
The author, an OP minister, is a professor at Westminster Seminary California. New Horizons, June 2015.