Why the Church Is Not in Exile: A Response to Brad East

Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

Yesterday Sojourners published my article on why Christians should stop talking about the church being in exile. My argument can be summarized and expanded as follows:

1. Unlike Israel, which is a distinct cultural community, the New Testament claims that Christians are exiled from the world as such, not from a particular culture. Christians are eschatologically distanced from the world, and this distance from every culture coincides simultaneously with Pentecost's affirmation of every culture within the scope of God's reign. The gospel for Christians does not come prepackaged with a specific language or culture but is open in principle to every context. This is what missiologists call the principle of contextualization, indigenization, translation, or inculturation (some terms are better than others, but they all get at the same point). Western Christianity lost sight of this principle in the period of Christendom, when the church established itself as a specific imperial culture. The loss of Christendom thus appears as the loss of the church when it is in fact only the loss of this church-culture amalgamation; it is the loss of the distortion of the church created by Christendom.

2. Many (predominantly U.S.) Christians today, however, claim that the church is now exiled from modern western culture, because it is no longer hospitable, in their view, with certain "Christian values" and moral norms. In order to make their case, they appeal invariably to Old Testament exile texts, such as Jeremiah 29:7. Rod Dreher is the most prominent representative of this way of thinking at the moment, but one sees this way of thinking across the board—from evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and even many mainliners. Dreher uses the language to continue and refine the culture wars, while others use it as a way of escaping from what they see as the belligerence of the old culture warriors who tried to convert American culture. Instead of the imperialism of the Religious Right, many exile-proponents advocate for a kind of separatism.

3. The problem is that imperialism and separatism are two sides of the same Christendom coin: both share the fundamental assumption that the church is a specific culture, and the goal of Christian mission is either the diffusion of this culture to other locations (imperialism) or the dissociation of the church from surrounding cultures (separatism). Either way, it involves a fundamental misunderstanding and distortion of the Christian community as presented in the New Testament, and it can only be defended by appropriating the identity of Israel and/or pining after Christendom—and usually both, since the former is the basis for the latter.

4. I argue that we need to abandon speaking about the church in exile. It contradicts the New Testament witness about the radically new reality established through Christ and his Spirit. It is complicit in the supersessionism and imperialism that characterizes Christendom. It fosters a deeply problematic and unhealthy political and ecclesial imagination, which approaches cultural difference as a threat to its purity and/or as an object of its evangelistic witness. It fosters an attitude of fear and anxiety about change in clear contrast to the biblical witness. And it produces a missionary method that is ultimately indistinguishable from colonialism. If we are going to redeem the language of exile, it has to be an eschatological exile from the world as a totality, but precisely for that reason it is an exile that allows us to embrace wherever we are placed as our home. As Pontius of Carthage wrote: “To [those outside the church], it is a severe punishment to live outside their own city; to the Christian, the whole of this world is one home. Wherefore, though he were banished into a hidden and secret place, yet, associated with the affairs of his God, he cannot regard it as an exile.”

With that summary in mind I wish to turn to the helpful response by Brad East, who raises some thoughtful and important questions that help get to the heart of the matter. I will take up each point in turn, but since they all share a common theme I will first give a general reply that should address a core point of confusion.

Brad's general critique boils down to: Isn't there some sense in which the church is distinct from society, since obviously some societies are more hospitable than others and the church has always engaged in prophetic critique and must continue to do so?

This is an excellent question that I would have liked to address in a longer article, so I will do so here. My answer is simple: What is distinct from society is not the church but rather the gospel. The church does not critique society based on society’s difference from itself, but on society’s difference from the reign of God in Jesus Christ. Criticisms like Brad's elide the distinction between church and gospel, between church and the kingdom of God. This elision is widespread in academic theology today thanks to the influence of postliberalism (see, e.g., Robert Jenson’s conflation of Christ with the church or Scot McKnight’s conflation of kingdom with the church), and I am nothing if not a resolute opponent of postliberalism in all of its forms.

A standard response at this point is to say: But if the church is supposed to be a corporate witness to this gospel and kingdom, then doesn’t that mean the church is indeed separate from the culture and could experience itself as being in exile? No. The kerygma/gospel/kingdom that identifies the norm for Christian witness and action is not itself a culture: it is not a language that tells us how to speak; it is not a law that tell us how to act in each situation; it is not a set of practices that determine how we are supposed to live. Of course Christians in any particular situation have languages, laws, and practices (among other cultural markers), but these are never directly identical with the gospel itself. These are, at their best, culturally specific forms of the gospel, but they are not the gospel itself.

What is the gospel? I don't think there is a single correct formulation, but Jesus and Paul give us a fairly clear indication when they say, in their own ways, that neighbor-love is the fulfillment of the law. What does it mean to love? That is precisely what Christians have to discover in their particular context. Christianity does not give us a “Christian worldview” or “Christian culture” that can determine in advance how people should conduct themselves in any situation. The gospel of love has to be contextualized and inculturated in each specific moment. There is no single form of the “new creation” that Christians are called to export wherever they go. The new creation is an event and mode of relation that Christians translate in myriad new ways.

Here is the crucial point: the kerygma/gospel—however we define this exactly, which is the purpose of theology to clarify—does not enter a context as an alien culture that must either colonize or remain distinct from the surrounding society, but instead it takes root within each context and establishes a local and indigenous form of love. The church, wherever it exists, is this or that culture animated by the Spirit of love. Each existence of the church—and to be clear I am not speaking about the institution of the Christian church but rather any place where people correspond to the reign of God in their embrace of the other—will be particular to that situation. Attempts to unify each instance of the church through structural forms of unity may be pragmatic efforts to achieve social change, but we cannot identify them with the Christian faith itself, and we will have to test them constantly against the norm of the kerygma to prevent their ossification.

My disagreement with postliberals is over the definition of the gospel itself. The response I typically hear is that the Christian norm is inevitably cultural, and I understand what they mean: loving the neighbor could be understood as a kind of cultural action. But I counter by saying: (a) the gospel becomes cultural in each new moment without itself becoming a culture; (b) defining the gospel as cultural necessarily makes all Christian mission colonialist, and we have to avoid this at any cost; and (c) defining the gospel as love (or as ex-centricity, solidarity with the oppressed, etc.) does not necessarily dictate in advance what this must look like for each person. Love as such is not a culture but a formal category; it becomes cultural as it gains cultural content in a particular situation. Christianity, as Rudolf Bultmann says, it not a “what” but a “how.” It is a mode of existence, but that mode can in theory take an infinite variety of forms in response to each new moment.

Having said all that, I will now respond as briefly as possible to each of Brad’s points:

  1. The “holiness” of the community depends entirely on how we define holiness. I would argue that Christ redefines holiness so that it no longer means cultural distinction (as it did for ancient Israel) but rather loving solidarity and openness to the other. It is not a centripetal separation but a centrifugal dispersion. Texts like Deuteronomy are not normative for the Christian community without being christologically and pneumatologically reconfigured.
  2. The point of this adage is simply that Christians cannot speak as if exile is something that pertains to one situation but not another. It is an absolute characteristic that applies to all situations, regardless of how hospitable a particular context seems to be.
  3. Again, for the Christian, “exile” names an absolute horizon that does not admit of relative distinction. The eschaton is qualitatively, not quantitatively, distinct from the world. Of course some situations are more or less just than another, but this doesn’t make the church more or less exiled. The church can and must call out injustice without succumbing to the temptation to view itself as a countercultural polis.
  4. I’ve already answered this above.
  5. It is entirely possible for Christians to articulate their “perpetual alienation,” but this is not what Dreher, Moore, and others do. They make it very clear that it is a specific alienation from modern western, post-Christendom culture. If they were to abandon this and articulate a perpetual exilic status—along with the corresponding claim that they are therefore at home in every culture—then I would happily commend them.
  6. To love something does not mean to embrace it uncritically. Love can be quite radically negative. I appeal here to Chesterton's notion of patriotism: to be a patriot—that is, to be one who loves one’s context—does not mean to say “my country, right or wrong,” but rather it means being ready and willing to prophetically tear down one’s country or context in light of the revolutionary inbreaking of new creation. Love is not the opposite of judgment; it is judgment oriented toward the eschatological horizon of God’s reign.

I am grateful to Brad East for pressing me on these issues, and I welcome ongoing dialogue on this important topic. While I am concerned about the language of exile, ultimately I am concerned about the conflation of the church with culture and the disastrous consequences this has for Christian life and mission. I think we share the same concern and goal, but different understandings of what this goal means and how to achieve it. I look forward to future conversations.


David, I have appreciated the challenge you offered over the past few months to the theme of exile. I think behind the theme is the attempt to come up with a biblical image that helps the church relate to what some believe to be a shift from benign or broadly supportive connection between culture and church in America to suspicion and hostility to the church. It will require from the church both a strong sense of who it is in the light of the gospel and who it shows itself to be in a culture that would prefer it to go away. My problem with the image, one to which you point us, is that it goes too far. Exile was a specific form of persecution foisted upon the Jewish people. The church in the West is hardly under persecution. In any case, I am still wrestling withj a proper image the describes the changed missional situation of the church in the West. Of course, if we want genuine examples of persecution, there are many other places in the world that present themselves.