It has become increasingly popular of late to make use of the motif of “exile” in describing the church. (Pretend there are a bunch of links here.)
This can take a couple of forms:
(I) The church on earth is, by definition, always an exile community.
(II) Due to adverse cultural circumstances, the church becomes an exile community.
And, mediating between (I) and (II):
(IIa) The church is always an exile community, but this reality is felt especially sharply at times of cultural pressure.
I find this trend, especially in (I) and (IIa), a little worrisome, for the following reasons:
(1) The exegetical support for talking of the New Testament church by way of the “exile” motif is slender. Indeed, the only place where it may be explicitly mentioned is in 1 Peter. 1 But in that letter, the uber-accurate New American Standard Bible, for instance, uses the word “exile” not a single time in rendering the Greek. None of the other uses of “exile” in the New Testament (Acts 7.29, Acts 7.43, and Hebrews 11.13) have reference to the New Testament church.
(2) If that is the case, the word inevitably recalls the other part of the Bible, the Old Testament, where the motif of “exile” does have prominence. Why would that be troubling? Because exile in the Old Testament is punitive: it is a disciplinary measure to deal with faithlessness and idolatry. But when current commentators use the term, they use it to describe what they believe to be faithful churches. This leaves us in the awkward position of using an Old Testament punitive term to describe a community that suffers for being obedient: on the Old Testament analogy, there may well be churches that are in “exile,” but they are not the ones that are meant in this discussion. Rather, the true church is the community of those who have been brought home, the redeemed: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (Eph. 2.19).
Even (II) is perhaps not without its problems. In the “time between,” there is never a one-to-one correlation between the true church and “culture” (whatever that is, precisely) or civil society. There may be times at which the structures of the institutional church and magisterial authority are representative, broadly speaking, of the corpus Christianorum; there may be times at which the structures of one or both of these are not. But, when either of these depart from the truth, it is not the faithful who are in exile, if we wish to speak most properly, but those who depart. And, in any case, what are we saying when we say that we have been culturally exiled? We are saying that something that belongs to us by right has been taken from us. Is that how we wish to speak of cultural or constitutional order?
Likely not. Though “the earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein,” before the Great Day the sons of the Kingdom have not come into the full possession of their inheritance.
This is a tension we should not resist; but to describe it, I wonder whether we shouldn’t accent more strongly the motif of “pilgrimage”: the church militant is always in via. Though in one sense we are “no longer strangers and aliens,” in another sense, we in fact are, as Peter says. “This world is not my home/I’m just a-passin’ through,” goes the old song. 2
But we ought to remember something else: this world, transfigured, is our home. The reason it is not our home now–the reason we often experience the sensation of alienation–is due to sin. And sin is both outside of us (it takes corporate and cultural form) and within us (it takes personal form). The good news of the Gospel, however, is that God has put an end to sin in Jesus Christ, and whoever comes to him will never be cast away.
It is true that men, left to themselves, love darkness rather than light. While this may give Christians the feeling of having been driven out or cast into exile, the truth of the matter–real reality, as Schaeffer might have put it–is that the light shines regardless. God never casts his faithful away. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
We are pilgrims, then; but we are never exiles.