Is the church in the post-Christian West in exile?

Is “exile” a good word for the state of the church in the post-Christian West? The metaphor is commonly used, especially by those who see some missional potential in the marginalisation (another spatial metaphor) of the modern church. See, for example, Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. John Goldingay, however, has reservations:

We are not in exile; we are simply people who have been outvoted, literally and/or metaphorically. Exile happens to people who are not citizens and not members of imperial powers. We can’t use the image of exile to let ourselves off the hook of responsibility for the violence our nations undertake. Further, it’s surely not the case that most Christians see themselves as increasingly on the edge, at odds with the empire, or in exile from their culture – you might even suggest that the problem lies in our not seeing ourselves thus. I don’t think that most Christians in (say) Uganda or the United States think in that way. Further, while Europe and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are post-Christian, most of Africa and the rest of the colonial/postcolonial world are not, and neither is the United States (which is of course a postcolonial entity, with the appropriate love-hate relationship with its European forebears). In the United States, I like to say we are living in the time of Josiah, not the exile.1

Michael Bird, who is the source for the Goldingay quote, also references recent debates in Australia about the cultural exile of the church.

Goldingay has a particular set of concerns in view: the political responsibilities of Christians in the post-imperial West and the tendency to overlook the strength of the global church. But the title of the essay suggests that he is also taking “exile” as a biblical motif, and his critique makes me wonder just how the narrative frames the crisis faced by the post-Christian church in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

Throughout the biblical-historical narrative the people of YHWH has gone through a number of difficult transitions.

The Israelite tribes underwent an exodus from Egypt—a mass departure from exploitation as a migrant work force. The journey took 40 years, the people endured many setbacks and much suffering, but eventually they took possession of the land which God had promised to the patriarchs.

Things did not go as well for them in the land as was hoped, and in the sixth century Israel was forcibly removed from the land and taken into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah wrote advising the exiles not to expect an early rescue and to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon for their own sakes—this is not a missional text. The journey back to the land, some 70 years later, was a second exodus.

The next difficult transition was the imposition of Greek and Roman control—culturally, religiously and politically—over Israel in the second and first centuries before Christ. By the time we get to Jesus we see a nation struggling to preserve its distinctive identity as the people of YHWH after years of Hellenization and subjugation by Rome.

(A significant number of Jews were living in the wider world as part of the diaspora or dispersal—not an exile but a sort of outreach to the nations that would prefigure the mission of the early church.)

This process culminated in the destruction of national Israel in AD 70, but Jesus of Nazareth had established a narrow and hazardous path of escape leading to a new future for the people of YHWH. His followers had to make another difficult transition, by a way of persecution and opposition, to the life of the age to come.

This journey led them into the Greek-Roman world, where the conviction took shape and hardened that sooner or later YHWH would judge the whole pagan system and that the people who believed that YHWH had raised his Son from the dead, etc., would inherit the nations. The followers of Jesus became a priestly-prophetic people, serving the interests of the one true living creator God, in the formerly pagan empire.

So the biblical story presents us with a number of different transitions: exodus from a powerful foreign country, exile into a powerful foreign country, subjugation by a pagan imperial force, escape from invasion and destruction, dispersal amongst the pagan nations, inheritance of the nations, which ultimately was the coming of the kingdom of God.

Does the current difficult transition that the Western church is going through match any of these biblical transitions? A people in exile desires or expects to return home. Do we imagine that we will return—a second exodus from captivity—to that place of prominence and authority that we had under Christendom? Dispersal resonates in the same way that exile does, but biblically the churches were dispersed for the sake of the eventual annexation of the empire by Israel’s God.

On the above reading of the story, the better metaphor would be disinheritance. The early churches scattered across Asia Minor and Europe eventually inherited the Greek-Roman world. Christ displaced Caesar as Son of God. The churches displaced the pagan priests.

Most of Christian history later, the wheel of fortune turned again. Christ was displaced by Reason. The Church was replaced by scientists and philosophers and technologists and artists. Our inheritance has been taken away from us. We have been disinherited.

The exportation of Christianity to the European empires certainly extended the reach of the European churches, and perhaps for now Christianity should be regarded as a successful global rather than a failing Western religion. But for how long? Do we have any reason to think that the global church will do a better job than the European church of resisting the forces of secularism?

I don’t know. But either way, the post-Christian church in the West—including increasingly the American church—has to work out how to negotiate the current difficult transition of disinheritance. Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Loosely applied, the “exile” metaphor undoubtedly captures something of the experience of the disinherited church, but paradoxically we are both still here—Goldingay’s point—and we are not going back. A more fundamental narrative rethink is needed.

  • 1J. Goldingay, “Four Reflections on Isaiah and Imperial Context,” in Isaiah and Imperial Context, eds. Andrew Abernethy et al (Pickwick, 2013), 211.

I played with the terms a little bit to make them all start with “e:”
 — Exodus
 — Exile
 — Enslavement
 — Expulsion
 — Enheritance (this is the UK spelling of “inheritance,” right?)

Anyway, I like the disinheritance metaphor because it does a good job of placing us beyond the biblical story by and large. It forces us to see our own experiences as a new turn of the historical wheel instead of an extension of, say, the first century believers.

Having said that, I also find a lot of resonance in the dispersal metaphor. I sort of see an implosion of sorts when it comes to Christianity in the West, and when it has been reduced to its relative minimum, perhaps the dispersal paradigm will have more relevance.

Anyway, I like the disinheritance metaphor because it does a good job of placing us beyond the biblical story by and large. It forces us to see our own experiences as a new turn of the historical wheel instead of an extension of, say, the first century believers.

Yes, I think that is the key point. We have to deal with the historical particularity and uniqueness of our situation. This is why we need some manner of prophetic vision. Even more than we need alliteration.

You are looking at it only from a kingdom on earth perspective. The kingdom of heaven has been growing from the rock cut out without hands into a mountain ever since Pentecost. You have also forgotten that Jesus said the road to life would be narrow. It will always be narrow. It will never be the road the majority travels.

D.C., thanks for the comment. I understand push-back, but my argument is that popular theology has somewhat misconstrued the kingdom of God concept. The kingdom of God in scripture is always worked out at the level of the “political” or historical existence of the people of God in the midst of the nations, generally with regard to conflict between the people of God and the nations.

But there is a big question about how and when YHWH in heaven will get his way on earth with regard to the situation of his people. How and when will the kingdom come? How and when will the situation be rectified?

The central point in the New Testament, I suggest, is that the historical crisis facing first century Israel is resolved through the obedience, suffering, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. New Testament apocalyptic brings into view the earthly climax of that resolution—the confession by the pagan nations that Jesus is Lord.

I don’t think we do justice to the realism of the scriptures if we speak of the reign of God as an imaginary—or even spiritual—expansion from Pentecost onwards. I certainly don’t think we will grasp the seriousness of the current crisis if we work with an abstract theological notion of kingdom.

Given the current crisis of disinheritance/irrelevance do you see anything in the previous crises that we can draw on as we seek ways forward now? In other words could we look at the way through the eschatological crisis Jesus proposed for strategies to help us chart a path through the one we face?

The analogy that I have given most thought to is with the early churches in the pagan world. Not because I think we are heading for the same outcome—the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. But because I think that “faith” in the context of, say, Paul’s writings was not personal faith in Jesus but faith in God’s future.

Our future is different—indeed, we don’t have much of an idea what it will look like, if we have one at all! But we are in exactly the same situation as the churches in Rome—we believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead, that this has profound repercussions for our situation in the world, and that eventually we will be justified or vindicated for that faith. That does not need to be imagined in naive or triumphalist terms. The challenge is to imagine a plausible future for a priestly-prophetic people of the creator God in what may be an increasingly difficult secular future.

This is sort of how I read Romans—see The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

Could we say that the Sermon on the Mount is a kind of manifesto — in light of the coming judgement it is these kinds of people — the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who love their enemies, the merciful etc. that will survive. And could we say that it is these kinds of people who will always be vindicated in times of judgement and renewal. And out of this we can create vision for the present crisis?

Yes, as long as we understand that our future may not be the same as the future that Jesus promised to the meek, etc., when he said that they would inherit the land/earth. I have usually tried to argue that the Beatitudes are not a general statement about what it means to be Christian—that they belong to a particular historical/eschatological context. The sermon on the mount is aimed strictly at first century Judaism. But they are relevant to our situation at least by analogy. As long as we don’t lose sight of the historical narrative that connects us with the circumstances of the early disciples—a narrative which includes the rise and fall of Christendom—then I think we can certainly say that it is “these kinds of people who will always be vindicated in times of judgement and renewal”.