There can be little doubt that Britain today is an increasingly secular and post-Christian society. The church, in its broadest sense, is in dramatic decline. Less than half of British people identified as ‘Christian’ in the 2021 census. All the mainstream political parties propound a progressive liberal ideology on social and sexual issues. One manifestation of this is the current government promise to introduce legislation banning so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ which many Christians fear will have the unintended effect of criminalising ordinary pastoral practice seeking to help believers who struggle with same-sex attraction.
We are no longer a Christian country in any meaningful sense and the church has little influence, let alone power. We are a marginalised minority and whilst we value the freedom of religion that is assured under the Human Rights Act there is increasing ignorance, misunderstanding and even hostility to Christian beliefs and practices. Christians are no longer seen as a blessing to society and the solution to its ills, but as part of the problem. During the Covid-19 crisis I had the opportunity to engage with government ministers and officials over the impact of the regulations on church worship and encountered overwhelming religious illiteracy at the highest level. It was obvious that the concerns of hospitality and the entertainment industry were of far greater importance than the activities of churches.
How are we to respond to these changed circumstances? Some Christians are in denial about the reality. Others have an unrealistic hope that secularism will collapse under its own contradictions and we will quickly return to the former status quo. Others have fallen into discouragement and despair.
Instead, we need to embrace the reality of our present situation and recognise that it is the normal situation for the people of God. We are being forced to face the truth that we are exiles in our own country, strangers and aliens who do not really belong here. This should not surprise us because this has been the experience of most of God’s people for most of their history.
God’s people in exile
When we look to salvation history as recorded in the Old Testament, we see that God’s people were only an independent nation under the rule of a godly king for a short period of their existence. Whether they were physically living in the Promised Land or not, they were exiles. Abraham and his family were wandering nomads in Canaan, owning nothing more than a small cave for burials. Jacob’s family were enslaved in Egypt. The elite of Judah were carted into physical exile in Babylon. Even after the return of the exiles, the Jews continued to live under oppressive foreign rule and the Davidic kingship was never restored. The diaspora Jews lived in exile in the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires.
When we come to the New Testament, we find that the faithful remnant were still longing for their redemption from exile and the fulfilment of the new covenant promises of freedom and restoration. They expected the Messiah to bring national liberation and were disillusioned with Jesus. Jesus came to announce the coming of God’s kingdom and delivered his people from sin, Satan and death, but the kingdom would only be established on earth when he returned. The church would be a world-wide multi-ethnic body of people waiting for the coming of the kingdom but living in this present evil age as exiles in the nations of the world.
Exile, therefore, is the normal situation of the people of God and we should expect it to be our primary experience until Jesus returns. Nothing has gone wrong with God’s plan. Christendom was the aberration not the norm and, in reality, the past was not a golden era of Christian triumph. The church was often corrupt and Christian morality was little more than a veneer.
Lessons from exile
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bible contains a vast wealth of resources to enable God’s people to meet the challenges of living in exile. We can learn from their experiences in exile and from the words that God spoke to them in that context. Books like Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Esther have huge relevance for us today. The New Testament letters, addressed to small communities of believers living within the Roman Empire, instruct us how to live in exile. 1 Peter is essentially a manual for exilic living.
God’s Word in these books speaks to us today and helps us to know how to navigate the challenges of exile. At least four key principles can be drawn from them.
Accept the reality of exile
We need to accept the reality of our situation as those in exile. We are not in power and therefore have to exist within, and relate to, a non-Christian culture and potentially hostile authorities. We are fragile and vulnerable. We should expect to be misunderstood, misrepresented, mocked and marginalised for our faith. We are outsiders. Jesus himself told us to expect persecution. Although we are small, we are a threat to the wider culture because we refuse to subscribe to its ideologies.
Remain faithful to God
The great challenge for us as exiles is to retain our identity as God’s people and not become assimilated to the culture to gain acceptance and avoid suffering. Daniel and his fellow exiles had to discern when they could appropriate Babylonian culture and when they had to resist it. Daniel and his friends were willing to become proficient in Babylonian wisdom, but they would not bow down to worship Babylonian gods or statues and Daniel continued to pray even when the king ordered him to stop. They were prepared to give up their lives rather than compromise their loyalty to the Lord because they were convinced that he was the one true God.
Be a blessing to the world
Exile does not mean practising disengagement from the culture in which we find ourselves. Instead, we are to seek to be a blessing to others in the place where God has put us. Daniel was a blessing to a sequence of rulers because of his administrative competence and integrity. In the same way, Joseph was a blessing to Pharaoh in Egypt and was used of God not just to save his family but also the Egyptians from famine. 1 Peter stresses the vital need for Christians to ‘do good’ as this will ultimately commend the gospel and the Lord Jesus in the eyes of the watching world. Where Christians do good and bring blessing, the experience of exile is one of simultaneous suspicion and appreciation.
Embrace the opportunity of exile
The reason that Christians are in exile is because we live in a lost world and God’s purpose is to save and rescue people from his coming judgement. Exile is exactly where we need to be to fulfil the Great Commission. Exile enables Christians to live distinctively in a way that will be evident to others. Their integrity, resilience and hope in the face of suffering may gain opportunities to testify to God. The biblical accounts of God’s people in exile record remarkable conversions and the ultimate growth of God’s people. In Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar came to recognise that the God of Israel was sovereign. When the Israelites were redeemed from their slavery in Egypt many of the Egyptians chose to join them and become members of the people of God. In Esther, when the Jews were saved from the wicked plot of Haman to exterminate them, many Persians chose to become Jews. The New Testament records how the church grew in exile as it lived a distinctive life and held on to the word of life.
It is all too easy for us to be intimidated by the situation that the church now faces in the United Kingdom. Perhaps we need to realise that this is not something new and frightening, but a return to the more normal experience of God’s people. The Bible can thoroughly equip us to meet the challenge of these times. We need to pray that we would have the confidence and courage to live as strangers and pilgrims as we make our way to the glorious kingdom of the new creation.