Steve McAlpine, of the Australian branch of The Gospel Coalition, has penned a piece on the reality of exile for the church in the Western world. It is full of astute cultural observation and, as a bonus, is a delightfully fun read.
As a cultural commentary it is very perceptive, but it should be noted, in both the British Empire and United States, the decline did not happen overnight; there is a long history of cultural decline that dates back to the beginning of the last century. In the United States, conservative evangelicalism has been a cultural minority (albeit a fairly large one) since at least the breakup of Protestantism into fundamentalist and modernist camps at the end of the Progressive Era. In the British Empire, the decline of Christian culture happened around the same time, but for a slightly different reason: the Great War (and ironically a conflict championed by protestants across the pond in the culmination of the Progressive Era) was a complete disaster. As Peter Hitchens has pointed out in Rage Against God, most of the men who formed the bulwark of Christian culture in the British Empire were among the first to enlist, and by the war’s end, few remained. Such was the great catastrophe that began the last chapter in the history of Christendom. It should come as no surprise that the Christian faith precipitously declined in the British Empire, with the church bereft of men who were willing or able to combat secularism. For the British Empire, disaster was heaped upon disaster.
In the United States, it has seemed to be the opposite. To borrow from Cotton Mather, “Faithfulness begat prosperity, and the daughter consumed the mother.” The 20th Century was the American Century, and spiritual decline, at least in terms of Christian culture, has seemed to be in direct proportion to our nation’s success. America is the world’s lone economic, military, political, and cultural hegemon. All nations convert their money into Dollars to trade, our military is the most expensive and has a presence in every time zone across the globe, the kings of the earth almost universally seek the friendship of our rulers, and missionaries travel to remote, jungle tribes to find that while they don’t know who Jesus is, they are familiar with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ask why this is, and most Americans, even most American Christians will reply to the effect of “We have gotten this wealth by our own hand, and these horses and chariots will protect us.” If the rest of western Christendom is Israel, the American church is Judah. We have followed the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat. And we have indeed been taken away to exile. Perhaps, as McAlpine points out, we have been in exile for some time.
McAlpine writes about “Stage One Exile” which is the last twenty years, where the church has attempted to engage culture (and without much success). In Stage One Exile, the culture generally just ignores the church. To the larger culture they are merely annoying, but well-meaning Bible-bangers. He says we are now entering into “Stage Two Exile” in which culture is more actively hostile to Christians, and instead of tapping these good-natured-but-oboxious religious freaks on the head, the culture now openly scorns them.
This is particularly insightful. We aren’t going to “nice” anybody into the kingdom anymore (if we ever could to begin with). We just haven’t noticed because the vestiges of Christian culture have remained. Unbelievers used to mow their lawn, pay their taxes, and help old ladies cross the street, too. Now they make death threats against pizzeria owners who live like they believe in Jesus. Christianity has been a minority culture for decades. It is only now that transgressive, militant secularism seems to be the majority culture in the United States.
Now it seems that unbelievers are actually the way the Bible describes them. That is why McAlpine’s point, that “we assumed a neutral culture not a hostile world,” as well as the reception that this article has received in the Reformed (classic Protestant, Calvinist) world, is especially heartening. It seems the guys who are Reformed soteriologically are beginning to allow their Calvinist heritage to influence how they view culture. Unbelievers are not neutral religious consumers that we compete for in a religious marketplace. They are hostile to the faith and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The fact is they have always been that way, even if we were unable or unwilling to recognize it.
If Stage Two Exile is good for anything, it will be forcing preachers to admit that it is not the power of our niceness, our sensitivity, nor our persuasiveness, but it is the power of the Word of God and His Spirit that ultimately moves unbelievers and unbelieving culture into faith. Far too often well-known preachers have either completely stopped addressing cultural issues from the pulpit or when they do, they are couched with such softening rhetoric that you might come away thinking that chopping up little babies or a man using another man’s anus as a sex organ wasn’t really that big a deal to God.
When Louis Giglio’s invitation to pray at President Obama’s inauguration was revoked after it had been discovered he once described homosexuality as a sin, most of the reaction was to the obvious open hostility toward biblical Christianity (what McAlpine would describe as Stage Two Exile). This might even be the point at which head-patting of do-gooders (Stage One) was transformed to hatred (Stage Two). What no one reacted to was the fact that the offending sermon was preached almost twenty years prior. That’s right, Giglio had not preached on homosexuality, one of the most relevant cultural issues facing the church and nation, for nearly twenty years!
While Giglio seemed to refuse to address controversial cultural issues on the one hand, others in Stage One did address them albeit with all the firmness of a styrofoam plate of Jell-o. What drove the squishiness of cultural engagement of men like Timothy J. Keller, church planter and pastor, in Stage One? While obviously only Keller himself can really give us an answer, it seems to be a refusal to be “unnecessarily offensive.” This jibes with McAlpine’s view that we assumed the culture “was like Athens” when it is “really more like Babylon.” The assumption was that if we were just friendly enough, if we tip-toed around things like “sin,” if we showed the reasonableness of faith in Jesus, that that was enough to win souls. We forgot, even as five-point Calvinists, that the Bible says that unbelievers are in rebellion against God and every part of them, including (and especially their minds), is depraved.
If anything, Stage Two is a backhanded blessing. The veneer of reasonable Christian-ness has worn off of unbelieving culture and it has become obvious they are what the Bible has always said they are. Based on Keller’s recent and much firmer stance on homosexuality, he has come to grips with this. The nations won’t be won by pussy-footing in the name of “not being unnecessarily offensive,” but by preaching the Word of God, whether or not we become a reproach before all people. And while it is an appropriate concern to not be unnecessarily offensive, given the fact that many if not most of America’s pulpits are filled with men with all the courage of bedwetting kindergarteners, this is like telling firefighters not to use too much water because the furniture might get a bit mildewy. The most pressing need of the church today is preachers who would rather die than shackle the Word of God. When the church prefers men who preach with boldness instead of prattlers who preach inoffensive wine and drink, reformation will come.
To that end, the main problem with McAlpine’s article is not that he is not correct about what he sees in the culture, but rather to what end God has brought us into exile to begin with. Based upon his reference to McKnight and his conclusion, he has an anabaptist approach to culture. If you read the article, you are left with a sense of hopelessness, or at best a gnostic hope in an otherworldly salvation. But that is not the picture the Bible gives of exile. Exiles, whether they are in Egypt, Gath, a great fish, Babylon, or Rome, all had hope, not just in going to heaven when they die, but that God’s kingdom would come to this physical world. Our exile is no different. We are not called to withdraw and wait until we die. Christianity is not a suicide cult. Instead we must sing Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 and know that Christ’s rule becoming manifest over the whole creation is a reality:
1 The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2 The Lord sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
3 Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
4 The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will execute judgment among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
over the wide earth.
7 He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.
1 O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings[b]
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Before you say that what is being described in Psalms 8 & 110 is what Jesus accomplished on the cross in our salvation and is therefore already complete, you need to understand that that is not what the Apostle Paul taught.
1 Cor. 15:24-27
24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
And again, if we grant that Paul authored the Epistle to the Hebrews:
6 It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him
The reign of Jesus Christ in this physical world is a reality. When His people go into exile, it is a refining furnace to prepare them for dominion. The church will no longer be able to remain the same. The dross of seeker-sensitivity and cultural withdrawal must be burned away. Let us pray the refined gold of the kind of boldness that preaches the Word out of season will remain. It is our culture’s only hope. Yes, Christendom is dead, but Christendom will be raised from the dead.