The Christian church on earth is always, in a sense, in exile. Whatever the incidental identities of her members may be—whether of nationality, race, class, or gender—their ultimate identity is that they are in Christ and belong to him. Compared to the ephemeral categories that human cultures have created for distinguishing one from another, this foundation in Christ is absolute and final. As a result, the church never belongs to this world, but always looks to another.
Yet there are times in history when it is more dramatically obvious, and perhaps more painfully experienced, than at other times, that the church is in exile. In America, given the past cultural dominance of a form of civic Protestantism that is now vanishing rapidly, the sense of being an exile community is likely to be sharpened in the imminent future.
At the heart of this unraveling lies the politics of sexual identity. While many Christians rightly see the advent of legalized abortion as a very significant step in the legal redefinition of what it means to be a person, the coming of so-called same-sex marriage is set to have far more immediate impact upon the everyday lives of Christians.
On one level, we should note that abortion—the killing of innocents—is a more dramatic crime than two men marrying each other. The former involves evil inflicted on a victim. The second, wicked as it is, involves mutual consent and no necessary violation of an innocent third party. Thus, Roe v. Wade is without doubt a devastating blow to notions of legally protected personhood.
Yet the way in which the gay marriage debate is developing may well have a far greater impact upon the way we all live our lives than does the legalization of abortion. Most significantly, gay marriage has become the issue on which the First Amendment is now coming under incredible pressure.
First, we need to understand that the gay marriage issue is not simply about the legitimate bounds of sexual activity. Many Christians respond to accusations of singling homosexuals out for excoriation by pointing to the fact that we also object to sex between unmarried heterosexuals. That is a good argument, but it misses the full significance of the gay issue. To object to heterosexuals having sex outside of marriage is to object to an illegitimate expression of a legitimate identity. To object to gay sex, or gay marriage, is to deny the legitimacy of an identity.
This is why parallels are so easily drawn by gay activists between their demands and those of the earlier Civil Rights movement. They see their struggle as one for a fundamental identity, not one for an incidental lifestyle choice. And this is why the church is about to feel the reality of her exile.
It is one thing to believe something that the world regards as nonsense. There are plenty of Christian doctrines that fall into that category. The doctrine of the Incarnation is an obvious one. The idea that the transcendent God, who created and sustains all things, should condescend to take human flesh and dwell in space and time as a particular man is foolishness to the world. That he should die on a cross for the crimes of others is morally offensive to the natural man. That he should be resurrected and will return again is nonsense to the unbeliever. Yet Christians can hold each of these beliefs and still be considered decent and polite members of civil society.
Attitudes to gay marriage are different. The way in which society has developed on this matter has made the traditional view not simply something that looks silly to the world, but something that looks positively evil. To many, opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage is not akin to belief in the resurrection; it is akin to belief in white supremacy—a moral stance that speaks of hatred and a basically antisocial, if not criminal, mind-set.
This is why the church is beginning to feel even now the reality of her exile status. As the public square becomes more and more intolerant of any dissent or deviation on this issue, ordinary church members are already beginning to feel the pressure. For example, a Christian nurse might well be able to object to assisting at abortions and still seem to be taking an ethically principled stand, but one who refuses to participate in a gender reassignment operation might well be stigmatized as promoting hate. That is the world in which we live. And while pastors and intellectual leaders are often those who speak out and thus seem most likely to be persecuted, the most immediate and extensive discomfort will be experienced by ordinary church members who are not protected from the secular world by pulpit or library.
At times such as this, it behooves the church to think very carefully about what discipleship should look like. Exile communities living within a wider alien, and even hostile, culture need means by which to preserve their identity and keep hope alive for an ultimate return to their homeland. If they are not self-conscious about this, then the values and patterns of the host culture will over time penetrate their community and lead to their assimilation. So how are we to maintain our identity?
Maintaining Our Identity
I would suggest that the answer, at least at a foundational level, is very simple: maintain the Word, the sacraments, and discipline—the three great marks of the Reformed church. If a strong sense of identity is what provides the foundation for the passionate activism of the LGBTQ lobby, then we should learn from that: we too need to instill a strong sense of identity in ourselves and in our churches in order to stand firm in the coming years. And there is no better way to do this than to focus on the three marks.
First, there is the Word. The weekly proclamation of the Word of God is the regular declaration of the identity of God, of the identity of us as his people, and of the home to which we are destined. There is a reason why the early North American Pilgrims would hear regular sermons on providence. It was to remind them of their place in God’s scheme. We too need to make sure that the preaching from our pulpits is faithful, focused on important truths, and supported by good catechetical and pedagogical practice.
We should also remember that preaching is not simply the transmission of information from one mind to another through the medium of speech. Preaching is the mediation of God’s presence to his people. In the Word proclaimed, God presses his gospel upon our hearts by his Spirit. Luther put it dramatically when he declared that God, by his Word, kills us, resurrects us, and constitutes us once again as his risen people. We should not underestimate the power of the preached word to strengthen our identity and give us the power to stand firm. Society and the civil magistrate may have power over the body, but God has power over the soul.
Second, there are the sacraments. As human beings, we are more than just brains on sticks. We have bodies that also affect how we think and interact with others. And that is one reason why the Lord has provided us with more than his Word as a means of strengthening our identity. He has also given us the covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Particularly the Lord’s Supper is important in this regard. To share a meal with someone involves an intimacy that is not found in a mere conversation. To eat together, and to be invited to eat, as it were, with the Lord himself, is to enjoy a special privilege and indeed to find our identity as Christians strengthened and reinforced. Again, society and the civil magistrate may have power over the body, but God can use the simple elements of bread and wine, attached to his Word, to seal the gospel on our hearts and strengthen our hands for the spiritual fight, wherever it may be conducted.
Third, there is discipline. When one looks at the gay lobby, one might be forgiven for wondering how on earth it has come to exert such power over everyone’s lives. The answer is complicated, but at its heart is this: despite being only a tiny minority, it has been highly disciplined and organized. The church has sadly not been so.
I should qualify that statement. I certainly do not mean that the church should have organized itself politically in order to use worldly avenues of power and influence to impose her will. What I do mean is that discipline is necessary to cultivate a strong sense of identity. Indeed, such a sense of identity is vital to the survival and flourishing of exile communities. Part of that comes through the Word, part through the sacraments, and a vital part also through discipline. A community is defined by the beliefs and behaviors it finds tolerable and those it finds intolerable.
This in turn demands structure. Presbyterianism is well placed in this matter, given that it has a clearly laid out system of governance. Of course, systems are one thing; practical implementation is quite another. For our exile community to survive as distinctive, those in leadership must lead, make the tough decisions, and implement unpopular policies when the Word of God demands it. Leadership in a time of obvious exile is likely far more taxing than at any other point.
To these three points one can add a fourth: the cultivation of the communal language of exile in song. Whatever ways exile populations find to survive and at times even thrive in an alien host culture, their identity as exiles will be reinforced by the common language they share. For Christians, this is above all the language that we sing. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs really do set the expectations of many believers and shape our theology in profound ways.
Singing is a powerful and universal human phenomenon. When one thinks of the blues as they developed in the American South, or of the Scottish Gaelic songs that speak of lament and sorrow for lost loved ones, we are reminded of how such things set before us a vision of loss and of longing. In a time such as the present, surely it is the moment for us all to be looking to the Psalter for more of our corporate worship. The Psalms present life as it really is, blessed by God’s presence here and now, but looking forward to that time when he will call us all home.
Further, the Psalms often capture an important note: if we are set for a time of open exile even within our own worldly nation, we should remember that the exile of the people of God in Scripture was always in part a judgment upon them. As we look forward to the great future triumph that will be the marriage feast of the Lamb, we should not forget that our current difficulties are the result of human sin and, indeed, of our own sin. We should lament not simply our exile, but also the sin that has caused it. Again, the Psalms are an ideal medium for this.
No doubt there are those reading this article who find my own position to be one of cultural surrender. Should we not be taking to the streets and the ballot boxes in order to take back what is ours? It might well be that thoughtful political engagement by individual Christians will slow the tide of moral collapse in the civic sphere, or perhaps even reverse it. Our faith should indeed shape how we think and behave in the civic sphere. But I would suggest that whatever one’s eschatology or understanding of the relationship between church and state may be, the practical reality is that we must prepare at least in the short term for the social marginalization of the church and a form of cultural exile. We may disagree on long-term public strategy, but we should surely all agree on the basic practical foundations of Christian identity: Word, sacrament, discipline, and worship. These and these alone will allow us to face whatever the future may hold with resolute confidence.
The author is pastor of Cornerstone OPC in Ambler, Pa., and a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. New Horizons, June 2015.