In my Church History I course, we’re currently focused on the first few centuries of Christian history–a time when the status and security of early believers was anything but secure. Surrounded by a hostile Roman Empire that neither understood or appreciated them, Christians of the first century were the subject of disgust and disdain. Rumors about them were spread impugning the Faith and Christians were sporadically persecuted and harassed. Some even paid the ultimate price of martyrdom.
During the Church’s infancy, Christian believers had little trouble remembering some of what we have forgotten. In words made immortal in the book of I Peter, we are told the following:
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2:11-12)
Exiles. Foreigners. Christians are, in other words, not about what the world around them is about. There is a difference. Yet it is a difference that many in the Church forgot when, less than a generation after the fiercest Roman persecution ended, the Emperor Constantine himself because a Christian. The Empire–and the lives of the faithful–changed forever. In the centuries following, at least in the West, the line between the ways of the world and the ways of God were much less clear.
Yet in many ways we in the modern West now understand the exilic perspective of Christianity better than any generation since Constantine. Christian exclusivity garners disdain, just as it did during Roman times. Religious syncretism in various forms is a pervasive tendency. The Church is derided (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) for being ignorant, hateful, and vile. Once again, we realize we are exiles…and maybe, just maybe, we’ve been exiles the whole time.
Consider: the continued removal of the veneer of “Christianness” from our society might actually be a good thing. After all, do we really want “In God We Trust” plastered on our money? Is this even true? Has it ever been? Do we want our politicians saying “God bless America” if they don’t even mean it? Do God and politics ever mix? As old and faulty assumptions fade, the distinctions the Scripture has no problem drawing may become a little clearer for all of us. In the process it just might help us to lives our lives a little more humbly.
Like the early believers, we might then spend less time trying to maintain society’s adherence to the outward trappings we often assume are necessary, and more time as Christian witnesses, apologists, and servants in a world that will never be our home.
There are a host of issues a perspective like this raises…but surely it is worth considering, no?