At Redeemer, we know God has called us to be His family in the world we live in. But what exactly does that mean, how are we to interact with the world? There are some Christians who are known for wagging their fingers at the evils of society, reflecting their own self-righteousness instead of God’s character. Then there are other Christians who seem to be indistinguishable from those who aren’t believers around them, reflecting the world around them instead of God’s character. Jesus had a problem with both of these approaches and offended both of these groups of people. So how ought we to act, then?
There are some helpful biblical categories to frame this conversation, taken from the book of Jeremiah. Here’s the context for these verses: the nation of Israel has been obliterated, and the people have been taken captive by the oppressors. They are somewhat benevolent oppressors (the Israelites don’t become slaves) but oppressors nonetheless. They were also very different, specifically this: they didn’t worship the same God Israel did. These verses are God’s words to these Israelite refugees, telling them how to properly be the people of God in a place that isn’t their home.
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.
They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
There are two main tendencies for exiles or refugees, as they seek the easiest ways to live: license and legalism.
The first, license, is complete acceptance, to completely assimilate to the culture. One doesn’t have to think very hard to imagine why assimilating to the surrounding culture would be advantageous or easier for an Israelite. You were just conquered, you’re in a place that’s not your home, you are now surrounded by people who don’t worship the same God you do, the temptation would be strong to be just like them (this was even a strong temptation for Israel to be “just like other nations” even when they had their own). But God tells them He brought them into exile, and also that He cares for them. They are still His people, He still has plans for them. They ought to act like his people regardless of where they are.
The second tendency, legalism, is complete rejection, to completely reject the culture. The “prophets and diviners” God is referring to are Israel’s own religious leaders telling Israel to not worry, circle the wagons, wait it out, we’re going home soon. They were the fundamentalists of the day. They were encouraging the people of God to completely reject their culture and not interact with it. God says this is just not true, they’re speaking lies in my name, don’t listen to them, they aren’t from me.
As the people of God are living in our own form of exile, not at home yet, these are tendencies we fall into as well as we try to live out our faith in a world that doesn’t worship the same God. License means choosing to reflect the cultural norms around you instead of reflecting the story of the gospel. A church with a license culture doesn’t have any hope to offer others outside (or since for that matter) because their hope is set on the same things.
Legalism means choosing to reflect one’s own self-righteousness above the true story of the gospel. A church with a legalistic culture doesn’t have any hope to offer, either, as the hope is set within the group getting everything right (and we all know that never really works out).
License and legalism makes life easier because it doesn’t require us to confront anything (either in the culture or in our hearts), it doesn’t require thoughtfulness and understanding, it doesn’t ask very much of us and allows us to stay the same. In both cases, we lose our identity as God’s people.
God calls us to a third way. His third way is meant to call us to worship Him while embracing aspects of the culture and help to cultivate it. This is much harder that the other two options and requires thoughtfulness, understanding, knowledge of the Bible, time, indeed God Himself (hence the call to prayer).
We are God’s people, and that means we are set apart, but we are not meant to live as if we’re temporarily here, we “build houses” and “plant gardens”. This means many seasons, years. We are to have weddings, carry on in normal life, multiplying ourselves, growing healthy families. And, most notably, we are to seek the “peace and prosperity of the city”. License tells us to reflect the city, legalism tells us to damn the city, God tells us to seek its peace. And in its peace God tells us we find our own. If you are interested in success, our success as the people of God is to seek the city succeed. We are to pray for it, to ask God to work His supernatural power for its good. We are interconnected to this place that God has called us to in intricate and intimate ways.
Our task as God’s people is to cultivate the culture around us. That means Redeemer’s task is to help cultivate the culture in Chorlton and in Manchester. Exactly how we are called to do that takes time to develop and unearth, but that’s our guide. We are to be sorry for where we are Christians of license or legalism, ask forgiveness from God and others, then as we realign ourselves with God’s mission, pray for the peace and prosperity of our city.