I don’t know how I missed it.
But it came clearly to mind as I read pages 182-189 of my book du jour, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story, by Michael W. Goheen (Baker Academic, 2011).
Throughout the years since graduate study, I’ve been deeply enchanted with the New Testament letter of 1 Peter. I’ve studied it, preached it again and again, taught it, written on it. And I’m still learning it!
“Is there an image of the church,” asks Dr. Goheen, “that enables us to understand our missional identity in such a perilous social context?” Answer? Yes! “The primary theme of Peter’s epistle is how the Christian church can live faithfully in a non-Christian environment.”
So far, so good.
But what until now I have dubbed “living as a resident-alien” must be reversed: a Christian is being called and equipped by the gospel for “living as an alien-resident.” Everything hinges on the hyphen, and on the sequence!
Lose the hyphen between alien-resident, and we’ll be tempted to choose for one status or the other. Many Christians emphasize alienation between the church and the world with its culture, in response to which other Christians emphasize participation and virtual identification between the church and the world with its surrounding culture. A privatized religion quarantined in the church is one way of surrendering to the temptation, while a syncretized religion accommodated to the surrounding culture is another.
But once again, this is a false dilemma, a bad choice, a pernicious dualism (which absolutizes a duality).
Ignore the sequence of alien-resident, and we’ll miss a truth for which Jesus Christ died: one day, soon, the first status (alienation) will dissolve, but the second status (resident) will be established! Christian salvation does not consist of an exodus from creation, out of history, and away from human living. Rather, Christian salvation equips believers already now for participation in the gospel-renovated creation, in God’s gospel-driven history, and in comprehensive gospel-saturated human living.
Put 1 Peter together with Jeremiah 29.4-7 (“seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile”), and here’s what you get:
We are obligated, then, to seek the welfare of our cultural setting, involving ourselves in the various cultural and social institutions of our place as we participate in the cultural task. This means that the church’s witness will move beyond the church as a communal gathering. . . . Christians [are] to live as critical participants (Goheen, 185; italics original).
Well now, as part of clarifying the relationship between Christianity and culture in our generation, we may be delivered from the destructive myth that to live as a pilgrim church exempts us from participating in surrounding culture as Christians.
Pilgrimage is not the alternative to cultural participation. Pilgrimage is the manner of Christian cultural participation.