A Tale of Two Cities
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
This passage – it is frequently averred – gives a clear mandate for Christians to engage economically, culturally and politically in their cities. (And a mandate for focusing upon cities as opposed to the suburbs or more rural settings.) I’m not sure this is quite right though. The whole basis of the ‘marry, settle, get jobs’ command was not primarily so the city would be blessed, but so the remnant of Israel would be blessed. The focus – as throughout the OT – is relentlessly on the preservation of the people of God. I don’t think Jeremiah 29 is so much about mission as it is about living in a way that maximises the survival chances for the people of God. Of course, the city does get blessed because of the presence of the people of God, but that is not the primary goal. In fact, the end plan is not that Babylon will be blessed, but that it will be destroyed (Jer 50 – 51).
I think something similar is going on in the stories of Joseph, Daniel and Esther, which also often get used as supporting evidence for Christian cultural engagement. “These followers of YHWH,” so the argument runs, “Brought the blessing of YHWH into pagan cultures, and we should do the same.” Yes. But.
Look at the stories…
Joseph set plans in motion that averted mass starvation during a terrible famine, but what he actually did for the Egyptians was not liberate them but (in an ironic pre-figuring of what would later happen to Israel in Egypt) enslave them, by removing them to the cities (interesting!) and handing their land over to Pharaoh (Gen 47). By contrast, the people of Israel “gained possessions” in Egypt (Gen 47:27). They were freed, while the Egyptians were enslaved. The focus of the story is clear – blessing for God’s people is the goal, not blessing for the pagans.
Daniel faithfully served under various pagan kings and so is an example for us of how to serve God faithfully while serving those who do not acknowledge God. But again the focus is clear – Daniel’s concern is the consolation of Israel, not the blessing of the nations, as is plain from his great intercessory prayer in Daniel 9.
And then there is Esther, where the story is by no means about gaining cultural influence but simply about the preservation of the people of God; which is why the story climaxes with the Jews getting vengeance on their enemies, killing 75,000 of them (Est 9:16) – a part of the story that Christian preachers are in the habit of neglecting.
Of course, there are clear OT references supporting mission to the nations. In telling this story I would make a beeline for God’s calling of Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3) and then work it out from there. But in emphasizing the roots of our mission to the nations we shouldn’t construct a theology of cultural engagement that isn’t really supported by the texts we are quoting. Instead, we need to be clear about the incredible value God places on his people and what that clearly means: That we cannot have an accurate missiology without a thoroughgoing ecclesiology. The church really matters! The whole story is about God saving and preserving a people for himself. Jesus died for a bride!
Moreover, we won’t get our ecclesiology right if we don’t get our Christology right, because the people of God get their value from their Saviour: “The builder of a house has more honour than the house itself” (Heb 3:3).
All of which means that there is continual dynamic interaction between Christology, ecclesiology and missiology. The Church is not at the heart of God, she is the heart of God (Eph 1) so there is no way we can see Christ without seeing his church – meaning there is no missiology without ecclesiology. Our missiology should be an outworking of our Christological ecclesiology! This is why having spelt out the place of the church in Ephesians 1-4 Paul then goes on to describe how we are meant to live (Eph 5:11ff), which is itself a missiological act, as the witness of the church in the way the community lives is what demonstrates the reality of Christ. (Thanks to Steve Timmis for helping clarify this for me.) So what we see is a dynamic, (we could call it Trinitarian) relationship between Christology, ecclesiology and missiology. To use creedal, Trinitarian language, ecclesiology proceeds from Christology, and missiology proceeds from Christology and ecclesiology.
If we get this right we should be propelled into mission to the nations and we should find ourselves culturally engaged, but we will avoid the pitfalls Christians have so often made of forgetting the place and purpose of the Church. The point is not that the earthly city is eternally preserved, but that one day we will see “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband” (Rev 21:2).