Living in exile is difficult. It requires significant wisdom and courage, a resolute commitment to faithfulness, and a good understanding of what faithfulness is. In the biblical narrative, exile played a significant role in God’s divine purposes for the world. The Israelites were conquered by the Babylonian empire around 605 BC and taken into exile.
If we consider the first several chapters of Daniel, we get a picture of what living in exile was like for the faithful. There was little or no freedom for the Israelites to worship God according to the law. The temple had been destroyed, certain practices (like prayer) were outlawed, the nation of Israel had lost its sovereignty and land to the Babylonian empire. Daniel is invited to forsake godliness and embrace the pagan culture and practices. He is put into the service of the Babylonian empire. Difficult choices needed to be made regarding serving God, following the law, embracing cultural norms, etc.
I believe exile is an appropriate way to think about our life here in the world right now. In fact I’ve had a few people recently say that it feels like we are in exile. Kinnaman & Lyons have this to say regarding exile in their book Good Faith: “Embracing the exile metaphor means we retain at least two important theological views: that God is sovereign and that God has plans for his people. According to the biblical writings on exile, God uses exile to purify his people and reorient them to his purposes.”
Truly we have been living in exile. We have been in exile since before the current global crisis. We have been in exile since the inception of the Church. Until Jesus Christ returns to remake all things and His kingdom is fully realized, we will continue to live in exile. As followers of Christ we are called to live faithfully in a world, in a culture, that is against God. The writers of the New Testament knew this to be true. The only reason I know it to be true is that God has revealed it to be so in His word. We are repeatedly warned that in this world we will experience persecution (one of the many unfortunate results of living in exile), and we will experience difficulty in following the way of Christ. We are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world.
Following the way of Christ is never easy while we are in exile. If following the way of Christ has felt easy, then there is a good chance that it wasn’t the way of Christ. The way of Christ involves submission; and submission is difficult, especially if it involves submitting to something we fundamentally disagree with. Consider our need to submit to our governing authorities regarding our corporate gatherings. But, do we really need to submit to them? Why should we allow the government to have any say over our worship practices?
Peter wrote the following during a time when the empire was far less open to Christianity than our nation currently is:
1 Peter 2:11-25
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
To submit to governing authorities is no less than a submission to the sovereignty of God. Not only that but it also is part of following the example of Jesus Christ who submitted himself to the point of death! But right now that feels like it contradicts the exhortation to not cease gathering, doesn’t it?
Consider and understand the context of Hebrews 10, where the author exhorts the readers to “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Most scholars agree that what was likely happening was that some were willfully leaving the fellowship, possibly for a variety of reasons. This perhaps included the risk of persecution, or a belief that one could continue to follow Christ on one’s own without the burden of intimate relationships.
Our current situation where our governing authorities are limiting gatherings is difficult, to be sure; but the explicit intent is that it is temporary; and the limit on gatherings is in no way targeting religious institutions, Christian or otherwise, but it is a limit on nearly all mass gatherings. I don’t agree with everything the authorities are doing, and the consequences to how the crisis is being handled broadly are obvious. As a family, we have now gone the longest without sharing table fellowship with or showing hospitality to anyone, and I can’t stand it! I long for when we gather together as a large congregation and proclaim the goodness of God with loud song.
Meanwhile, we are busy discovering what the ambiguous statement “religious institutions are exempt” means in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and asking the questions: How can we gather while continuing to submit to the authorities? How must our gatherings change in order to gain the benefit of being in one another’s presence while we submit to the governing authorities? Let us be a people who trust firmly in the sovereignty of God, who seek out God’s will in these trying times while allowing God to reorient our priorities during this challenging time.
It is not good to neglect gathering. It is in our gathering that we are able to love one another, corporately praise our maker, partake in the Lord’s Supper. It is in our gathering that we are able to declare our unity under the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. But if submission to authorities is like submission to the sovereignty of God’s divine authority, then we must obey, longing for the opportunity to gather again in person and for the restoration of all things.
If the day comes when our faith is outlawed and we truly lose the freedom of worship in our nation or we are forced to bow to a golden statue of the president, then the submission to authority will no longer be a submission to God’s sovereignty, but it will be a forced worship of something other than the one true God. In those days we follow the example of the young men in Daniel who refused to worship the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, or who continued to pray, receiving the deadly consequences for faithfulness to God rather than Babylon. Perhaps that day is coming, maybe sooner rather than later, but Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:34 are a clear and meaningful challenge: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
For now I encourage you with Psalm 91:1-6 for it is under the wings of the Lord that we find refuge when in danger.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
I urge you to continue to abide in intimate relationship with God through His word and in prayer, while maintaining a firm hope in the promises of God. Check out the video below, Andrew Peterson’s “In The Night.”