Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pilgrims and theocrats

I started reading Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet by Jason Stellman. The author is pastor of Exile Presbyterian Church in Woodinville, WA and the blogger behind the excellent Creed Code Cult. Stellman introduces the book by sketching the biblical framework for what follows -- "to prepare the soil into which the seeds of Dual Citizens will be sown." He begins by asking, "What is the relationship between cult and culture, the church and the world?" And I would add between worship and life, the sacred and the secular. It's common to hear Christians today say (usually based on Romans 12:1) that all of life is worship. Stellman will argue that for believers under the New Covenant all of life is not worship, and that we must distinguish between the two for the benefit of both.

Here's a condensed version of his thesis. In the beginning worship and life were one. There was no division between sacred and secular, cult and culture. The pre-fall arrangement between God and man was -- as described by theologians Geerhardus Vos and Meredith Kline -- a holy theocracy. More importantly for Stellman's argument this holy theocracy was connected to a holy land -- an actual piece of real estate called Eden. The ground Adam walked on was truly holy ground. The garden was the "palace-sanctuary" where "God's presence was enthroned." Then came the fall into sin which brought with it mankind's divided self and "an unnatural separation between cult and culture. Man was expelled from 'the holy land' and consigned to exile east of Eden."

Flash forward to the institution of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai. Here again God is instituting (re-instituting?) a theocracy connected to a holy land. Once the people of God entered Canaan they were to be religiously and culturally distinct from the nations around them. There would once again be no division between sacred and secular. If the people broke the covenant they would be thrown out of the land and sent into exile just like Adam was. Of course that's what happened, but let's back up a bit.

Even more foundational to our faith than the covenant at Sinai is the one instituted centuries before between God and Abraham in Genesis 17. Stellman wants to show that under the Abrahamic covenant the distinctiveness of the people of God was religious only. For the patriarchs the separation between cult and culture continued. Their particularity was in their worship of the one true God, especially by their observation of the covenant rite of circumcision. Other than that, Stellman argues, they were "culturally similar" to the pagans around them. In other words they were "culturally common but religiously distinct." And, significantly, their status was that of pilgrims and exiles without a land of their own (Heb. 11:8-10) and without the corresponding theocratic arrangement in which all of life was subsumed under worship.

Before you check out on me there's one more essential element to bring in. As mentioned the Israelites repeated violations of the Mosaic covenant resulted in exile. Through syncretic worship practices and intermarriage they failed to maintain their religious and cultural distinctiveness. First the northern kingdom (Israel) and then Judah were cast out of the land and sent to live among the nations. But here's where it gets interesting. Once the people of God aren't dwelling in the holy land the rules seem to change. They're encouraged to engage in some of the same activity that got them into trouble in the first place. Here's Jeremiah speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

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. (Jer. 29:4-7)

Here's a call to cultural assimilation not cultural separation. Later, when the exiles are back in the land and rebuilding Jerusalem (the period written about in Ezra and Nehemiah) the rules seen to change again as Ezra condemns the very intermingling type behavior encouraged when the Jews were in Babylon (see Ezra 9). What gives?

According to Stellman the key to reconciling these apparent contradictions is to remember that God's people are always commanded to withdraw from pagan religion, but it's only when living under a theocracy that we're commanded to withdraw from pagan culture. He concludes, "And what determines whether God's people are a theocracy or a band of pilgrims? The answer is simple: a distinct land. A theocracy, as I pointed out above, always has a geographical element to it."

I believe the crux of Rev. Stellman's thesis is unassailable, which is that the situation of new covenant believers is like that of the patriarchs and the Hebrew exiles in Babylon (Daniel being an instructive case study). We are a band of pilgrims living in exile as citizens of heaven. Though we and the world around us live under God's rule, it's not the same kind of rule enjoyed by Adam and OT Israel. The promises of God no longer have a geopolitical dimension. Under the new covenant there isn't a holy land or a holy theocracy. The implications of this are manifold and complex.

The New Testament provides abundant support for the author's "pilgrim theology." With him I embrace my identity as an exile living in Babylon waiting for my true home -- the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 & 22 -- where once again cult and culture will be one. I can see how in our status as pilgrims and exiles we need to distinguish between cult and culture, worship and life. On the other hand I think John Frame makes a good point when he says in a quote cited by Stellman that "it is very difficult, in general, to separate 'life' from 'worship' in a biblical framework."

In the first half of Dual Citizens Stellman focuses on Christian worship. He argues that the new covenant people of God should be most distinct when we gather for worship on the Lord's Day. He borrows from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon to encourage the local church to be a "countercultural community" and individual believers to live out their status as "resident aliens." I agree with all of that! But I have reservations about the overarching two kingdoms paradigm (i.e. kingdom of God/kingdom of man) advocated by Stellman since, for example, it's been used to criticize Tim Keller as a "transformationalist" for advocating an approach to ministry that seeks to bring the gospel to bear on all aspects of society, including culture. Is Redeemer Presbyterian not being a faithful countercultural community by seeking the social, spiritual and cultural welfare of their city? Was Lesslie Newbigin wrong in saying that the gospel gives us the lenses through which to view all of life? And was he wrong that the local church is to be a "hermeneutic of the gospel" challenging and exposing the structures of this present evil age?

Stellman's contention that the contemporary Western church has often sacrificed distinctive Christian worship on the altars of relevance and worldly notions of success is right on. But couldn't we say that when worship is distinctively faithful on Sunday it will mark the worshipers in such a way that they go out to live distinctive lives the rest of the week? Maybe the problem is that American Christians (Stellman's primary audience) have been culturally distinctive in the wrong ways, and not distinctive enough in the right ways?

Those are just some questions this book has raised so far. As you can see it's gotten me thinking. If you found any of this intriguing then get your hands on a copy.


Michael Gormley said...


Once we become members of Christ’s family, he does not let us go hungry, but feeds us with his own body and blood through the Eucharist. In the Old Testament, as they prepared for their journey in the wilderness, God commanded his people to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts, so the Angel of Death would pass by their homes. Then they ate the lamb to seal their covenant with God.

This lamb prefigured Jesus. He is the real "Lamb of God," who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Through Jesus we enter into a New Covenant with God (Luke 22:20), who protects us from eternal death. God’s Old Testament people ate the Passover lamb.

Now we must eat the Lamb that is the Eucharist. Jesus said, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you" (John 6:53).

At the Last Supper he took bread and wine and said, "Take and eat. This is my body . . . This is my blood which will be shed for you" (Mark 14:22–24).

In this way Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal Catholics consume at each Mass.

The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross occurred "once for all"; it cannot be repeated (Hebrews 9:28).

Christ does not "die again" during Mass, but the very same sacrifice that occurred on Calvary is made present on the altar.

That’s why the Mass is not "another" sacrifice, but a participation in the same, once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Paul reminds us that the bread and the wine really become, by a miracle of God’s grace, the actual body and blood of Jesus: "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:27–29).

After the consecration of the bread and wine, no bread or wine remains on the altar. Only Jesus himself, under the appearance of bread and wine, remains.

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks, Michael, for stopping by. We would probably disagree about the nature of Christ's actual presence in the sacrament, but I'd agree with you that most Protestants don't emphasize enough the scriptures you quoted.

Actually, what you said sounds a lot like Belgic Confession Article 35 -- especially the paragraph highlighted in bold.

We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper to nourish and sustain those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church.

Now those who are born again have two lives in them. The one is physical and temporal-- they have it from the moment of their first birth, and it is common to all. The other is spiritual and heavenly, and is given them in their second birth; it comes through the Word of the gospel in the communion of the body of Christ; and this life is common to God's elect only.

Thus, to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten-- that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.

To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacraments in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.

Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is uncomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God's Spirit is hidden and incomprehensible.

Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ's own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood-- but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth but by the Spirit, through faith.

In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven-- but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith.

This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.