All human communities are identified by their intrinsic characteristics based on the unique way they have been formed and their collective experiences. The Jewish community, which I come from, for example, has developed certain traits through centuries of suffering.
There was a documentary several years ago that sought to understand why so many comics hail from a Jewish background. The film determined that comedy was one way that Jews have been able to cope with much of the suffering they endured.
Unlike mere human communities, the Church, God’s new community is determined not by its collective experiences and intrinsic characteristics, but by who God says they are. This should not be difficult to understand since this community only exists by the sheer grace of God. As a result of God bringing this community forth, the people of God certainly develop defining characteristics and traits. Nevertheless, it is only by first understanding the indicatives (what God has done in bringing this new community forth) that we can live out the imperatives (what God demands we be).
It is helpful to remember the Bible was written in an eastern culture. Easterners identify themselves first by their relationship to their community and never by what they are as individuals. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he brought out an entire people, not merely individuals. In the New Testament, Jesus taught us to pray by saying “Our Father”, recognizing we are part of a collective people who through redemption can now call God our Father. As Westerners, this is foreign to us, since, for the most part, we think of ourselves individually and then as part of a community, if at all. Rugged individualism characterizes our age, even sadly in much of the Church.
That’s why it is refreshing to see how the first apostles thought about the communities to whom they wrote their letters. Take, for example, the introduction of Peter’s first letter where he addresses scattered communities of faith through Asia Minor. It perhaps contains the most explicit language in the entire New Testament describing how God thinks about the Church. When we think of a local church, we usually think of a church meeting in a building on a Sunday morning. But there is so much more to a church than that.
First and foremost, the apostle Peter, when describing these communities of faith, refers to the fact that they are men and women who have been chosen by God. That is the meaning of the term elect in verse 1. These believers did not choose themselves but were chosen by God to belong to Jesus Christ. From the outside, it may look like they chose Christ willingly and they most certainly did. But behind their choice was God’s sovereign choosing of his people. It was this that accounts for their salvation.
But elect in the ESV translation is an adjective, which modifies the noun exiles. It is the word for one who is not living in his own country but is living as a sojourner among others. It is to be a stranger among others. It is used by the author of Hebrews of those heroes of the faith who all “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, italics mine). In a word, they were elected and because of that they now lived as exiles on the earth.
Sadly, this is not how many modern believers live. Study after study reveals there is little difference between the lifestyle and habits of unbelievers with that of believers in the West. We watch the same programs, frequent the same stores, and mirror the world when it comes to such things as divorce and viewing pornography. In a word, there is little distinguishable difference between believers and unbelievers in the modern Western church. And we are not only not distinguishable, but we also seemed to have accepted the notion that the more like the world we are, the better chance we have of attracting them. And it seems to have worked! Our churches are filled with people whose appetites are unchanged from their worldly counterparts and who have been told that they can pursue the same things as those living in this world and eventually inherit the riches of heaven too. How many will be utterly surprised on that day.
Jesus made it clear in his teaching that the believer is both in the world, but not of it. In his High Priestly prayer found in John 17, he reminds his disciples he is leaving them in this world for a special mission. Rather than taking them out of this world therefore, he asked they be kept from the evil one (17:15). The Church is now the ekkclesia, the “called-out” ones. That word is formed from two Greek phrases; first, “klesia” which is not a religious term but a word meaning congregation or assembly. It was used of the assembly called out to kill the apostle Paul. It is only when it is preceded by the Greek prefix “ek” meaning “out of” that its real meaning for the people of God can be seen. The Church is the assembly of those who have been called out of the world to belong to Jesus Christ.
What is desperately needed today is for those who belong to Christ to recapture the meaning of living as elect exiles in this world. That is not a call to leave this world as Middle Age monks did and cloister in monasteries, far removed from normal life. Our separation from this world is to be lived out in the context of normal life—in the world but not of it. We need to give up entirely the notion that the more like the world we are, the abler we will be to attract others. In actuality, the opposite is true: history has proven it is only as the Church has been separate from the world that she has become most attractive to those outside of Christ. Our power is manifest in our otherness. May God raise up in our day assemblies of elect exiles who, while living lives of separation and holiness, powerfully present the Gospel to those who are perishing.