We all know the list of descriptions used of the church in Scripture; body, temple, Israel of God, etc.
Let me add a new one to that list, though not found in Scripture: “Parasite”.
Sound attractive? Thought not. And especially in the Anything But Christianity culture in which we read chalkboards such as this:
Apart from the fiscal inaccuracies of such a statement it does sting a little bit. In the current climate the church is being viewed as having a parasitic relationship to the wider culture. We’ve had our time sucking at the teat of cultural benevolence and it’s time to give up our place at the table (to mix my metaphors).
This has given rise to much of the resentment towards the church in the same sex marriage debate. The argument goes that we’re simply trying to make life easy for ourselves at the expense of others, and that we need to admit as much and get out of the way. We haven’t treated gay people the way they should have been treated – and for some of the accusations we have to raise a hand and say mea culpa. Now, with the shoe on the other foot, we’re crying foul. Bit rich really, or so the argument goes.
So is it the case that the church has been acting like a parasite for too long and has now been caught out? It’s possible at one level. It’s also possible that, like Cassandra, we are stuck in that frustrating place of predicting a future that no one believes.
So in a considered piece on the whole sexuality debate Akos Balogh here reminds us that, despite those who say otherwise, there will be consequences for the wider culture from a same sex marriage vote. And we have a vested interest as societal members not to want that to happen.
He notes that when laws get changed they change social structures at a far wider and deeper level. As Akos points out, that is the point of laws after all – they are designed to be societal not merely individual markers.
However it’s a reference to Babylon that Akos quotes from Wayne Grudem that I want to grapple with. Akos states:
While that may be the case – that the city’s welfare be advanced – that’s not the end of what God is doing in Jeremiah 29, merely the means to another end entirely, and one that is, ironically, at odds with Babylon’s ends.
Israel’s function was not to make Babylon indistinguishable from itself by pressing for Babylon’s alignment with Torah, but to live out Torah in Babylon as a creative minority, over and against Babylon, for the sake of not only Babylon but the world – indeed the cosmos. And that means that Israel has bigger fish to fry than Babylon’s welfare as a city.
I have lost count of the number of times this Jeremiah passage has either been used positively to describe the church’s positive face towards the culture, retraining it towards a life of flourishing, or, conversely as the church’s negative face towards the culture, restraining it from hidden dangers.
What neither position recognises is that the advancement of Babylon is not for the sake of Babylon but for the sake of the people of God and the program of God. The program of God depends on the people of God. Babylon’s welfare is the byproduct not the end product.
Read what the text says:
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.
Israel’s welfare is dependent on Babylon’s welfare, yet not for the sake of Babylon’s welfare. Israel is to pray for Babylon’s advancement for the sake of their own advancement. It is – at once level – active self interest. Having children and taking wives is all about ethnic identity, and Israel will need a stable Babylon to do that. Babylon is depicted in Scripture as the place that opposes God and his people. God employs Babylon for his purposes, not Babylon’s.
It would seem that the best we can say about Babylon in Jeremiah 29 is that it is the host to which Israel is the parasite. As long as the host is healthy, the parasite lives.
Now, granted, this is not a particularly flattering view of Israel’s role in the Babylonian culture, nor by extension, the church’s role in the modern Western context.
Yet, and here is where the parasite paradigm is less helpful. Since Israel’s welfare is important for the sake of the whole world as promised to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15, her relationship to Babylon is not merely parasitic, but symbiotic. Israel is deigned by God to survive, but not simply for herself and her own self interest. Indeed Israel’s tendency to forget this had led it into all sorts of sin, self-focus and greed.
Israel’s relationship to Babylon is more akin to the oxpecker bird that eats the ticks and other actual parasites from the back of rhinos. As long as the rhino exists and stays healthy, the oxpecker bird exists and stays healthy. There’s a certain quid pro quo about this symbiosis.
The same is true for Israel and Babylon. While Israel is in Babylon, Babylon’s fate is secure, not for Babylon’s sake and her plans, but for Israel’s sake and God’s plans through her. However once Israel is called out of Babylon, the city’s fate is sealed. At a deep salvific level Israel’s interest in Babylon falls away when the exile finishes, even though many Jews become part of the Diaspora.
Hence for all of those books and blog posts about seeking the welfare of the city in which we find ourselves, God seems pretty relaxed about Babylon’s ultimate destruction – enthusiastic even. In fact if God were ever to sleep, he wouldn’t lose any of it over the demise of Babylon, as Revelation 18 demonstrates.
Two things are noticeable about Babylon’s behaviour which fall under God’s judgement; sexual immorality and a lust for luxury:
And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. (Rev18:9)
Whatever welfare Israel is supposed to seek for Babylon it is plainly not the advancement of these two attributes, which incidentally were two of Israel’s own sins that led to her exile in the first place. Putting Jeremiah and Revelation together, the God who takes his people to Babylon is also the God who calls his people out of Babylon:
“Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4)
God’s warning is clear. His people must abandon what Babylon represents or they will be swept away with her in judgement. They must resist the spirit of Babylon all the while living in Babylon. And it’s fairly clear that sexual immorality and a love of the hearth gods of ease and contentment (often the expense of the poor) are in God’s firing line. Don’t come out of Babylon in the sense of isolationism or quietism, but come out of Babylon in the sense of not taking part in her sins.
Put bluntly this means that the primary aim of God’s people is to ensure the host city is healthy enough to survive in order to further God’s salvation purposes. If the host city is no longer needed, then its survival is no longer of interest. Indeed St Paul drives this point home in 1 Timothy 2 when he says:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim2:1-4)
I suggest we would be a little embarrassed to pray that prayer in our corporate gatherings because it is so ecclesio-centric as opposed to culture-centric, and so focussed on particular salvation rather general flourishing.
Now this is not to suggest that our job is simply to evangelise in our surrounds, keep our heads down and pay no attention to the flourishing of the city, as if it can go to hell in a handcart. I am all for the flourishing of our city. Christians can be a creative minority who punch above their weight and make a difference.
But our idea of flourishing will often be at odds with the city’s idea of flourishing, and it is becoming clear that the gap between the two ideas is widening to a chasm. Indeed we can see how diametrically opposed the two ideas of flourishing are. As Roz Ward , the architect of the Safe Schools Coalition indicates in this article in The Guardian today, her goal is “a free and joyful world”. Well don’t we all. We just have diametrically opposing views as to how to bring that about.
And once that happens the church’s contorted efforts to try and convince the city to come back to its perspective starts to sound increasingly strained. It starts to sound like self-interest.
In one way the chalkboard writer is right: There is a level of self-interest in the church that surfaces when matters such as the sexuality debate is concerned. And Wayne Grudem’s interest in the welfare of the city seemed woefully absent when he was advocating for the Trump presidency out of what seemed to many, naked self interest for the church.
We’re all sinful of course, and we all have self-interest, naked or otherwise. And I have friends whose job security is being pushed hard by their sign up or otherwise to the new sexual zeitgeist. They are dodging and weaving and hoping against hope that a “Yes” vote here in Australia doesn’t push them out the door through what comes through behind it, as we have seen in the US, UK and Canada.
When Babylon no longer wants our version of its welfare, something is going to have to give. Someone is going to have to pay the price for that dissonance. Someone’s version of “welfare” will have to give way. That someone will be the someone who no longer holds the reins of power, whether that be cultural, legal or political. The one holding the reins of power will determine what “welfare of the city” looks like.
At this point the oxpecker and the rhino will have to part ways. And if we cannot part ways and go and live off-grid (a frightening thought for a city slicker such as I) then we are going to have to be a lot more wary of just how grumpy that rhino can get, and be prepared to be on the wing from time to time. There will be a price to pay, and we will have to determine whether we are prepared to pay it.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the church needs a smarter apologetic, and by that I mean that increasingly we will have to highlight our differences to the hardening secular culture, as opposed to our similarities. The church’s idea of human flourishing has come adrift from the culture’s idea – that much is clear. Chasing after the culture’s ideas in a vain attempt to maintain relevancy is a proven path to irrelevance and death, as mainline Protestantism both here and in the US has revealed.
Simply put Babylon has called our bluff. The sexuality debate proves it. It looks at what the biblical ideal of human flourishing is under God and says “No thanks.” It looks at what we want to preserve about marriage, and for good or ill reasons, names that as the church’s parasitic self-interest. No amount of denials and “No” campaigns can drown that out. No amount of us telling Babylon that we have its interests at heart will convince Babylon of such.
And it’s going to cost us. It’s going to cost us more and more. The city will not want our version of flourishing and will seek to shut down dissent. How do we move forward in that situation? Next blog post I will explore a pattern that will help us do exactly that.