I suggested in my series last week, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” that Christians were called by God in Christ to live as “a colony of heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Because of this calling we are to live as God’s new creation, thus as “aliens and exiles.” This is clearly the same point made by the apostle Peter when he writes:
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. [ Live as Servants of God ] Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge (1 Peter 2:10-12).
I decided, upon further reflection, to look at the primary uses of the English word “alien” in our modern context to see how we use this word and to see if our present use corresponds in some way to the point that I believe the New Testament writers are making about our identity as God’s people. Much to my surprise I found that all three of the primary uses of the modern word “alien” actually fit our Christian status rather well.
The older idea of the alien was legal. An alien is a non-citizen resident of a country. In modern terms, especially in the popular medium of film and fiction, the word alien is associated with extraterrestrial life that does not originate from earth. Following this thought an alien is also defined today as a species not relative to its own environment.
What surprised me is how well all three of these modern ideas fit with the biblical role of Christians who live well in a post-Christendom culture like our own. The first idea is plainly the closest one with what Peter had in mind in the first-century context; i.e. we are non-citizen residents of the culture (world order) in which we reside during our sojourn on earth. This does not mean we are not to become legal citizens of a state, such as the United States of America. (I also do not think it means we cannot “feel” the emotion of patriotism, though this emotion can be very dangerous to the faithfulness and missional nature of the church.) Yet this alien status surely means we are not to settle into the forms and patterns of the state or culture with ease and comfort. We are not called to live in the heavens, as if we were only “heavenly minded” people with no interest in the actual people and events around us. But we are not completely “at home” in this culture if we are living as “aliens.” You could think of this as “dual citizenship” (some Christians have sought to express it this way) but I think this idea softens the point that the apostle makes and thereby misses something terribly important about our true Christian identity.
The other two uses of the word alien, both modern as I’ve indicated, also commend themselves to our thinking about our present mission. Alien life does not originate from the earth. That is sure true of us since our life in Christ originates from the throne of heaven and the will of the one who is Lord of the cosmos. The other modern use refers to alien life forms that are not relative to the environment of this earth. I could, at this point, list a whole series of biblical texts that underscore just how radically different the life of Christians should be from their surrounding culture and environment of this earth but it would take up a huge amount of text and time to make a point that most readers already know if they are familiar with the New Testament at all.
Tomorrow: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Life Together, is examined to see how we can learn from the German experience both before and during World War II.