There has always been a vigorous debate within the church concerning the proper role of the Christian in the world. Some argue that Christians should not be involved in politics or other attempts to change culture because we are “aliens and strangers.” Is this the proper interpretation of this concept? This blog is the second to examine New Testament passages that explore this idea. The first is here.
The apostle Peter certainly had in mind the concept of Christians as “aliens and strangers” when he penned 1 Peter 2:9-12, a passage filled with rich, biblical truths.
It is clear that Peter sees the Christian as one called out of the world into a new identity, reality, and destiny. We are owned by God – we are “God’s own possession.” This entire section is a contrast between what we were and what we are as Christians. We are gloriously called “out of” one thing and transplanted “into” another.
Right in the middle of the passage is that phrase once again – Christians are “aliens and strangers” (vs. 11). As such, we are commanded to “abstain from fleshly lusts” because embracing such ungodly desires will undermine our Christian walk and witness. They “wage war against the soul,” and we should avoid them completely.
The context clearly indicates that God’s people should also live morally upright lives in the sight of God because that would reflect our new identity in Christ. Peter lays out three truths as the foundation for this exhortation to holy living: (1) We once lived in darkness, but now live in light. (2) We once were separated from God, but now belong to Him. (3) We once existed outside the mercy of the Lord, but now have received it.
Once again we ask two questions: (1) To whom does the phrase “aliens and strangers” refer? (2) Does this concept teach that Christians should avoid engaging in politics in order to affect the culture?
We get our first hint as to how Peter uses the phrase “aliens and strangers” in the first chapter of his epistle. In the very first verse, the apostle addresses “those who reside as aliens” in Asia Minor. Later in the chapter, he exhorts Christians to fear God “during the time of your stay on earth” (vs. 17). It is clear that he means, at least in part, that we are here on earth temporarily, as if conducting business in a foreign place before returning to our true home.
When he uses the full phrase, “aliens and strangers,” in chapter two, some additional thoughts clarify his meaning. Peter turns to the Old Testament for language that originally applied to Israel, but which, in the New Testament, is also sometimes used for Gentile Christians. (There is some debate as to his target audience, whether it was composed of Jewish Christians or a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. For our purpose, that debate is not important.) The key idea is uniqueness. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were unique and set apart for God. In the New Testament, Christians (whether Jew or Gentile) are similarly unique and set apart for God.
Thus, when Peter immediately instructs Christians to “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles,” he is indicating a lifestyle that is unique and establishes a clear demarcation between the holiness of the believer and the carnality of the unbeliever. This is part of what it means to be “aliens and strangers.” There is a new power in our lives, and it changes us. We think, speak, and behave differently.
Once again, however, we see nothing in this concept that would indicate whether or not a Christian should endeavor to influence politics or culture. Being “aliens and strangers” means to remember that earth is a temporary home and that, while we are here, we should live holy lives. Therefore, one can fight against the institution of slavery while temporarily living on earth, and one can live a holy life while trying to eradicate the scourge of abortion. These are not mutually exclusive lifestyles. And since I am using slavery and abortion as examples, there are innumerable cultural and political endeavors in which Christians can – and should – participate.
Let me examine one more New Testament passage, even though it does not contain the phrase “aliens and strangers.” It is Philippians 3:17-21. In this passage, we can once again see the familiar contrast between the unbeliever and the Christian, between those “who set their minds on earthly things” and those who have a “citizenship…in heaven.” It is this distinction that some have twisted to justify political and cultural non-engagement.
Clearly, there is a pattern of life expressed in the word of God that we are to follow, but first Paul lays out the pattern of the wicked. Unbelievers are (1) “enemies of the cross of Christ”; (2) they pursue their own desires more than anything else, because their “god is their appetite;” (3) their “glory is in their shame;” and (4) they “set their minds on earthly things.” In contrast to that, Christians have their “citizenship in heaven” and everything in them looks to Christ and for His return.
So what does this contrast mean in terms of our discussion? Obviously, for the Christian to manifest a heavenly citizenship, he must not partake of any of the four descriptions indicative of the wicked. But in particular Paul indicts those “who set their minds on earthly things.” The Christian should avoid the trap of pleasing his own appetites, rather than seeking to please Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9).
So we are not to set our “minds on earthly things.” But does this also mean staying out of politics, as some assert? Does this mean Christians should not work to renew or improve culture? After all, those are worldly things, if by “worldly” we mean not belonging to the eternal age, heaven, or the kingdom of God.
However, such a view carries with it a pretty significant assumption – that temporal things here on earth have no spiritual component. In fact, Paul’s argument seems to focus our attention on the error of seeing life as merely physical. Primarily this identifies a fixation of the heart and mind on the fleshly life and a rejection of God and the Christian life.
Yet the opposite error can occur, can’t it? Although the old expression might be trite, isn’t it also unbiblical to be “too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good”? It is my contention that many earthly and temporal things do have a spiritual component, and ignoring the spiritual aspect of life on earth will lead to a salt-less and light-less life (Matthew 5:13-16).
This is not ignoring Paul’s implicit warning against setting the mind “on earthly things.” Instead, if I love my neighbor enough to help him in this life – not ignoring his soul, of course – then I am being a citizen of heaven. On the other hand, if I only preach to my neighbor but ignore his physical needs, then I’m not loving him in both word and deed (1 John 3:17-18; cf. James 2:14-17).
While we demonstrate our love for people by passionately pleading with them to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20), that’s not the limit of what loving our neighbor entails. Is it loving my neighbor to let his children be swept away by sexual perversion, just because my own children might be safe from it? Is it loving to ignore political corruption, abortion, or the destruction of the family?
The world is the stage upon which we are given opportunity to live out the godly attribute of love. In fact, one could say that interaction with the physical realm – including culture – is the only way to learn and practice love. Cultural and political engagement, then, becomes an expression of love that is heavenly-minded, rather than a denial of it.