If you attend a mostly white, evangelical church in the 2020s, you have probably been told by your pastor that you are an “exile.” This is not by accident. He or she has been taught to imagine himself, his flock, and the church in our country as exiles from our worldly culture.
At its heart, this modernized exilic framework grieves secular shifts in Western culture and laments the loss of place the Christian church once had in our society. It equates our situation with what the people of Judah experienced and suffered after being exiled from Israel—while living in Babylonian captivity after the destruction of Jerusalem and their temple in 586 B.C.
This comparison largely began in the ’90s, drawing from the work of German-American theologian Walter Brueggemann and those building upon him. In The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom, Canadian Christian and Missionary Alliance theologian Lee Beach summarizes this exilic mindset as “the experience of knowing that one is an alien, and perhaps even in a hostile environment where the dominant values run counter to one’s own.” Beach contends that Christians should think of themselves as exiles in all times and places.
As evidence of evangelicals’ exilic status today, Beach points out the difference between Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967, which featured a Christian worship service, and Canada’s memorial service after 9/11, which did not. He notes, “If such national gatherings provide insight into the ethos of the nation, then in thirty-four years Canada had moved from a nation in which the church played a major role to one in which it was no longer included at all.”
The problem today with labeling North American evangelicals as exiles is that it becomes a form of cultural appropriation that minimizes the suffering of real exiles—and misrepresents the original Jewish exile. Moreover, it does not reflect the past or present status of the Western church and is therefore not a fitting, factual, or biblical metaphor for modern-day ministry.
In the 2000s, the rate at which mostly white, male, classically trained, evangelical theologians and pastors in the West embraced and preached the exile motif in their churches was outpaced by the rate at which millions of refugees and asylum-seekers faced real exile around the world.
Yet living in what Beach describes as “perhaps even a hostile environment” (emphasis added)—or moving from a “major role” in a nation to no role “at all”—is not what real exiles experience. Refugees drowning in the Mediterranean because their dinghy capsized did not move from a “major role” in society to no role “at all,” but rather from clinging to life to no life at all.
Think of the Uyghur, Syrian, Afghan and soon-to-arrive Ukrainian refugees in our churches and neighborhoods. Are we using rubber rafts to escape our country or throwing our children over barbed wire fences to avoid industrial-scale “re-education”? Are we sending our women and children to the border while the men stay behind to fight off invaders?
I regularly preach to the English ministry of a Toronto-based Mandarin church. Some of its elders were hidden by parents in caves as children to be saved from Communist purges before fleeing to safety here in North America. How does our use of “exile” language strike those living among us who have experienced real exile?
Evangelical advocates of “exile” are at best tone-deaf when they claim the status of exile on account of Christianity “slowly moving from the center of culture to a more peripheral role.” Using exile as a metaphor for ministry today misrepresents what the church in the West is currently experiencing—compared to, for example, the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who are still trapped at the southern border of the United States.
Using exile to describe our cultural situation is a bit like using the word holocaust to refer to anything other than “the Holocaust.” Equating our declining social status, cultural clout, or political power with what real exiles endure does an injustice to their suffering.
Instead, I would argue that the reality—which is found both in the New Testament and in the Western church today—is one of occupation rather than exile. Occupation has many advantages over exile as an organizing metaphor for ministry, but I will enumerate only two.
First, occupation aligns more faithfully with the circumstances of the Western church than the diaspora event from which the Old Testament concept of exile originated.
Things are bad for Christians in the West, but they are not “exile-bad”; they are “occupation-bad.” To be clear, my concern is not that the Western church cannot relate to the exile metaphor, but that we relate too well to it! Many pastors I know preach “exile” to their congregation—and yet this framework overstates our “outsider” status in society.
Our modern, Westernized conception of exile—in which Christians move from a major to a marginal role in society—is not what Judah’s exiles faced in 586 B.C. when they were displaced by Babylon’s war in Israel.
The Jewish people lost their homeland, their liberty, their place of worship, and their way of life. Many lost their lives, their names, their food (Dan. 1:6-8), their political autonomy (2 Kings 16:6), their human dignity (Ps. 137:3-4)—the whole of which does not compare to the past or present situation of the Western church.
The second advantage occupation has over exile is that it is a more biblically sound metaphor for the backdrop of ministry that is found both in the New Testament and today.
Occupation, not exile, is the situation faced by Jesus and the early church both spiritually and politically. It is the theological context for the concept of seeking the heavenly kingdom of God on earth (Rom. 13:4)—as well as the root idea behind the church’s first creed that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9). Salvation itself involves confessing that there exists a higher king than Caesar.
Occupation, not exile, is the backdrop of the nativity story. Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” by Rome—prompting him to order genocide out of fear that a baby born into that title might challenge his rule (Matt. 2). In fact, “King of the Jews” was the very title written on the sign nailed above Jesus to mock him as he hung on the cross (John 19:19).
The events of Holy Week, Pentecost, and the early church era do not make sense outside the political intrigue, social schemes, and religious nuances of occupation—unlike the simplicity of exile.
Occupation, not exile, is the setting for evangelism. The disciples were called to conduct themselves in a way that is above reproach, knowing that the political and religious authorities were looking for any excuse to persecute them (Matt. 10:16); and Satan is seen falling from heaven as the disciples carry out their mission in occupied spiritual territory (Luke 10:18).
Thus occupation, not exile, should be our underlying theological framework for ministry today. God placed the world under our stewardship in the Garden (Gen. 1:28), and it is becoming God’s again through Christ’s reign (Matt. 28:18-20). Meanwhile, Satan, sin, and death remain as occupying powers in this land (Heb. 2:14-17), hostile to believers (1 Pet. 5:8) and to the work of the church (2 Cor. 4:4), and bent on usurping God’s authority on earth (Matt. 4:8-9).
Christians are operating in enemy-occupied territory, and yet we are called to seek the kingdom of God. In doing so, we will continue to encounter resistance from various social forces, political establishments, and religious institutions not under God’s rule.
For example, in Canada, the governing Liberal party was elected in late 2021 on the campaign promise of revoking the charitable status of crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion organizations for providing “dishonest counselling to pregnant women.”
As a Canadian, it is harder to find evidence for occupation, let alone exile, when it comes to the American church—where evangelicals have a degree of influence in the sphere of education, politics, and culture that Canadian, British, and European evangelicals could only dream of.
However, I could point not just to the 2015 US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down bans on gay marriage—but also to the fact that it took only 11 years for that to happen once the state of Massachusetts allowed it to show how Christian political influence is waning in the country.
In other words, we are reminded of the reality of occupation whenever the laws and practices of our homeland are at odds with our own biblical standards of living.
But what is our task as Christians today?
Instead of clinging to our modern, Westernized conception of an exiled church, let us embrace a more biblical, less offensive, and evidence-based metaphor of occupation.
Peter’s advice to believers living as “foreigners and exiles” was addressed to a church under occupation. He was not content for them to simply settle down and plant gardens (Jer. 29:4-7) or “sing the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3-4) until Cyrus’s liberating decree—much like those waiting on a sweet chariot to carry them home to heaven. Rather we are called to be on mission and “live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:11-25).
Instead of pining for a return from exile, we are called to bear witness to the return of our King Jesus here and now. Christ is coming back to bring a new heaven and earth with him, which will reoccupy this territory (Rev. 21:1). That means it’s up to Jesus to end the era of occupation—and it’s up to us to live as witnesses to his lordship while making our way in Caesar’s world.
Our job this side of eternity is to preach and live in such a way that those around us will be prepared—not for our escape from earthly exile, but for the return of our once-reviled King.
Jacob Birch is an ordained member of The Alliance Canada with 29 years of pastoral experience across Eastern Canada in both evangelical and mainline churches. He is also a long-term part-time graduate student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.