Being A Christian In Babylon: Isolation

Holiness is not a call to isolation from Babylon, but rather the “mode” in which we are to engage it.

Babylon. That place, that world system which the Bible portrays as being at its very core in opposition to God. The Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some 1st century Christians who found themselves scattered throughout Babylon (a.k.a. the Roman Empire), and they were suffering in ways we 21st century “Babylonian Christians” are only now beginning to perhaps identify with. They were without political influence, misunderstood, falsely accused, slandered, shunned, reviled, assaulted and even physically abused. How were they to understand and react? And how are we to be Christians in “Babylon” today?

I’ve suggested that there are three basic ways in which people respond to such conditions as those mentioned above: assimilation, isolation, and rebellion. I believe Peter offers another way, a way for us to see our “exile and suffering in Babylon” in the context of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and our relationship with him. But before we get to that other way, we decided that we would explore our three other options. We’ve been through the first one (Being A Christian In Babylon: Assimilation), so let’s move on to the second- Isolation.

If as we previously discussed assimilation is not the answer for being a Christian in Babylon, then isolation is just the other side of the same wooden nickel. (You younger readers will have to google that reference.) But for those Christians dispersed on the Anatolian peninsula in 1st century AD, it did have  to be tempting to withdraw.  It would ease the suffering, provide a buffer-zone against assimilation, and besides, “Hey, the world hates us; they won’t miss us if we’re gone. And anyway, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, let’s just close our eyes, and hold on ‘til Jesus comes back.” Makes sense, right? Even sounds like some of our thinking today doesn’t it?  But that’s not what Peter encouraged them or us to do.
Peter took interaction with Babylon for granted, even necessary. But today, many Christians have withdrawn into their own little worlds. We hide in our churches, take our cars to “Christian mechanics,” use only “Christian plumbers,” and sequester our kids in “Christian schools.”  We have taken Peter’s admonition to be holy as an incentive to have nothing to do with those around us who are not followers of Jesus. But a closer look at what Peter had to say will reveal that holiness is not a call to isolation, but rather the mode in which we are to engage Babylon.

Really, it’s ironic. The definition of “holy” is being separate and/or apartness. Taken at face value, that in itself would seem to promote isolation. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. After all, was it not the Holy One himself who came and lived among us- who became as we are? So it is that Peter makes Jesus and our inclusion in him the center of our understanding regarding our lives in Babylon. The holiness to which God has invited us to partake of in Jesus is to be the defining characteristic in the lives of Christians in Babylon. This holiness is not one that isolates in some pharisaical fear of contamination, but rather one that engages the culture with a desire to be contagious. Holy lives, separated to God, demonstrating the excellence of the One who called them from the darkness of Babylon into his light. We are a people who have received mercy, and therefore in mercy, we offer Jesus to those who dwell in Babylon, in gentleness and respect.

We don’t fear the wounds which may be inflicted upon us by a godless culture, but like Jesus whose wounds were the means of our salvation; we offer our own lives as a sacrifice through which others may be reconciled to God. Instead of fear, we offer hope, because in our hearts, Jesus is Lord. We resist the lusts of the flesh and the enticements of Babylon in which we once participated not so much to be holy, but because we are holy in Jesus. And all of this is done out in plain sight, in full view of Babylon, so that they may see our lives and “glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Next, we’ll look at the “rebellion option.” Because hey, if assimilation and isolation aren’t the keys to being a Christian in Babylon, perhaps we should just rebel, and take over the whole shebang!

Abide in Jesus. Watch & Pray.

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Being A Christian In Babylon: Assimilation

“…I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.”

In the introduction  to this series (Being A Christian In Babylon: An Introduction), I mentioned that I think that the readers of Peter’s first letter and we 21st century Christians living in “Babylon” are tempted to respond to the culture in which they find ourselves in basically three ways: assimilation, isolation, and/or rebellion. I believe that Peter offers a fourth way, an alternative that invites us to see our “exile and suffering in Babylon” in the context of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and our relationship with him. But before we get to that, I want us to look at the three alternatives I mentioned above. So today, let’s begin with assimilation.

For a moment, let’s go back in time. We arrive on the Anatolian peninsula in the mid-60s AD. There are various communities of believers who have found themselves scattered throughout this area, and they are experiencing what Peter calls  “a fiery trial.” They have no political influence what so ever. Their relationship with Jesus has caused them to be ostracized by mainstream society. They are misunderstood, falsely accused, slandered, shunned, reviled and assaulted. They are suffering. We don’t know whether or not they are enduring officially sanctioned persecution by the Roman Empire or more of a localized form or a combination of the two.  But we can infer from Peter’s comments to them and the underlying theme of suffering in his letter that they are indeed suffering. One writer describes their circumstances in this way:

“[They] would have distinguished themselves from the general populace by their nonparticipation in public festivals (cultural affairs imbued with religious, political and social consequence). Failing to associate themselves with these religiocultural activities, their behaviors would have been perceived by the general populace as atheistic, perhaps even bordering on unlawful.” (Joel B. Green)

I don’t want to spend any more time with historical background, but I think you can see from our brief look back how assimilation might have appeared attractive? Being the “assimilator” or the “assimilatee” could have eased some of the pressure. Incorporating a bit of Babylon into their communities or allowing Babylon to assimilate them back into the mainstream populace would have relieved some of the suffering. Perhaps some even felt that a little Babylonian assimilation would have made them more relevant, more effective in spreading the gospel. Perhaps some even commented, “Hey, didn’t we hear of this guy named Paul going around saying that he becomes all things to all men so he can win them to Jesus? What good are we going to do if we wind up dead?” Assimilation had to have been an attractive idea. Can you blame ‘em?

It’s in this climate that Peter urges the believers to stand firm. He tells them that they shouldn’t go back to the way they lived before. He reminds them that they have become obedient to the truth and are no longer to be shaped by their “former ignorance.” Peter describes them as sojourners and exiles who have been called out of darkness into light. Their very lives are to be lived in such a way that “silences the agnosticism of foolish people.” They are not the “assimilators” nor “assimilatees,” but rather priests who mediate God to those around them in grace and humility.

Each new day seems to bring news that bridges the gap between the communities to which Peter wrote so long ago, and 21st century Christians living in Babylon today. We are only beginning to experience some of the pressures of living as strangers in Babylon. We are only beginning to suspect the cost of being a disciple of Jesus in this hour. Our “fiery trial” has just begun. And though the motivations may vary (fear, desire for relevancy, etc…), the temptation to assimilate or be assimilated is so very alluring. Sadly, I believe that for a very large portion of those who call themselves Christians, the assimilation has already begun.

We have for the most part ignored Peter’s admonition to “not be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance.” We have seen it as easier to assimilate Babylonian culture than to live our lives in such a way that would influence it. “The passions of the flesh that wage war against our souls” have been redefined and dismissed as archaic, draconian, pharisaical moral paradigms that no longer have relevance. We have assimilated the Babylonian definition of spirituality and love and hidden our deception behind words like tolerance and inclusion. The grace and mercy in which we are to be mediators of God have instead become a cloaking device behind which we conceal our desire for acceptance and our fear of exclusion. Many of our ministers more closely resemble Babylonian celebrities than servant shepherds who humbly lead the flock by example. We have ignored Peter’s admonition, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Our assimilation only obscures the revelation of Jesus and points those who need him back to themselves.

I don’t think assimilation is the key for being a Christian in Babylon. In fact, the reality is that it actually does more harm than good and undermines the very things we say we desire. So, what is the answer? We’ll get to that. But before we do, we’ll next consider whether or not the appropriate response for being a Christian in Babylon is isolation.

Abide in Jesus. Watch & pray.

Being A Christian In Babylon: An Introduction

“By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings…” (1 Peter 5:13)

Babylon. Peter’s code-word for Rome. All through the Hebrew scriptures, from the plains of Shinar, to the deportation of the Jews, Babylon is depicted as a world system whose opposition to God was manifested in every facet of its culture. At its very core, Babylon was anti-God and for Peter- anti-Christ. Writing from the “belly of the beast” to the believers scattered across Asia Minor who were also living under Babylon’s domain, Peter wanted to tell them how to be Christians during their “exile.” How were they to exist in an environment in which they possessed no political influence? How were they to understand the suffering they endured in a culture that was diametrically opposed to everything they believed in? As we “continue to live out the biblical story,” we 21st century American Christians need to understand that he was writing to us as well.

I think there are basically three major “knee-jerk” ways in which the Christians who inhabited Peter’s Roman Babylon and we “present day Babylonians” tend to respond in such an environment : assimilation, isolation and rebellion. But I also believe that Peter offered them and us a fourth way, an alternative that invites us to see our “exile and suffering in Babylon” in the context of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and our relationship with him.

There’s absolutely no way I can include everything I’d like to say in one article, so, I’ll break it up into a series of articles: “Being A Christian in Babylon.” We’ll first look at the three “knee-jerk responses” and then conclude with what I believe to be Peter’s fourth way. I’ll publish part one shortly, but in the interim, I encourage you to read the book of 1 Peter, not as a stale historical letter to some obscure community of believers, but as a fresh word from the Spirit to you.

Lord, as we look at 1 Peter, by your Spirit, speak to our hearts and let us hear what you would say to us right here and now. Be glorified Jesus, and strengthen the hearts of your people.