Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Oct. 14, 2010. At the time of publication, Smith was director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
What is the role of the church in society? What does it mean for Christians to be in the world but not of the world? How do we remain faithful to our Christian confession and identity but also engage the culture around us?
These are important questions for us to consider, and they have been questions of considerable debate among Christians since the time of the early church.
Some Christians view the relationship the church should have with the culture as one of separation, isolation and abandonment.
Inherent in this approach is an understanding of the world as evil and culture as the tool of evil.
The world is a very evil place, full of evil ideas, and thus Christians should separate themselves, isolate themselves and, to some extent, abandon the culture.
A second approach is one in which Christians confront culture with power and judgment.
Those who take this approach seek to use power, especially political power, to force what they believe to be Christian ideals onto the culture.
Indeed, these types of groups would like to force Christianity itself on to culture.
In America, these individuals and groups equate Christian ideals with American values, and, to a great extent, it is the latter that perhaps influences the former.
A third way that Christians have defined this relationship to culture is to embrace culture without any thought for the inherent biblical tension that lies between the Christian gospel and the culture.
This view is a weak, “namby pamby” mentality that places hope solely in the togetherness of humanity.
However, it fails to recognize sin and evil in our world, and it fails to see that culture has its inherent problems.
But is this all there is? Or is there another approach? One through which the church does not separate herself from the world, does not seek to have power over the world and does not cower down to the point of having no prophetic voice in the world?
In Jeremiah 29:1-7, we find a letter from the prophet Jeremiah written to the exiles who were in Babylon. As is well known among scholars and lay people alike, the Babylonian Exile had a tumultuous effect on the people of Judah.
This deportation from their homeland, with the last deportation taking place in 586 BCE, coupled with the destruction of the temple that same year, brought a sense of despair and hopelessness.
It is to these exiles that Jeremiah writes his pastoral letter found in Jeremiah 29. His reasons for doing so seem to be to counter the idea being propagated by others that this current ordeal would be short-lived.
In their prophetic utterances, the exile would be over soon, and God would return them to their land.
Jeremiah writes, however, to oppose this understanding of God’s purposes. This exile from their land, Jeremiah tells them, will not be short-lived. He instructs them to build, plant, marry and multiply. In other words, he calls on them to do the things they would normally do.
These are not instructions given to temporary residents of a city. Refugees don’t do these kinds of activities as if life were normal.
These are instructions given by someone who understands that this exile was going to last for an extended period of time.
Yet, there is something that Jeremiah says in his letter that may have confused and angered even his most loyal followers. Jeremiah also instructs the captives to “Seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7).
The English word “welfare,” found in the New Revised Standard Version, translates the Hebrew word “shalom,” a familiar word even to those of us who may not read or speak Hebrew.
This term carries with it a richness of ideas, such as peace, prosperity, well-being and wholeness.
If we understand the use of shalom here to mean something along these lines, perhaps we might also capture its meaning by using the expression “the common good.”
In this sense, Jeremiah not only commanded the exiles to settle down in Babylon and to build, plant, marry and multiply, he also called them to do more than simply wait out the exile in isolation and separation or in judgment and intolerance.
Rather, he called on them to seek the common good, not only for themselves, but also for their captors.
In many respects, the Christian tradition has used the historic exile of Judah as a metaphorical exile of God’s people in the world.
Indeed, as Peter states in one of his letters, Christians are aliens and strangers in this land we call the world (1 Peter 2:11).
The assumption is that this earth is not our home, and the hope that we maintain, based on the biblical idea of a future existence with God, lingers in our hearts and minds.
But until that distant future becomes a reality, we exist here in the now of this world, of this society and of this culture.
We can take the position of some who practice isolation, separation and abandonment of culture.
Or we can relate to this culture with force and power through intolerance, judgment and coercion.
And we may even choose to shrink from our call to be God’s people in the world by quieting our prophet voice.
But none of these is an authentic biblical response.
The most faithful relationship we can have to our culture is to do what we can to seek the common good for all.
That, of course, is not an easy task, but it seems to be our clarion call from God, particularly as that call is revealed in the teachings of Jesus that command us to love others, to be peacemakers, to work for justice and to bear witness to the God who is on the side of the oppressed.
Seeking the common good, or seeking the shalom of the city, is possibly the most authentic way to be God’s people in our culture.