Carrie Underwood sings what most of us believe: “This is my temporary home, it’s not where I belong, windows in rooms that I’m passing through.” We’re supposed to understand ourselves as foreigners and strangers—citizens of heaven.
In the midst of suffering and pain on earth, our heavenly citizenship is a comforting thought. And yet, we have every justification to believe that the command to cultivate and care for this world has not passed away.
Reputation of the Early Church
Humanity received a God-given role on earth. It’s called the “creation mandate” and it’s found in Genesis 1:28 where God’s fundamental description for people is to “be fruitful,” and “fill the earth and subdue it.” We were made to be creators and stewards in our homes, cultures, and governments. It’s hard to believe we’d be asked to invest so heavily in a “temporary home.”
Historical records show the early church made that investment. And people noticed. The Epistle to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic, describes the seemingly contradictory existence of Christians in the world—they dwell in Greek cities, they eat like everyone else, they dress like everyone else, and yet their citizenship “confessedly contradicts expectation.” They marry and have babies, but they keep instead of discard the unwanted children. They share meals but not wives. They obey the laws and yet they surpass them in their goodness. Here’s the description that makes me catch my breath every time: “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as foreigners.”
The Greek Christians were acting as citizens and foreigners of this world and that life worked as a defense of Christianity against its accusers.
Misunderstanding our Stance as Strangers
Working through 1 Peter in a seminary class last year we reached 2:11, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” The application was drawn that “when we get all involved in politics, when we get all involved in how the world is going, we forget this is not our home.” That perspective seems like a balm to seminary students who feel weighed down by political and cultural turmoil. If we live only as foreigners we can find comfort in the idea that we can ignore those issues and focus instead on “just the gospel.”
But there’s a problem with this interpretation of verse 11: verses 12 and 13. Verse 12 commands us to “Live such good lives among the pagans” and in verse 13 to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” These commands require living faithful lives enmeshed in the rest of the world—including its culture and its politics—not separated from it.
Nowhere does Peter instruct them that to live as foreigners means to make certain that they properly separate themselves from the tumultuous world around them. His commands beckon them to be foreigners among the people. You are foreigners, so live as excellent representations of your kingdom within this one.
We belong to another kingdom and serve another king, and yet we live with the responsibility of citizens in the earthly kingdoms we find ourselves in. Perhaps the posture we were meant to have is a kind of restlessness: discontent to merely wait out our time on this earth we’ve been given to steward, but not so comfortable here that we lose sight of our real hope—a new heaven and a new earth.
Finding this posture requires intentional choice because our natural tendency draws us to lodge ourselves firmly in one extreme or the other: isolation or assimilation. Balancing our identity on this world that is groaning for redemption is tricky, but it’s always been that way. The early church didn’t do it perfectly, but The Epistle to Diognetus gets this part right: they felt the responsibility of citizens and yet had the hope of foreigners. They were restless as we should be restless: unable to completely forsake the world that God made good and will one day make new, but also unable to place our hope or identity in a world broken and corrupted by sin. We are not commanded to act like foreigners and exiles, isolating ourselves from the world we inhabit. God has given us the identity of foreigners and exiles for the sake of the world we are still living in—ambassadors and advocates for the new kingdom coming.