The Church After Trump: Remembering Our Exile

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Nearly every major news outlet has declared that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States of America. Unless I have solid evidence to the contrary, I’m assuming that this will be the case (see “Christians and Conspiracy Theories: A Call to Witness to the Care and Control of God”). My wife and I were sad to hear the news, not least because of Biden and Harris’s radical stance on abortion. The slaughter of the innocents continues. This is not to assume, of course, that it would have stopped under four more years of Donald Trump.

Even if one holds that Trump (or at least his policy on the whole) would have been better for America, we would hardly have had reason to blow the trumpet in Zion upon his reelection. Both candidates have, in their own ways, contributed to the erosion of America’s character. Both parties need the church’s prophetic voice. To “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7) often means voting for, as some have put it, “the least worst” option. The danger comes, however, when we feel so much solidarity with Caesar—wherever he sits on the political spectrum—that we begin to forget our exile and place our hope in chariots (Ps. 20:7).

Navigating the Future As a Church

As I reflect on the last four years and what it can teach us about the years to come, I don’t claim to have 20/20 vision. The relationship between church and state is one of the most complicated and controversial questions in theology. (Let him who has a mature political theology be the first to cast a stone.) But of the many dangers into which we can fall, one of the most devastating is to deny the complexity of a public faith and stop trying to navigate it as a church.

Our heated political climate has contributed to polarization in the body of Christ. Perhaps some Christians should have been more vocal against Biden and others should have been less cozy with Trump. But those on both “sides” (including me) will never mature until we remember our deeper unity and begin to hear one another as Christians, not as political opponents. While I don’t always listen as well as I could, I have made a stronger effort in the last few months to hear the concerns of those with whom I feel less affinity on these matters. As a result, I have taken opportunities to state why I could not vote for Biden, with the hope that others will come to see that my frustrations about Trump are driven by a concern for the integrity of the church—not by a liberalizing impulse, an elitist attitude, or a naive disregard for what is at stake in America.

Danger comes when we feel so much solidarity with Ceasar that we begin to forget our exile and place our hope in chariots.

Going forward, we need to remember that, as a dear old saint in our church occasionally remarks, “We really do need one another.” If we acknowledge our shared exile (1 Pet. 1:1, 17), then it is foolish to consume one another over politics in the land where we dwell. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). The greatest hope for the church after Trump is to ground our discourse in our shared confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3), our shared citizenship in an unshakeable kingdom (Heb. 12:28), and our shared exile in a land that is destined for dissolution (Heb. 11:13). The result will be more charity, clarity, and nuance on all sides, which can only improve our unity with one another and our witness to the world.

Remembering Who We Are

A few years ago, I preached through 1 Peter and it challenged my own assumptions about faith and politics. First, I thought deeply about what it means for Christians to be “elect exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1), and how we ought to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1 Pet. 1:17). For first-century Christians, this was fairly straightforward. Rome viewed them as a political threat, and they faced constant persecution. It’s still straightforward for Christians in countries like China, Iran, or North Korea. They don’t need someone to warn them against feeling too at home in the land. But as I look at the church in America, I wonder if we have forgotten what it feels like to be a stranger. Does the world still, like ancient Rome or Babylon or Egypt, look on at God’s people as a nation in exile—a people whose allegiance is to another Lord and whose hope is grounded in a different kingdom—or do they see a people whose hope is desperately entangled in American nationalism?

Does the world see in God’s people a nation in exile—a people whose allegiance is to a different Lord and whose hope is grounded in a different kingdom?

Perhaps we have forgotten that we are a nation at all—the one and only “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9), with boundaries defined by faith rather than race or geography. The church and not America is “the greatest nation on earth,” as my friend Paul Ryan says. The church—not America or Israel or any other earthly country—is the only holy nation because we are the only place where God dwells. If the Biden administration threatens our religious liberty as much as some think that it will, I pray that the church will “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Instead, I pray that it will ground us more deeply in our shared identity as a nation in exile.

This brings me to the second point in 1 Peter that deeply challenged my assumptions about the proper posture for Christian political engagement. As I studied the historical context of the letter, I learned that Peter’s audience lived under the oppressive hand of Nero, the psychopath Caesar who allegedly burned down part of his own capital city to make room for building projects, then blamed it on Christians for leading people away from the Roman gods and inciting their wrath. Yet as Peter explores what it means for Christians to be holy as God is holy, he characterizes holy exiles by submission to authority—at home, in the workplace, and in the land where they dwell (1 Pet. 2:13, 18; 3:1).

If you ask most Christians to summarize a husband’s duty in one word, they will tell you, “Love.” As for the wife, “Submit.” As for children, “Obey.” But if you ask about the duty of Christian citizens, many will say, “Vote,” instead of “Submit” (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). We hear it all the time: “It’s your Christian duty to vote.” Perhaps this is true (it’s a discussion for another time). The point here is not that we shouldn’t vote or that the call to submit does not need to be qualified. Of course, it does, and we always ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). The point is that Scripture is clear and if we do not think honestly about God’s word to us on this important subject, we are likely to undermine our witness to a watching world. When I have brought 1 Peter 2 or Romans 13 into a discussion about church and state, I have often been told what these passages do not mean. I am rarely told what they do mean. Yet both contain sober warnings to churches under governments far more oppressive than ours (see especially Rom. 13:2). My prayer is that those who have found it easy to obey these verses under Trump will wrestle honestly with them under Biden.

Refocusing Our Hope

Finally, 1 Peter challenged my assumptions about faith and politics by reminding me of the need to stay grounded in radical hope. We have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). “Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded,” says Peter, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). God has “raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:21). And this is especially key (if you skim over something in this article, don’t let it be this passage):

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:13–17)

When the world is in upheaval, the glorious Christian hope has an opportunity to shine like the sun. Peter assumes that Christians will be so hopeful that it will inspire their unbelieving neighbors to ask them about their hope. Right now, many of our neighbors are lamenting: “Our world is a mess.” “America as we know it is over.” And so on. Maybe they are right. But do they look at the church and see people with revolutionary hope? Does it inspire them to ask, “How can you be so hopeful when things are so bad?”

Let the church after Trump live as holy exiles, filled with a vibrant, inexplicable hope that surprises the world, all because Jesus is Lord and he is risen from the dead.

My greatest prayer for the church after Trump is that it will be reinvigorated by its resurrection hope. Peter repeatedly grounds the Christian hope in the resurrection of Jesus. Why? Because the resurrection is not an isolated event in history that we look back to for encouragement about God’s power to do miracles. It’s much more than that. The risen Christ is, as Paul says, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). When you pick the first apple of the season and find it crisp and sweet, it assures you of a huge harvest to follow. Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of something huge—giant, beautiful, massive, the biggest thing ever to happen in the world—that God is yet to do and is already doing now as men are invited into the church, the new humanity that will dwell in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:1).

The resurrection of the dead in Christ is yet to come. And if the dead will be raised, the whole creation will be renewed also. “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19), because it knows that it will share in their same freedom. Right now, creation is groaning, and the church has reasons to share in its groans. But most fundamentally, let us “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:23). Let the church after Trump live as holy exiles, filled with a vibrant, inexplicable hope that surprises the world, all because Jesus is Lord and he is risen from the dead.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.