When it comes to living in a hostile culture, many Christians choose either assimilation or separation. Assimilation means you gradually look like everyone else. Their values become your values; your lifestyle imitates theirs.
Separation is the opposite. You see the world as evil, so believers should “come out from among them and be ye separate!” This was how I grew up. In the little independent Baptist school I went to, we had a Christian version of everything. We had a so-called “Shepherd’s Guide,” which was basically a catalog of all the Christian-owned businesses in the community so we could shop at those places. We had Christian sports leagues. Christians were expected to listen to their own kind of music (no drums), to style their hair a certain way (long hair on boys was a sign that demons were at work in your heart), and to dress in distinctive ways (boys in ties and girls in culottes—which, I’m told, are coming back in style). The idea was that the more isolated you were from the world, the more faithful you were.
This was a controversy in the prophet Daniel’s day, too. It was provoked by the fact that the exile of the Israelites actually happened in two stages:
In Stage 1, which took place around 597 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon about 10,000 people, mostly the elite—military leaders, scholars, teachers, and community leaders—including Daniel and his friends.
In Stage 2, about 10 years later, Nebuchadnezzar brought everyone else.
The tricky period was between those two phases. During that time, some false prophets rose up in Israel that said, “Look, we’ve got to resist this exile. Babylon is bad, so stay away from it. If you have to live there, keep to yourself. And if you pray anything about Babylon, pray against it, that God would destroy it.”
The prophet Jeremiah, who was a true prophet, said the opposite: God’s will for the Israelites at that moment was not to stay separate from the culture of Babylon but to influence it and work for its good. In fact, he wrote a letter to all of the exiles in Babylon that was recorded in Jeremiah 29:
“This is what the LORD of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles … ‘Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce … have sons and daughters … Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the wellbeing of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.”
– Jeremiah 29:4–7 CSB
Like Daniel, we live as exiles in a hostile culture. (That’s literally what the Apostle Peter calls us!) But we’re not supposed to be huddled up in small groups singing “Kumbaya,” waiting on Jesus to come back and rapture us off of this dumpster fire of a planet. We are to be a part of Babylon, seeking the good of our city and praying for it.
Most Christians, like the Jews in Daniel’s day, believe the options for exiles are assimilation or separation. But we’re not called to either of those; we’re called to transformation. Daniel and his friends took on Babylonian names, spoke the Babylonian language, spent time in the Babylonian palace, worked for the good of their Babylonian neighbors.
But they did so as faithful servants of God.
We gather every weekend as God’s community for a few hours, “in Israel” (so to speak), and then we go back out, to work in and pray for and seek the good of Babylon. The church should feel like a spiritual tornado: you get drawn in for a few hours only to be flung back out. It’s what we see happening in Acts, as the majority of its 40 miracles take place outside the church.
That’s where God wants to demonstrate his power today—in the neighborhoods and the businesses and the hospitals and the prisons.
As we live our lives in Babylon, we pray for its security and welfare. We look for ways God is at work there and join him in his mission in the world. We recognize how he is at work in us, setting us apart as we become more like him, even as we entwine our lives with unbelievers.
We make Babylon our genuine home and maintain pursuits that add to its wellbeing. For as it thrives, we thrive.