Staying Close to Christ While Away from Your Home Church

Post graduate life in the present day sees a lot of transitions. It is not uncommon for my classmates in medical school and me to move around the United States in search of a school, rotations, and residency interviews. It can feel difficult to feel rooted in any one particular place because of the way the American medical educational system seems to structure itself around positional flexibility. Also being a minority in post Christian America can add further challenges in forming healthy social relationships with local peers.

Having grown up close to the San Gabriel Valley, I took for granted the large Asian American community. Having at my disposal many Hawaiian poke bowls, Vietnamese pho, Taiwanese hot pot, Korean BBQ, Japanese ramen and sushi, Chinese dimsum, boba milk tea, and many other Asian supermarkets and restaurants felt normative. In moving to other states, I found that I lived in areas that do not have as many Asian American restaurants available, or if they are, they are relatively out of the way for me to go on a consistent basis.

However you can still usually rely on some common American companies being present: Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Starbucks, Panera Bread, McDonalds, etc. Yet I also find that many states have their own regional specific restaurants and supermarkets such as In n out and Stater Bros in California, Culver’s and Publix in Florida, Tim Horton’s and Wegman’s in Pennsylvania. Thus you get the feel that even within the same country, each state has their own personality.

The Bible sees Christians as “sojourners and exiles in the world.” (Leviticus 25:23; 1 Peter 2:11)

The LORD called Abram out of his country and his kindred and his father’s house to the land that He would show him. He would be the vehicle of blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-2). The LORD later tells Abram his offspring would be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).

Joseph, the son of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was sent to Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery by Midianite traders (Genesis 37:28). Jacob and his family move to Egypt to survive a famine (Genesis 45:9-11). God sent Joseph to Egypt and in his stay there he blessed the house of Potiphar, blessed the house of Pharaoh, and provided for his formerly estranged brothers, and reunited with his father.

Even the plagues that God inflicted upon Egypt for Pharaoh’s enslavement of His covenant people was meant to have an evangelistic purpose. After the 10th plague, the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked (Exodus 12:36). Also a mixed multitude went up with the people of Israel (Exodus 12:38).

Then many centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to those in Babylonian exile: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Daniel is a great example of this instruction. He stayed true to his Jewish heritage, resolving that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank (Daniel 1:8). Even so, Daniel and his three friends sought to bless the Babylonians and submitted to their educational system: to learn the literature and language of the Chaldeans (Daniel 1:4). His steadfast loyalty to YHWH led Nebuchadnezzar to praise his God as the King of heaven and the Most High (Daniel 4:34, 37).

Throughout the Scriptures, God has a number of ways of sending His people to the nations to bless them: calling them out of their homes with Abraham, letting them be sold into slavery like Joseph, drawing them into Egypt through a famine, sending them out after great plagues of judgment on Pharaoh, exiling them into Babylonian captivity.

In the modern era, people still move around for similar reasons: war and famine. For others, we could move around places because of jobs and education. But no matter the reason, for Christians, our purpose is to hold fast to the LORD and bless the people to whom God sends us.

Abraham, Joseph, the people of Israel before the Exodus, and Daniel did not have the temple to which they can travel to offer up sacrifices and worship God. But they held fast to their faith and submitted and interacted as best they could to the local authorities without compromising their faith.

Jesus is the ultimate example of a sojourner. He enjoyed the worship of thousands of angels, but left His throne in heaven to tabernacle among the people He made in His image. Even though He was the God who created the heavens and the earth, He submitted to the Sanhedrin and the Roman government insofar as it was obedient to the Father’s will. He did so to bring many people to glory with Him.

Likewise, in light of all this biblical insight, I need to embrace my identity as a sojourner and exile in this world. I do my best to find a local church who hold a high view of Scripture and desire to stay faithful and obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ, and fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. The local culture of the places I find myself in may be quite different than the one I was born and raised in, but I learn to adapt to them.

I can be flexible in my external circumstances because I have God is my rock, refuge and strength. In other words, you can deal with variables when you have a constant you can fall back on. Thankfully, Bible reading and prayer are portable actions, so I can do these things wherever I go, and these two means of grace should inform and shape the actions and decisions I make. In addition, social and communication technologies such as Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, phone calls, and emails help compress the world, so distance is not always an obstacle to staying close to home, but the priority should be placed on focusing on the local people.

Since the United States is a multiethnic, multifaith, and multigenerational country, there are quite a different number of cultures and backgrounds that we will interact with. It definitely helps to be confident in your own culture enough that you know how to engage with the cultures of others.

Every now and then, I would have some colleagues or patients ask what is my heritage. Sometimes the way the question is asked makes me feel like I’m an alien in a foreign land, even though I was born and raised in the States, but other times, I can hear that the question is just a curious inquiry to help make conversation. I cannot control how other people think of me, but I can control the way that I react and converse with them. The attitude I strive to maintain is to seek the good of others, even when they may not always reciprocate that kindness, knowingly or not.

I have met people in the LGBT community in my medical school, and I have met people who are Zoroastrian and Muslim. I always welcome hearing their stories and their struggles, and I do my best to model the gospel through these relational channels. I build relationships with my peers as best I can, but if the activities involve alcohol or drugs, I am more reluctant to participate. Sometimes it is difficult to show peers that rejecting these activities is not rejecting them as friends, but they can still take the rejection personally.

In the Christian walk, it is difficult to maintain that balance between faithfulness to Christ and building friendships with others. Many times, you can be as friendly and as welcoming to others as you can be but your faithfulness to Christ can and will drive others away while it also draws others in.

Staying close to Christ while being away from home is difficult, but possible. It involves knowing your faith well enough that you can stand on your own. Joseph and Daniel are two examples of this. They were relatively separated from like-minded peers in a community that was alien to their faith, yet they held fast to YHWH and blessed their peers. The Spirit should be reshaping your desires such that you want to please and honor Christ in all that you say, think, and do. He does this through Bible reading, prayer, and the local church. The primary purposes of these is to relocate your local experiences in the context of a covenantal relationship with YHWH. Christians live under His reign and seek to proclaim the glory of His name to our neighbors. I can stay close to Christ wherever I go, because He is with me wherever I go. I can face the variables of life because He is my constant.

Separation of Church and State

How does Christianity relate to the political?

In 1930s Germany, Lutherans followed a two-kingdom approach to Christ and culture, in which Christians are not to bring their faith into politics. This eventually led to the disaster of Nazism which led to state-sponsored eugenics and mass murders.

In South Africa, Reformed Christianity believed Christians are supposed to transform culture. An orthodox Reformed theology, invoking the views of Abraham Kuyper, created a civil religion that supported apartheid.

In Justin Taylor’s article, he states “any simplistic Christian response to politics – the claim that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that we should “take back our country for Jesus” – is inadequate.”

Mr. Taylor states, “In each society, time, and place, the form of political involvement has to be worked out differently, with the utmost faithfulness to the Scripture, but also the greatest sensitivity to culture, time, and place.” I completely agree with this sentiment.

I have heard one well-meaning American Christian say, ” Abortion is never good. But Christians need to remember this is not a Christian world and not all have faith, and we’re called first of all to proclaim and to live the gospel, and not to make the laws of this world. Participate and be a voice of the Lord, yes, but to “rule”? – Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” to Pilate, and His kingdom hasn’t changed.”

While it is true that Lord Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” He also prayed to the Father, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

If Christians always thought that they should not make the laws of this world, they would never have succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain as William Wilberforce did, abolishing slavery in America as the abolitionists did, or ending segregation in the civil sphere as Martin Luther King Jr did.

But of course, as we try to make the laws of this world, we may run into issues as we did with the Prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol, and legitimizing apartheid in South Africa. Yet, the solution to these valid problems are not to excuse ourselves from the political sphere, but to take care in how we exercise our authority.

If we fail to exercise our responsibilities and authority properly, we should make apologies and appropriate amendments, but we do not excuse ourselves from the awesome reponsibilities entirely.

What is Sin?

Sin is any motive, thought, or action construed by God to be dishonoring to Him. Sins are crimes against the authority of God, and they would be punished as harshly as treason would be by a king. Romans 6:23 states “the wages of sin is death.”

The Two Covenants

Now under the Mosaic covenant, the covenant made by God with His people after He freed them from Egyptian slavery, God created a theocracy in which “church” was the state. He gave the people the authority to enforce the death penalty against sins such as idolatry, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, dishonoring your parents, sexual immorality, homosexuality, adultery, incest, kidnapping, and murder.

In Jeremiah 31, the LORD promised: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.”

With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Lord Jesus, the Son of God, the people of God are now under the new covenant that Jesus mediates.

“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

(Hebrews 9:14-15)

Just as Americans were once under the Articles of Confederation before moving on to the Constitution, so too are the people of God were once under the Mosaic covenant but are now under the new covenant that Lord Jesus mediates.

Now under the new covenant, sins are still punishable by the death penalty, but now people have the option to believe in the Son to be their perfect substitute, where He died on the Cross for their sins or they may continue in their sins and eventually face due punishment from God.

A New Covenant Case Study

If we look at the apostle Paul’s case in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6, we see something interesting. Effectively, Paul acts as a kind of “Moses,” in his epistles as he explains to his respective congregations the terms of the new covenant that Lord Jesus mediates.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul relates how the Corinthian church has a case of sexual immorality, where one of the congregants has his father’s wife. Instead of calling for the death penalty as the Mosaic covenant would dictate, Paul instead sentences the man to excommunication from the local church, and rightly so.

Paul later goes on to describe how the church should relate to “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.” He tells the Corinthian believers not to associate with any professing Christian if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.

1 Corinthians 5:12-13

In the above passage, it would appear that Paul advocates for a type of “separation of church and state.” He is making a distinction between the community of believers and the outside world. If a professing believer acts like the outside world, then they should be excommunicated from the local church so they can join the world that they are acting part of.

Later on in the same letter, Paul states the following:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Here we see that actions such as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, and drunkenness are denounced as sins. But instead of being met with the death penalty by the community of believers, transgressors are encouraged to place their faith in Lord Jesus to be washed, sanctified, and justified in His name and by the Holy Spirit.

Given that the surrounding 1st century Roman culture at the time of Paul’s letter approved of idolatry, drunkenness, homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality like prostitution, the state probably did not carry out penalties for all these things that are considered sins. It was into this kind of world that professing believers, who sin in the way Paul mentions, would be excommunicated.

In other words, the State at this time had laws that permitted things that God, through His Word and His church, would denounce as sin.
But note that the sins that Paul mentions do not inflict grievous physical harm to your neighbor. Idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, and theft are sins just as much as murder, abortion, and slavery are, but the former are not as life-threatening as the latter are.

They all deserve punishment by God, but the State only punishes some of them, especially the ones that threaten the safety, physical well-being and life of its citizens.

A person guilty of idolatry versus a person guilty of murder would both deserve death for their sins, yet they can find forgiveness and redemption in the blood of Jesus, but the convicted murderer would still face the death penalty while the idolater would not be punished by the State.

It is with this distinction in mind that Christians should consider how we ought to relate to our unsaved neighbors with respect to the government’s role.

The government should play a role, through appropriately defined laws, when the issue at stake involves the safety, physical well-being and life of its citzens. This would act as a form of God’s common grace towards believers and non-believers.

We should outlaw murder, slavery, segregation, and abortion because they are a severe attack against humanity. These sins are crimes because they threaten the safety, physical well-being, and life of our neighbors. While unwarranted gun violence is also sin, guns should not be banned from private usage, because they can be used to protect your neighbors and yourself. They can and should be however, be regulated as sensible as possible on the federal, state, and local level. In contrast, same-sex unions, while still sin, are not as life-threatening as abortion and unrestrained gun violence.

Government is by definition compulsory regulation. As Christians, we have to think wisely and carefully about how such regulatory power should be used. We have to consider whether a given issue warrants regulation, and if so, then how much and how so?

For any given issue, we have options of banning it altogether, regulating/permitting it, or writing no laws about it.

Abortion is the intentional destruction of a growing child in the womb.
Generally we should seek to ban any destruction of innocent life just as we already do with murder. Yet as much as we strive to make the laws rigid, absolute, unyielding, and uncompromising, we can and should tailor them to fit them as best we can to the moral complexities of life. Given that pregnancy is where the child and mother are intimately connected with each other, complications can arise where saving one will lead to the death of the other, especially in light of limited or absent medical technology.

In cases such as ectopic pregnancies, saving the life of the mother will usually lead to the death of the child because we currently lack the medical technology to protect and nourish the child at that developmental stage after separating the child from her mother.
Laws should be written that take this into account, so healthcare professionals are free to take care of their patients without fear of prosecution from excessively oppressive laws.

Unrestrained gun violence is a danger to our neighbors. There should be sensible regulations in place to minimize the loss of life from those who wish to seek to do harm to others. Banning all automatic rifles would be too extreme, but asking for things like requiring licensing exams before possession of a gun, having gun safes at homes away from the reach of young children, and other similar measures would be great.

Slavery, while an affront to humanity, was not always as life-threatening as it was during the antebellum period of America. While slavery was not great for quality of life, at least the people were alive. The slavery back in the days of the Mosaic covenant and in the days of the Roman Empire were more like indentured servitude and employees.

God allowed slavery in the Mosaic covenant, but He regulated it to prevent and minimize it from becoming excessively cruel.

The apostle Paul had commandments regarding slavery, yet he asked Philemon to receive his slave Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). At this time, Paul wanted Philemon to think like an abolitionist not out of compulsion but out of his own accord.

In the above case, slavery was evil and commonly practiced in the Roman Empire, yet Paul wanted Philemon to choose to free his slave in spite of the legality of the institution.

Here in America, we outlawed slavery. We are not simply regulating slavery, but we banned it altogether. While it would have been nice if the slavers in the Southern States chose to free their slaves on their own accord, the issue became enough of a problem back then, that it warranted government compulsion to protect African Americans from the cruelties that came with being seen as property in the eyes of the law.

Next we have same-sex unions. Should our government outlaw or at least refuse to recognize it? If we outlaw same-sex unions, would that mean dissenters would be thrown in jail or pay a fine? Personally, I would prefer that the State just simply refuse to recognize the unions. People seeking to be married to a same-sex partner would not be punished by the law, but they would not have a formally recognized civil union.

Same-sex marriage is a sin, but it is not as threatening to life in the way that murder, abortion, gun violence, and slavery are. It is much more similar to the idolatry of Paul’s day, where it was a sin that was practiced and recognized by the ruling State. Here I believe Christians can make a pragmatic compromise and let the world act like the world.
Same-sex marriage is considered legal, but we can still share the gospel with our neighbors and by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit can then transform the desires of our neighbor’s heart where they will choose to reject same-sex marriage in pursuit of holy joy in God.

In Paul’s case, he asked Philemon to voluntarily free his slave in spite of the legality of slavery.
In our case, we can share the gospel with our neighbors and hope that they will voluntarily reject same-sex unions in spite of their legality.
It may be argued that there should not be government compulsion involved in the case of same-sex marriages.

The case might be comparable to how God hates divorce, but still permits it because of people’s hardness of heart. He allows the dissolution of a legitimate union, and perhaps we could allow as a society the formation of an illegitimate union. If God was willing to allow divorce for apparently pragmatic concerns, perhaps we could do something similar for our unbelieving neighbors.

We tried to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol, but that excessive regulation led to more harm than good. We now permit and regulate alcoholic beverages, but we encourage moderation and punish drunk drivers.

If we try to prohibit same-sex unions we may encounter the same problems as we did with Prohibition, so perhaps we should permit them for now and simply share the gospel with our neighbors and hope the Spirit changes the desires of their hearts so they reject the union on their own.

There should be government compulsion, however, in cases of abortion because we are talking about physical threats to the very lives of unborn children. Pro-choicers say, even if abortion is wrong, we should let mothers decide to reject that option on their own. But precisely because abortion represents such a large threat to the life of an unborn child, the government should get involved just as much as it already does in protecting its citizens from murder.

Below are my concluding thoughts:
-All sins deserve the death penalty from God
-God provided Jesus as a means for people to escape the due penalty of their sins and find forgiveness and eternal life in Him.
-Some sins, especially those that are life-threatening are punishable by the State, but some others, such as those of sexual natures, are not.
-In Paul’s day, we could see that all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes as in the case of idolatry for example.
-For Christians then, we should strive to make laws that protect and promote the safety, physical well-being, and life of our neighbors as we do for murder, abortion, slavery, segregation, and gun violence.
-In cases where life or quality of life is not as threatened such as availability of alcohol, contraceptives, and same-sex unions, we could make a pragmatic compromise and create laws that permit and/or regulate these in the interest of living peacefully with our unbelieving neighbors even as we seek their eternal well-being through the gospel.

How the Gospel Informs Public Policy

The God of the Bible made us in His own image.
Being made in His image, we are dependent creatures made for the purpose of honoring, loving, and glorifying Him.
Our relationship is that of a subject to a king, or a citizen to a government:
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7).

There’s just one problem: we have all disobeyed our rightful King, forsaken Him, broken our covenant/agreement with Him, committed adultery against Him with idols.

One of the ways we dishonor God is by dishonoring the image of God in one another.  We express this rebellion in many ways and it shows up in the issues that concern us: immigration, gun laws, police brutality, racism, sexuality, gender equality, abortion, drugs, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China, etc.

For all intents and purposes, God has the right to punish us all befitting the measure of our deeds.

“But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.”
(Isaiah 1:28)

There’s a sense in which our sins are their own punishment, which is the case when a country suffers from bad leadership:

“Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
(Isaiah 1:23)

When law enforcement is perverted where laws are lax as in the case of gun violence (insufficient regulation of access), or laws are present but poorly enforced (poorly enforced background check), the people suffer.

If social ills come from sin, and sin is our main problem where we are estranged from God, what hope do we have of solving our collective dilemma?

Thankfully, our rightful King offered us rebels a peace treaty through which we could be reconciled to Him and begin to enjoy the blessings He has available for us. As a general rule, people prosper when we model our thoughts and behaviors after God’s character of justice, love, mercy, and grace.

How are we to be reconciled? Repentance.  What is repentance?  It is dropping your arms of rebellion, asking the LORD for forgiveness and then performing acts consistent with that attitude of penitence, or “bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” as the Bible calls it (Matthew 3:8).

The LORD himself says:
“If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return.
If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver,
and if you swear, “As the LORD lives,” in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
and in him shall they glory.” (Jeremiah 4:1-2)

In another place, “fruit in keeping with repentance” would look like the following:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.”
(Isaiah 2:2)

Thus from a biblical perspective, the social ills that plague our society ultimately stem from a failure to give God the honor that He is due.  It is in the fear of Him, that our good works are done well and bless others and ourselves.

In our present time, “Return to Me,” and “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean” ultimately means that we are to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

If we are to “remove the evil of our deeds before His eyes,” that simply means that after being reconciled to our King through Jesus, we now live a life consistent with our renewed allegiance to our rightful King, a life which expresses itself through the way we interact with one another, including the laws that we make to promote the public good and pursue justice.

It is mysterious, but our Creator chooses to express Himself as three distinct centers of consciousness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God the Son entered human history as Jesus of Nazareth to suffer the punishment that we humans deserve for dishonoring Him and one another.

It is said in Isaiah 53:4-6 of Jesus:

“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned – every one – to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus had to die on the cross on Good Friday and rise from the dead on Easter Sunday to be the historical means by which we rebels could be reconciled to the King we so grievously betrayed.  The eternal worth of His person was the only sufficient means by which our eternal debt of sin could be paid.  He is the only appointed means by which our sins are washed away, and through which we can come before God the Father.

If we pray to Jesus to ask Him to be our Lord and Savior, asking Him for the forgiveness of our sins, then we will be reconciled to Him.  Being reconciled to Him, we enter a formal covenantal relationship with Him, whereby He agrees to be our mediator between the Father and ourselves, and we agree to be His people living a life consistent with allegiance to Him, and Jesus sends us the Spirit to aid us in our lives.

With reconciliation to God and enablement by the Spirit, we are better equipped and motivated to seek laws and public policies that promote the good of our neighbor, not just in our own country but for those in other nations as well.

I would argue that public policies are at their best when they are in alignment with God’s character, and this occurs well when people are reconciled to God in Christ Jesus and living a life consistent with that renewed allegiance.

Jesus is the most important person through which this outcome of public good can happen, because it is through Him and in Him that we are connected to God, and the abundant joys and blessings inherent in God can begin to flow into us and through us out into the rest of the world.  Such a sequence of events fulfills the promise, “If you swear, “As the LORD lives,” in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory,” a statement which echoes and fulfills the Abrahamic promise: “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”

So I implore you, dear reader, be reconciled to God. For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ, we might become the righteousness of God.  That same righteousness manifests itself in good works done for the glory of God and includes, seeks, and creates the happiness of ourselves and of our neighbors.