There comes a time when every pastor must expose error. Sadly, we live in a day when faithful pastors spend much more time than they’d ever desire doing just that. It is not enjoyable work. No faithful shepherd relishes exposing wolves. But any shepherd who cannot swallow his discomfort and warn the sheep does not love the sheep under his care. He is not worthy of his post (Ezekiel 33:1-6). I regret that this review is just such a task, exposing grievous error.
I am not in the habit of wasting my time reading books that I know little about. I choose books for two reasons only. 1) I am doing research for my many teaching and preaching responsibilities. 2) I enjoy learning about history and when time allows I read various non-fiction exploits of long forgotten times. Needless to say the first category takes up most of my time. When doing research I lean on men that I know are trustworthy and explore works that I know to be reputable. I don’t have the luxury to wade through hundreds of pages only to find that I’ve wasted my time. In other words, I’m picky about what I read.
So how did I come by this work under review? It was sent to me from the Executive Director of Conservative Baptists, Northwest (CBNW). Although I am not a member of CBNW, I pastor a church that has historical ties with that association. This book was sent to me (and I assume other pastors of other CBNW churches) in an attempt to drum up support for their big conference this coming fall were Rick McKinley (the author under review) will be a keynote speaker. Because I shepherd people that look to CBNW as a source of discernment, I felt that I was obligated to know what sort of people they highlight and what they spend their time talking about. I confess that I did not have high hopes, yet what I read was far worse than anticipated.
In this work, McKinley attempts to prove that the culture in which we live today is far different from the culture of our fathers and grandfathers. It is because of this difference that the church needs to rethink her approach. The American church, he says, is no longer in a culture that accepts it or understands it. The church is in exile (p. 34) and we need to figure out how to function in that setting.
McKinley presents his case by first arguing that our country is extremely divided along sociological and political lines. As a result of this division the church is highly misrepresented by the social and political conservatives. They (the social conservatives), McKinley states, do not represent a biblical picture of the true church (p. 19). After establishing the existence of division and assuming the complete lack of correlation between conservative and Christian values, McKinley moves on to build a quasi-biblical theology of exile. It is here that he states that exile is a good thing, an old thing, and something that the Christian needs to learn how to function in. This is the main premise of the book: That the church is in exile and must learn to function in exile.
I will build my critique of this work on two fronts. First I will discuss the premise. Is the church in exile? If this is true, it does not necessarily exonerate the book. But if the premise is false, then all of McKinley’s work is null and void. Secondly I will target specific statements within the book in an effort to determine to what degree (if any) this book is of value.
The Premise: Is the Church in exile?
Question: If one where to try to trace a biblical theology of exile, how would you begin? An obvious starting place would be to find all (yes, I said all) the instances where the Bible uses the world exile. This sounds like a daunting task. It is a daunting task. Real Bible study is not easy. Yet we live in a day when the ability to read English and the possession of an internet connection enables literally anyone to conduct a fairly in depth Bible study. For instance, a quick visit to Bible Gateway could prove invaluable.
By selecting a translation that is known for its accuracy in representing the original Hebrew and Greek (the NASB remains my favorite), typing exile into the search bar, and clicking “search,” this free online resource arranges 109 results for exile. With only a cursory glance at this list we can learn a lot.
The English word exile first appears on the pages of Scripture in 2 Samuel. This observation alone is interesting. If we were to use nice round numbers, the reign of King David (the context of 2 Samuel) began around the year 1000 B.C. A literal understanding of Genesis 1-11 places the creation of the heavens and the earth around 4000 B.C. All of that to say, in the first 3000 years of human history (literally the first half of our 6000 year existence) the Bible makes no mention (by name) of the concept which McKinley basis his premise. While this observation is not a deal breaker, it is a significance point that requires an explanation.
Moving from one end of the spectrum to the other, one will quickly notice that out of the 109 references to exile in the NASB 108 of them are in the Old Testament. That’s right, there is only one use of the word in the entire New Testament. This single reference can be found in Hebrews 11:13, which actually refers to Old Testament saints. In other words, there is not a single verse in all of Scripture that is used to describe or refer to the church (a New Testament reality that was birthed in Acts 2) as experiencing or subject to exile.
Again, this does not disprove McKinley’s thesis by itself. But the evidence against his claims is beginning to pile up to the point that logic demands an explanation. At this point the burden of proof lies squarely on Rick McKinley to prove, not just assert, that the church is in exile.
So much misunderstanding is avoided when people study the Bible and let the Bible speak. Rather than coming up with a woke idea and attempting to use the Bible to support it, why don’t we just teach the Bible? This approach to ministry is what kept the apostles on point, guided the early church through many heresy debates, brought about the protestant reformation of the 16th century, and protected Christ’s bride from the liberal barbarians at the gates in the 19th and 20th centuries. If sound exegesis is able to reform a global church, it is certainly able to reform the strained thinking expressed on these pages.
McKinley makes the rookie mistake of inserting meaning upon a concept that is utterly foreign to Scripture. He borrows a partial (always beware of “partial” definitions and ellipsis in quotations) definition from “The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia” of “exile” and quotes it his own working definition: “Exile was a period when the promise of the past and the shape of the future had to be evaluated in terms of a new experience without the traditional self-validating structures, such as the monarchy and the state, the temple and the institutional cult” (p. 34).
In other words, "exile" is a period when you can no longer use the historical record of Scripture to understand past promises or the shape of the future but must rely on new structures (i.e. the current culture). Raise of hands for all those who are troubled by this definition? Yet the reader must understand that this is not even a proper definition. By reading this statement we are no closer to understanding what exile is, but are only given a heavily nuanced version of some of the possible effects of exile.
The pastor who is not first and foremost an exegete is utterly worthless. The exegete goes to the text. Let the text inform us.
Of the 108 Old Testament references to the English word “exile” as found in the NASB, 107 of them reflect the same Hebrew root (גלה). This stem has the basic meaning of “to uncover/to expose” but can be used in a passive sense “to be uncovered/exposed.” From there the stem took on a substantive use to refer to those who have been uncovered as captives and deported, i.e. exiles.
You see if we are to be informed by the text of Scripture and the language that the authors’ chose – instead of inserting our own assumptions – we come to a very different picture. Biblically speaking, an exile is not defined as one who must reevaluate their tradition due to a lack of cultural bearings. An exile is one who has been physically and violently removed from their home and taken as war booty in the most shameful and demeaning way imaginable. How is this indicative of the church?
McKinley would have done well to simply review the portions of Scripture that actually speak of exile. God uses exile for one purpose only: Judgment. Of the 108 references to exile, 28 of them (25.9%) are in Jeremiah. I suggest you begin there. Exile is consistently used by God as an ejection seat for the unfaithful Israelites in the Promised Land. If you disobey, God said, I will remove you. One of the few things that McKinley got right was that the origin of exile (in concept if not in language) began in the garden. But was the point of Adam and Eve’s expulsion so that they could reorient themselves in a different culture? Of course not! Adam and Eve experience exile because they rebelled against a Holy God. That is exile.
In an attempt to build a biblical theology of (his version) exile, McKinley states that Abraham, Joseph, Moses & Israel, and Jesus all experienced exile. Yet I’m struggling to recall how these figures were expelled from the land due to sin and rebellion? To suggest that Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and even Jesus experienced exile (yes, he went there) not only exposes gross ignorance of the Biblical narrative, but brings out implications that are a hair’s breadth from heresy. Does Rich McKinley mean to say that God the Son was expelled from heaven and sent to earth on account of rebellion against God the Father? Because if Jesus was “exiled” that’s exactly what it means. Poor exegesis leads to bad theology.
From this point it should be obvious that McKinley’s overall thesis, that the church is in exile, is simply unattainable from the Scriptures. If we were to let the Bible speak for itself, we would never arrive at this conclusion. But there are several other troubling statements made by McKinley in this book that bring questions to mind.
Jesus gave the church her purpose statement and charter in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20 NASB). We commonly refer to this statement as The Great Commission. I’ve already written and preached about this very commission, so I won’t do so again here. But I don’t think McKinley understands this mission statement.
In his introduction, McKinley reveals his lack of understanding: “In the pages that follow, I will explain a way of being the people of God in this moment that, if taken seriously, can lead us into a type of citizenship that is faithful to Jesus and a blessing to our local communities. In a moment like ours, the church–if we are faithful to Christ–can be a force of healing and hope” (p. 14). There are two very wrong ideas within these two sentences.
First, notice that McKinley is presenting Christianity (a term that he is apparently allergic to) as having two goals. The first goal is to be faithful to Jesus (a concept which he never elaborates on) and the second is to be a blessing to our local communities. But what does McKinley mean by “be a blessing”? Does he mean to preach Christ and Him crucified? Does he mean to call sinners to repentance? Does he mean to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you? Sadly he does not. To Rich McKinley, Faith in this Moment looks like being faithful to Jesus (whatever that means) while at the same time blessing the community with physical, emotional, and tangible aid. I have but one question: Chapter and verse please? Being a blessing in the community is not a bad thing. But don’t you dare redefine the Great Commission. The church’s mission is to preach the gospel and train the saints. Period.
Secondly, McKinley actually replaces the work of Christ with the church. Read carefully: “the church–if we are faithful to Christ–can be a force of healing and hope.” I just have to ask, what hope can the church offer? What healing does the church have access to? Nothing but the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the hope of glory for those who await His appearing. The church has NOTHING to offer a dead and dying world other than the good news of Jesus Christ and Him crucified/raised/ascended/and coming again. After reading his book, I’m not convinced that Rich McKinley understands this.
A Realistic View
Like others in our day, Rich McKinley is responding to a cultural shift in America. We are no longer living in a culture that assumes biblical authority, precepts, or thought patterns. The assumption seems to always be that in light of this shift, the church needs to reorganize its position and come up with a different strategy. But that thinking is not only incorrect, it’s based on a faulty assumption. Namely: This is not a new situation.
Any student of history will tell you that what we’re experiencing in America and western civilization is not at all new. This “Christian culture” that we’ve enjoyed for so long is not a result of the 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th, or even the 16th centuries. Western civilization has been living in the midst of cultural Christianity since Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D.
What we so desperately need to understand is that when we see the culture reject Christian values and the state putting pressure on Christian living, we’re not entering into uncharted waters but are in reality returning to the pagan days that surrounded the early church. What we see happening around us is nothing more than a return to the first 300+ years of Christianity. How did the apostles and church fathers deal with living in a Christ hating culture? Did they try to be relevant? Did they try to alter the church to resemble the culture? Did they “rethink” Christianity? May it never be! Or did they preach the gospel and train the saints? The church doesn’t need a new approach. It needs to be re-acquainted with the old, old story.
After reading this work, I am grieved. I am grieved that there is a church in Portland being lead by a man who does not understand his calling. I am grieved that there is an entire association of churches that supports this ideology. I am grieved that this book is in print and will very likely be used to confuse and mislead members of Christ’s body. I am grieved because all of this could have been so easily avoided.
When pastors make it their life’s ambition to preach the Word of God rather than their own philosophy, this doesn’t happen. When the church makes it her priority to proclaim the gospel and train the saints, this misrepresentation doesn’t happen. When individual Christians know their Bibles well enough to spot inconsistencies in ridiculous statements like the ones made in this book, false teaching never gets off the ground.
“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘When I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for the hearing of the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and from the north even to the east; They will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” – Amos 8:11-12
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears form the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” – 2 Timothy 4:1-3
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!