Chapter 4 – Life in the Colony

From the book: “Resident Aliens – A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something is Wrong.” By Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

  • Being Faithful to the Church’s Vision of Living and Acting as Disciples.

Our authors pose the question, “Does the church really matter in trying to live as a Christian?” Is the church just another special interest group within the culture vying for their piece of the pie? Does the church try to use legislation to attempt to mandate Christian ethics? What happens when the church’s ethic conflicts with the majority ethic of the culture? Maybe even more importantly, what happens when the church cannot agree on a common ethic?

Now comes the really challenging observation:

“The world must be rather cynical about a church that makes all sorts of ethical pronouncements but seems unwilling to sacrifice its own resources to back up those pronouncements.” (p. 71)

If we are not basing our Christian ethics on what we can get implemented in the culture through legislation and coercion, on what do we base our Christian ethics?

Let’s return to church ethics. On what are these ethics based? Are they feel good? Are they based only on the Golden Rule?

“And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:31, ESV)

No, Christian ethics arise from something unique in the world: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christian ethics only make sense when put in this context. Christian ethics are based on a people that have become a colony, a family, that is a living witness that Jesus Christ is Lord.

  • You Have Heard it Said . . . But I Say

“In the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7], the boundaries between church and world are brought into clear relief: ‘You have heard it said, … but I say to you.’” (p.74)

If there was unanimous agreement across the culture, you would not need the colony for support. It is only when you are different that support from others is necessary. Christ was not crucified for blending in and following the crowd.

C.S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse….”

Consequently, those who believe and live Christ’s words are also crucified for living in a way that is counter to the culture at large. After careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it immediately becomes clear that Christ is not calling us to the majority ethics of our culture.

“The Sermon, by its announcement and its demands, makes necessary the formation of a colony, not because disciples are those who have a need to be different, but because the Sermon, if believed and lived, makes us different.” (p. 74)

The church is the only community based on Christ’s statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6, ESV) We are “being conformed to” rather than “conforming to” the image of Christ. The difference is the source of the actual control for spiritual changes in our life.[1] It is this difference that makes this a colony on a common journey rather than a gaggle of wanderers with no destination. We don’t gather for comfort in pleasing one another, but for the honor of pleasing the Lord.

“In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus.” (p.78)

This goes against the culture of “It’s Your Thing; Do What You Want To Do.” The Sermon on the Mount tells us that this individualistic ethic lacks the theological basis for us to be faithful disciples. It is here that Jesus announces the type of colony required to give us hope.

  • All Christian Ethics is a Social Ethic

When the church cannot impact the culture through its message and witness, it often defaults to attempting to influence the culture through marketing or legislation.

“The Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalism. The result is the gospel transformed into a civil religion.” (p. 81)

This is not to advocate withdrawal from the culture, but just not to defer to it. As Christ said to the Pharisees when they tried to trap him:

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, ESV)

Rather, we are to see the church as the starting point of our social and communal ethic. It is as the Body of Christ, the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:24), that we enable ordinary people to be better and to do extraordinary things in the name of Jesus. Are we living up to this calling? Are we presenting ourselves as the Body of Christ?

“Our ethics do involve individual transformation, not as a subjective, inner, personal experience, but rather as the work of a transformed people who have adopted us, supported us, disciplined us, and enabled us to be transformed.” (p. 82)

Our colony (family) of diverse strangers shows the world something it is not – a people transformed into something we cannot do individually, on our own.

  • We Are What We See

Just like with children, we are more influenced by and imitate what we see than what we hear. It is from this principle that in Matthew 5:3-11 that Jesus tells us what we should observe about the people of His kingdom.

These verses show us reality (the indicative) rather than direct our actions (the imperative). It is an observation, not a list of to-dos. The beatitudes are life as it is in the kingdom of God. Seeing who God blesses should encourage to live in the same way to receive these same blessings. 

“But the basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is.” (p. 85)

  • The End of the World

“The whole Sermon on the Mount is not about how to be better individual Christians, it is a picture of the way the church is to look.” (p. 86)

The Sermon describes how the world will one day be when His Kingdom fully comes. In the meantime, the “colony” is a beacon to the rest of the world.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14, ESV)

This flies in the face of our conventional moralism. This moralism is a list of dos and don’ts. The list includes attitudes and actions that make us virtuous or villainous. In recent years it has gotten even worse in that “virtue signaling” is now common. Merriam-Webster defines this as:

“…the act or practice of conspicuously displaying one’s awareness of and attentiveness to political issues, matters of social and racial justice, etc., especially instead of taking effective action.”

Unfortunately, Christians are not immune to this.

“…having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5, ESV)

We pontificate on what we see as social ills while ignoring commands on pride, divorce, sexuality, forgiveness, envy, deceit, gossip, complaining, ungratefulness, etc. (See lists at: Mark 7:21-23, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Romans 1:29-31, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

In fact, we may be more at risk of this because of the call to righteousness. When we forget that our righteousness comes from what Jesus did on the cross (Philippians 3:8-9), we become self-righteous. It is little wonder that others reject Christ when they see such a false representation of Him in our lives.

“E. Stanley Jones said that we inoculate the world with a mild form of Christianity so that it will be immune from the real thing.” (p. 90)

Today the gospel message seems irrelevant and impossible, especially considering the Sermon on the Mount. It flies in the face of contemporary culture and even much Christian practice. It is only when we give ourselves wholly over to God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and live in a colony of like-guided souls, that we can hope to recognize and live the Sermon on the Mount. Only then will we become that light on the hill that cannot be hidden.

“Even as God promised to form a new, unusual people from the children of Abraham, so in Christ, God promises to form a peculiar people through the cross of Christ.” (p. 92)

Can we be that colony that the world sees and desires to know God?

“Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV)

[1] M. Robert Mulholland Jr., Invitation to a Journey – A Roadmap for Spiritual Formation, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1993.

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