The church is God’s outpost in enemy-occupied territory:
A new book I just picked up had a line that grabbed my attention. (No surprises here: I am always getting new books, and I am always finding things that jump out at me!) The book, by American ethicist Andrew Walker, is on religious freedom. Titled Liberty for All (Brazos, 2021), the line that got me thinking was this: “The church is God’s outpost on the earth bearing institutional witness to God’s mission to the world.”
While that concept and terminology would have been used before, I liked the thought of believers being an outpost in our sin-scarred world. It involves the idea of a group of people representing a far-away power in a hostile environment. Indeed, a quick search revealed these online definitions of an outpost:
“a place, especially a small group of buildings or a town, that represents the authority or business interests of a government or company that is far away”
“a police/military/colonial outpost”
“a small town or group of buildings in a place that is far away, usually established as a center for military or trade operations”
“an office or store that belongs to a large company but is a long way from that company’s headquarters”
So this term conveys the sense of being far away from one’s actual residence, and it includes the idea of representing the homeland to those who are not a part of it. It also involves the idea of being on a mission, of representing one’s bosses back home.
The church of course is made up of people – you and me. We are God’s representatives and ambassadors on planet earth – a hostile and alien environment. We have a job to do, and we dare not get entangled with the ethos and values of the place we find ourselves in.
I did a quick search and found others who have written on this theme. One volume I pulled off my shelves is by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. In What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011) they say this:
Jesus’s words in Matthew 16 are hugely important here, for it is in that chapter that he institutes his church “upon this rock” of Peter’s confession of faith and then immediately says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). “You” refers not to Peter but to the church, as becomes clear in Matthew 18. But still it’s an astounding statement. The keys of the kingdom of God—the authority of that kingdom, the right to act in its name—are given in this age, by the King, to the church! It’s not to the government, nor to any king or pope or any other ruler, but rather to the church—to this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling-for-holiness but gloriously forgiven sinners—that the keys of the kingdom of God are given. To put it another way, the church acts as a sort of embassy for the government of the King. It is an outpost of the kingdom of God surrounded by the kingdom of darkness. And just as the embassy of a nation is meant, at least in part, to showcase the life of that nation to the surrounding people, so the church is meant to manifest the life of the kingdom of God to the world around it.
Or as J. Ligon Duncan put it succinctly in the 2014 volume, The (Unadjusted) Gospel: “May the Lord raise up churches that display the glory and power of God’s saving grace, outposts of heaven, suburbs of eternity. For the church is God’s strategy, and there is no plan B.”
Owen Strachan, writing in Kevin DeYoung’s book, Don’t Call It a Comeback (Crossway, 2011), said this about the church: “Recognize that the church is the outpost of sanctification. In the eyes of the New Testament writers, the local church—ordinary as it may be—is the fundamental work of God on the earth. It is the center of his kingdom. It is the outpost of his gospel. It is the foremost display of his glory. It is the laboratory of sanctification, the entity that, as the dwelling place of God, we are to love, serve, edify, pray for, and devote ourselves to.”
In Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis say this:
The church is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under His rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God, an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it truly means to be human. Our identity as human beings is found in community. Our identity as Christians is found in Christ’s new community. And our mission takes place through communities of light. Christianity is “total church.”
I mentioned that we are ambassadors. An ambassador represents his home country in a foreign land. Ed Stetzer puts it this way:
In Ephesians 6:20 Paul says, “For this I am an ambassador in chains.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’”
The church is an outpost of light in the darkness. In the military, an outpost is a group of soldiers stationed away from the main force. The outpost isn’t the main force, but it represents the main force. As an outpost, the church isn’t the main force, but it represents the main force. The church is in the world like an embassy is in the country in which its ambassador is stationed. The church is an initial point of contact for the kingdom of God, as God’s people are interspersed amidst humanity.
We do not plead with others from long distance; we plead with them up close and personally. We are sent people, meeting others in their home countries. We must build relationships with them, both inside and outside the embassy. We are not sent in power. We are sent to serve and build relationships with others to share the truths of the gospel with them. This is the nature of God’s kingdom. As Jesus forms a community of the kingdom with the good news of the kingdom, the people he has purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28; Titus 2:14) unify to accomplish God’s purposes. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-church-the-neighborhood-and-the-nations
I like the image of the church as a military outpost. We are in a war. Spiritual battles are taking place all around us. We are God’s soldiers in hostile enemy territory, fighting to retake what the enemy have stolen. In this regard the term “fifth column” also is worth running with.
As one definition of this puts it: “A fifth column is any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. The activities of a fifth column can be overt or clandestine. Forces gathered in secret can mobilize openly to assist an external attack.”
Christians too often forget that we are in fact in a war. Satan and his minions are working overtime to destroy the church and to oppose individual Christians. The world sure does not like the idea that God is the rightful King, and that we all must bow to him and not to ourselves.
The church really is in enemy-occupied territory. We are indeed looked upon by the world as intruders and enemies, and our time on earth can never be one of just hoping to get along. We are not here to negotiate some sort of truce. Spiritual enmity will always exist.
C. S. Lewis famously speaks to this in Mere Christianity:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living as part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question’.
Lewis got it right. When you are in enemy-occupied territory, you do not have the luxury of just sitting back and taking it easy. As Leonard Ravenhill once put it, “Many believers live as if this world were a playground instead of a battleground.”
The late great A. W. Tozer said much the same. In an essay called “This World: Playground or Battleground?” he wrote: “Men think of the world not as a battleground, but as a playground. We are not here to fight; we are here to frolic. We are not in a foreign land; we are at home.”
Let me conclude by sharing a few more paragraphs from that powerful piece:
In the early days, when Christianity exercised a dominant influence over American thinking, men conceived the world to be a battleground. Our fathers believed in sin and the devil and hell as constituting one force, and they believed in God and righteousness and heaven as the other. By their very nature, these forces were opposed to each other forever in deep, grave, irreconcilable hostility. Man, our fathers held, had to choose sides – he could not be neutral. For him it must be life or death, heaven or hell, and if he chose to come out on God’s side, he could expect open war with God’s enemies. The fight would be real and deadly and would last as long as life continued here below. Men looked forward to heaven as a return from the wars, a laying down of the sword to enjoy in peace the home prepared for them.
Sermons and songs in those days often had a martial quality about them, or perhaps a trace of homesickness. The Christian soldier thought of home and rest and reunion, and his voice grew plaintive as he sang of battle ended and victory won. But whether he was charging into enemy guns or dreaming of war’s end and the Father’s welcome home, he never forgot what kind of world he lived in – it was a battleground, and many were wounded and slain.