By Jack R. Reese
They were patriots. That fact is clear. And, living in such a place, who wouldn’t be? They were citizens of the greatest nation on earth, not just the most powerful nation in the world—the world’s only superpower—but the most civilized and the most benevolent nation in history. Everyone was proud of their country. And they had a right to be.
These citizens of first-century Philippi were patriots, pure and simple. They were a Roman colony in the heart of Hellenism. They loved Rome. They loved their country. They loved the advantages they received because of their citizenship. They loved their rights. They loved their history and their culture. They celebrated their national holidays with joy and honor. They took great pride in their citizenship. And who wouldn’t?
But Paul, who was himself a Roman citizen and who found its privileges and benefits quite useful, spoke clearly to the Christians in Philippi: don’t ever forget, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). No citizen of Philippi would have missed the implication of this pointed statement: Don’t rely too much on your earthly citizenship. Don’t love your country so much that you forget where you came from, who you are, to whom you belong. As Christians you are not first or primarily the citizens of Rome or any nation. You are citizens of a heavenly city.
The readers of 1 Peter perhaps saw this issue more clearly. After all, they were not Roman citizens. They understood what it meant to be outsiders. They were Christians who were scattered and suffering throughout Asia Minor. Peter hardly had to remind them: you are “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11, Revised Standard Version). In other words, you don’t belong to any country. You are foreigners. Be careful, then, not to become too attached, not to sink your roots too deeply. Travel light. Remember your primary allegiance. You are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Find courage in that.
We, too, are called to be aliens and exiles, of course. Our citizenship is not here; we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. For Christians everywhere, the implications are deep and perhaps disturbing.
My Primary Allegiance
I write as a patriotic citizen of the United States. I love my country. It is a great country indeed. My father served it honorably in World War II, my grandfather in World War I. I participate in Fourth of July celebrations. I love our country’s flag and what it stands for.
I know many share these strong feelings of respect and pride regarding our country. But perhaps we need to be reminded where our citizenship lies and what our responsibilities are to the kingdom of our first allegiance. Perhaps we need to see ourselves more clearly as immigrants, as strangers in this land, as citizens of another nation, of the kingdom of God.
I have had to face issues of my primary allegiance of citizenship over these last few years, especially as I have traveled abroad. Standing in the streets of Accra, Ghana, am I willing to say that God loves the citizens of my nation more than the precious souls walking through market stalls around me? Does God love the U.S. more than he does, say, the Ukraine? Does he love America more than he loves Afghanistan or Algeria or Argentina?
When we walk into our worship auditoriums and see the American flag prominently displayed, what should we think? What message are we proclaiming? Are we saying that Christianity is an American religion or that America is a Christian nation? Why would Christians, whose primary allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom, make such overt connections to only one nation, even one we honor and in which we take pride? When Christians display only our national flag and no others, what are we saying about the other nations, all of whom are under God’s sovereignty and care?
We are all proud of those who serve their country honorably, and we should be. Those who serve in the military of this nation deserve our prayers and concerns and should be prayed for often and by name. But when we come together as a church to worship and “pray for our troops,” who is “our?” Do we mean that the church has troops, or have we forgotten who “we” are?
Over time when we use such language, what are we teaching our children about God’s work in the world, about our global mission, about the God of all the nations? What does it say about the role of the church in relation to the nations of the world or, to be more specific, to our own nation? Can we love our country without assuming that God loves our nation more than the others? Can we be appropriately patriotic while not forgetting that our primary allegiance belongs to another, more heavenly, nation?
Such questions are not the domain of a particular political party or a certain religious sentiment. Rather, these questions lie close to the heart of the gospel. It matters that we understand the difference between being in the world and being of the world. It matters whether we assume the American dream is identical to the dream of God. It matters whether we tie our future to that of any earthly nation, whether we sink our roots too deeply in this life or in this place. These things matter because it matters how we live, how we see others, how we pray, how we share the good news, and how we understand discipleship.
It matters because the essence of the kingdom of God is at stake.
Naming a Fatherland
Christians have had to come to grips with these issues from the very earliest days of the church. One of the most eloquent expressions of the role of Christians in relation to their country can be found in the Epistle of Diognetus, a defense of the Christian cause written in the second century:
The distinction between Christians and other men is neither in country nor language nor customs. For they do not dwell in cities in some place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. . . . Yet while living in Greek and barbarian cities, according as each obtained his lot, and following the local customs, both in clothing and food in the rest of life, they show forth the wonderful and confessedly strange character of the constitution of their own citizenship.
They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. They offer free hospitality, but guard their purity. Their lot is cast “in the flesh,” but they do not live “after the flesh.” They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.
Here is a word for our churches. Every foreign country is our fatherland—we belong to Korea, Paraguay, Angola, Bulgaria, and Mexico. All countries are honored. All need Jesus. We belong to them all because God loves them all and all are in need of the kingdom of God.
But at the same time, every fatherland is a foreign country—even our own, even America. We do not trust it to solve our most substantial problems or look to it to fill our greatest needs. We do not assume it is always right or always good. And we do not consign to it our hopes or our future. Our future belongs only to God who is the ruler of all nations and who grants us the extraordinary rights and privileges of living as citizens, not here, at least not for long, but forever in his glorious kingdom.
Jack Reese is dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University where he teaches worship and preaching. He is currently coauthoring a book with Stephen Johnson on worship as the church’s resource for community spiritual formation.