Four biblical principles about our earthly citizenship
By Matt Proctor
Full confession: I love America.
I was born on an overseas U.S. Army base where my father served, and I respect the office of president, sing the national anthem, salute the flag, and own the movie Captain America.
But my study of God’s Word has led me to decide how I should view my love of country in terms of my higher calling.
Two summers ago, I took my 10- and 12-year-old sons on a weeklong U.S. history tour. We imagined being an immigrant at Ellis Island, marveled at the Statue of Liberty, stood silent at the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, and learned about Jackie Robinson at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
We read the inscriptions on the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, visited the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin’s grave, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and we recited the Gettysburg Address on the Pennsylvania battlefield itself.
Patriotism is not a bad word in my book.
But What About . . . ?
But the idea of patriotism leaves many Christians uneasy. When our nation celebrates the Fourth of July, many preachers wonder if it’s right to plan a “patriotic service,” for several reasons:
• It could unintentionally exclude those from other countries. No Christian wants to make a fellow believer feel left out, but an American missionary back on furlough tells of attending a Sunday worship service:
“We were singing patriotic songs. At one point, the congregation pledged allegiance to the American flag. My wife, a Romanian citizen at that time, did not participate in the singing or pledging, of course. Neither did a recently converted girl from overseas who was visiting that weekend. In that moment, the oddness of the scene struck me. We were in a worship service with fellow believers, including one just-baptized, who could not participate.”
• It could unintentionally communicate that God has a special affection for America. I saw a bumper sticker: “Jesus loves you . . . but I’m his favorite.” Could a patriotic worship service accidentally communicate the idea that God loves America more than other nations?
Herman Melville wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people, the Israel of our time,”1 and while some use American exceptionalism to point to our history as a unique experiment in democracy, others use it to mean we are anointed uniquely by God—a position hard to defend from Scripture.
Many pastors want to avoid anything that could unintentionally feed an American “superiority complex.”
• It could unintentionally deify our country. Christians would say their first allegiance is to God. But could singing praises about America in worship accidentally confuse folks about their primary loyalty?
Paul Minear quotes an Ohio minister: “In our early service, it’s customary for the congregation to remain seated during the second hymn, but after our July 3rd service, I just about had a rebellion on my hands because I did not ask the people to stand up this time. The hymn was ‘America the Beautiful.’
“It’s perfectly all right, apparently, to sit down for ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,’ but irreverent to do so when we sing about our nation.”2
Some preachers want to avoid the appearance of singing the glories of America louder than the glories of Christ.
Romans 13 vs. Revelation 13?
To be clear, many believers wrestle with questions deeper than “Should we have a patriotic service?” For them, the real issue is, “Should a Christian be a patriot at all?” After all, Scripture itself seems uneasy about a Christian’s relationship to his nation. On the one hand, we are commanded to submit to the governing authority who is “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). On the other hand, we are warned about the idolatry that happens when earthly governments demand our primary allegiance (Revelation 13).
What does the Bible really teach? Are God and country allies? Famous evangelist Billy Sunday said, “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.”3 Is he right—is being unpatriotic actually opposing God?
Or are God and country enemies? Trevin Wax, a millenial-generation Southern Baptist leader, says, “Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. As we witness the quickly shifting tides of morality, [they] are less likely to see the U.S. as the de facto ‘good guy.’”4 Is patriotism actually an act of compromise with a corrupt culture?
These questions are important and deeply emotional, and with a presidential election just weeks away, they take on fresh significance. As you seek to answer them, let me suggest four biblical principles to consider.
1. God calls us to see ourselves as part of a multinational people.
In the Old Testament, Israel is certainly God’s chosen nation, but Israel’s purpose is ultimately to be a blessing and a light to all nations (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6). In the New Testament, the church is the New Israel, the new “chosen people” (Galatians 3:7-9; 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9), and because the church is multicultural from its very first day (Acts 2:8-11), God’s people are not confined to any one country. God desires a church made up of all nations (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8; Revelation 7:9).
What does this mean? Since we belong, by God’s express design, to a faith family that crosses national lines, we must be careful of associating being Christian with being an American or a Westerner. Kevin DeYoung says, “While American churches are in America, they must never be only American churches.”5 We have brothers and sisters all over the world, and we must never cease reminding our fellow believers of the international scope of God’s people.
What binds us together as believers is not the blood of our ancestors, but the blood of Christ—so following Jesus is a red thing, not a red, white, and blue thing. In fact, when we think about this biblically, we realize that “American believers have more in common with Arab believers in Iraq and Syria than they do with their unbelieving next-door neighbors.”6 We must see ourselves first and foremost as part of the multinational people of God.
2. God gives us our ethnic and national identity.
Yes, we’re part of a global people. But since the Tower of Babel, God in his wisdom has divided humanity into differing ethnic and national groups (Genesis 11), and he has placed each of us in our specific culture (Acts 17:26).
Paul says that in the church “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). But becoming a Christian does not erase a Jew’s ethnic identity (or a Greek’s) any more than it erases a man’s identity as a male. When John sees the great multitude worshipping at Heaven’s throne in Revelation 7, he does not see an ethnically homogenous group, a bland blend of people “in matching khakis and white polos.”7
Instead John sees distinct and recognizable people groups—Maasai and Chinese, Maori and Iranians, Mexicans and Germans. God is not color-blind. He delights in the full spectrum of colors, languages, and nationalities, and our cultural identity is part of his gift to us. So as one author puts it, “If you don’t have to renounce being an American in heaven, you shouldn’t have to pretend you aren’t one now.”8
What does this mean? First, we should certainly be grateful to God for whatever good gifts we enjoy because we live in our particular country (James 1:17). Second, we should think about God’s purpose in our given national identity—what does he want to teach us through the group in which he placed us? Perhaps God uses aspects of each worldwide culture to reveal some aspect of himself, and we should seek to discern those.
More broadly, though, C. S. Lewis argued that God might use patriotism toward any country to teach us something. “As the family offers us the first step beyond self-love, so [patriotism] offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. . . . It involves love of our neighbors. . . . All natural affections, including this, can become rivals to spiritual love; but they can also be preparatory imitations of it, training (so to speak) of the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service.”9
When we are not part of a particular community—whether family or clan or city or nation—our sinful selfishness tends to flourish. We look out only for ourselves. But God made the human heart for community, and being part of a group puts a check on our ego.
History is full of stories of those who learned self-sacrifice for the sake of their “tribe.” Perhaps God uses our national identity to pull us out of self, teach us to love something bigger than ourselves, and prepare us to love him and his church sacrificially.
3. God commands us to be good citizens of our earthly home.
When the Israelites were taken into Babylonian exile, they were not to conform to the pagan practices of their new neighbors, but they were to be productive citizens—building houses, planting gardens, growing families (Jeremiah 29:4-6). God commanded them, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In the New Testament, Peter tells his readers that they too are exiles—citizens of Heaven who are also temporary citizens of an earthly nation—and that they too should be good citizens, even in an empire as wicked as Rome (1 Peter 2:11-17). Such citizenship includes:
• praying for government leaders (1 Timothy 2:1, 2)
• showing respect to government leaders (1 Peter 2:17)
• obeying the laws of the land (Romans 13:1)
• paying taxes (Romans 13:6, 7)
• doing good works in the community (Titus 3:1)
• living courteously with neighbors (Titus 3:2)
• taking advantage of the rights afforded us (Acts 16:37, 38; 25:11).
What does this mean? Simply put, saints should make the best citizens. It is, in fact, an act of Christian witness (1 Peter 2:15). Certainly we may need to civilly disobey the state if it directly contradicts the command of God (Acts 4:18-20). But when Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), he showed that allegiance to God is not inherently incompatible with allegiance to country.
God and country are not always allies, but they need not be enemies either. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good American (or Brazilian or Kenyan). While you are a citizen of Heaven first (Philippians 3:20), you can “seek the peace and prosperity” of your earthly home. You can vote, sing your national anthem, pay taxes, salute your flag, and tell stories of your national heroes and still honor God above all.
4. God warns us about the danger of national idolatry.
In Revelation, Satan enlists three allies in his war against believers: two beasts and a prostitute. Evangelical scholars like John Stott say that—while the prostitute represents Rome’s hedonistic culture and the second beast represents Rome’s false religion—the first beast represents Rome’s godless government.10 Christians were being pressured to swear primary allegiance to Rome and her emperor, to call him “Lord” instead of Jesus.
Understand: Roman citizens—even Christian ones—were proud of their country. The Roman Empire was the premier power in the world, with an unmatched military, unprecedented freedoms, and unparalleled economic opportunities. To her citizens, Roman patriotism didn’t feel wrong, and pledging loyalty to the emperor seemed like a right and proper thing. But John warned that placing country above Christ was idolatry (Revelation 13:4).
What does this mean? While careful patriotism may be Christian, careless nationalism is not. Uncritical nationalism—a blind commitment to country above all else—is not unique to America.
C.S. Lewis once spoke to an old English clergyman who believed his nation to be markedly superior to all others. “But sir,” asked Lewis, “aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” Lewis said, “He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’”11
Like every other earthly love, the virtue of patriotism can become a vice when it takes too high a place in our heart. Throughout history, people have done terrible things in the name of country—treating foreigners with prejudice, oppressing other nations, killing innocent people—and at times, even Christians have let their love of country compromise their obedience to Christ. As Lewis said, patriotism “becomes a demon when it becomes a god.”12
So be on guard. Fly the American flag, but never higher than the cross. Take pride in the beauties of your homeland, but keep your eyes fixed firmly on Heaven, our true home. Be grateful for the sacrifice of our servicemen, but may it never move you more than the sacrifice of our Savior.
As this election cycle approaches, let’s remember that, as believers, we do not follow a donkey or an elephant. Nor do we follow an American eagle, a British bulldog, or a Russian bear.
No. Until the day we are gathered in that great heavenly multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language,” we follow a Lamb.
1Herman Melville, White Jacket (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 161.
2Paul Minear, I Pledge Allegiance: Patriotism and the Bible (Philadelphia: Geneva Press, 1975), 30.
3Brandon O’Brien, “Is Patriotism Christian?” Christianity Today, accessed July 25, 2016, at www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/articles/spiritualformation/patriotismchristian.html.
4Trevin Wax, “Why Younger Evangelicals May Feel Uneasy in a Patriotic Church Service,” The Gospel Coalition, July 2, 2014, accessed July 25, 2016, at https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2014/07/02/why-younger-evangelicals-may-feel-uneasy-in-a-patriotic-church-service/.
5Kevin DeYoung, “5 Thoughts on Patriotism and the Church,” Church Leaders, accessed July 25, 2016, at www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/152006-kevin-deyoung-patriotism-and-the-church.html.
6Wax, “Why Younger Evangelicals.”
7DeYoung, “5 Thoughts.”
9C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), 24.
10John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 243; originally published in 1986.
11Lewis, The Four Loves, 26.
12Lewis, The Four Loves, 6.
Matt Proctor serves as president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.