This is the thirteenth article released in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” This article is by Pastor Rickey Primrose.
What is the right relationship between God and country?
It is not uncommon for me as a pastor to receive questions about why our church does not do more to celebrate our country, especially around key patriotic holidays throughout the year (e.g. Memorial, Independence, and Veterans Day). Sometimes these questions come from a place of frustration, sometimes a place of appreciation, and sometimes simply out of curiosity. To be sure, on these types of national holidays, our typical approach is to acknowledge the holiday and to focus a special prayer or time of prayer thanking God for the blessings of freedom and for the people who protect our freedom. We also express appreciation to military personnel (active and former) by having them stand on Veterans Day Sunday. We do not, however, make that particular holiday the focus of the service or the sermon, nor do we sing the patriotic songs that some Christians have grown accustomed to on these types of holidays.
I thought it would be helpful to take an edition of Tensions and focus on this topic: What is the right relationship between God and country? This is certainly an issue that creates tension among American Christians, and I believe it’s one where we can look to the Bible for some guiding principles to help. I think there are deeper issues at play here than merely deciding what we should do on the Sundays adjacent to patriotic holidays. It will be important to identify and discuss these deeper issues. While this is a topic where good Christians can certainly come to different conclusions, I pray this article helps explain why we take the approach we do at MacArthur Blvd and helps us think about patriotism in a distinctively Christian way.
Four Guiding Principles
Let’s begin by looking at some guiding principles that help us think biblically about our nation and our identity as Christians living within a particular nation.
First, government is a gift of God. Paul says in Romans 13:4, “For it [government] is God’s servant for your good.” Government of any form is comprised of fallen people and therefore will be imperfect and sinful to varying degrees. Nevertheless, Paul is able to affirm that the existence of a state to provide order and protection within a society is a good gift from God. It is therefore appropriate for Christians to express gratitude for governing authorities within their nation, even if they also work through the right channels to promote what they believe to be a better vision for the nation.
Second, gratitude is a virtue that glorifies God. Christians should be the most thankful people in the world because of the abundant grace God has shown us. It is good and right for Christians to express thankfulness to God for the blessing of earthly freedom, and for the military personnel whom God uses to protect that freedom. Gratitude and demonstrating honor are godly virtues. These expressions of thankfulness can happen privately or corporately. Wherever this happens, it should be done in such a manner that God is the One ultimately glorified and praised.
Third, selfless service reflects the good nature of God. When we recognize and show appreciation for military personnel, law enforcement, and other civil servants for their selfless service, we are acknowledging that selfless service is a reflection of the good nature of God. Of course, civil servants are not perfect in their service, and we may disagree with particular laws and systems within our nation. It is right to speak out against injustices occurring within the various institutions of our nation. Nevertheless, we can still recognize that the selfless service of civil servants is admirable and reflects the image of our God.
Finally, a Christian’s kingdom citizenship is heavier than our earthly citizenship. This final principle is of particular importance to this topic. All followers of Christ have at least two citizenships—an earthly citizenship and a kingdom citizenship. Because we are citizens of a particular nation on earth, we must steward our earthly citizenship well. We should appreciate that citizenship, and promote the good of the nation where we live. And yet, our earthly citizenship is secondary to our kingdom citizenship. We are Americans temporarily, but we will be a part of God’s kingdom forever. Our earthly citizenship may change—we may change our citizenship to a different nation—but our kingdom citizenship is permanent. Our allegiance to our earthly citizenship is limited (if asked to deny Christ by our nation, we would deny our nation), but our allegiance to our King is absolute. It is our kingdom citizenship that should feel heavier on our hearts in shaping our identity than our earthly citizenship. Our earthly and kingdom citizenships can and do co-exist, but they are not equal.
Warning Signs of Nationalism
We see from these principles that there is a type of patriotism for Christians that is good and right. This would be a patriotism that gives honor where honor is due, that expresses gratitude for the blessing of one’s country, and that recognizes the responsibility of stewarding our earthly citizenship with diligence and care. It is also possible for godly patriotism to devolve into an ungodly nationalism. By “nationalism” I mean uniting one’s Christian faith with a particular nation on earth so that the earthly nation is implicitly or explicitly assigned the qualities of God’s kingdom. Let’s consider four warning signs of ungodly nationalism.
Confusing the American nation with God’s chosen people.
This would include applying promises that are given to God’s chosen people specifically to America as if Americans are God’s chosen people in redemptive history. The best example of this may be inappropriately utilizing 2 Chronicles 7:14, ”If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Applying this verse directly to America is problematic because Americans are not “my [God’s] people.” This was a promise God made to the nation of Israel during a time in which God did uniquely identify with a particular nation, calling them “His people.” Now, it is appropriate to glean principles from this verse such as the principle that God blesses those who humbly seek His face in prayer, but we must be very careful not to confuse the nation we live in with “the people of God.”
As we read the Scriptures, we must maintain a clear distinction between the church and the nation in which we live lest we ascribe to our nation the functions or qualities that the Bible intends for the church. America is not God’s chosen people; the church is. America is not the hope of the world; the church is. America is not central in God’s redemptive plan; the church is. None of these statements are denigrating to America. Praise God for the Christian influences America has enjoyed since its founding. Praise God for how He has used America within His sovereign purposes for the world. Nevertheless, America is one of, what the Bible refers to as, “the nations;” it is not Zion. We can and should love our country without confusing our country with God’s people.
Adhering to a set of political convictions, or a certain political leader, becomes a metric for faithful Christianity.
This warning sign applies to both sides of the aisle. When one’s commitment to a political party or candidate becomes so strong that not supporting that party or candidate is viewed as a betrayal of the Christian faith, then it is clear that one’s Christian faith has become overly united to their earthly nation. This is not to say that our evaluation of various political issues shouldn’t be informed by the Bible. Our Christian faith should inform our political engagement. So, it would be appropriate to question whether or not one’s support of a political issue is consistent with their Christian faith. But this type of question regarding consistency is categorically different than tethering our faith to a particular political party so that it is considered ‘the Christian party.’ We cannot evaluate one’s faithfulness to Christianity simply by considering which political party they support. If we view those who do not support our political party as turning away from faithful Christianity, it may be an indication that we are struggling with a form of ungodly nationalism in our own heart.
Your affections for your country burn hotter than your affections for Christ and His kingdom.
I distinctly remember as a boy growing up in a church where the only time I would see grown men cry was not during baptismal services, not during a time to respond to God’s word, and not when lost people came to Christ for the first time. Instead, it was on patriotic Sundays when patriotic songs were sung. To be clear, having affection for your country is not wrong. Particularly if you or a loved one served in the military there can be deep affections and emotions toward our nation. However, if your affections for America burn hotter than your affections for Christ, that is an indication that something is off. Questions you may consider include: Are you moved more emotionally by the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” or by singing “Amazing Grace”? What makes you most angry, political issues or kingdom issues? Based upon the way some Christians speak and interact on social media, it often appears that they are more passionate about their political vision than the kingdom of God. The issue is not having zeal for one’s nation; the issue is lacking even greater zeal for all nations to know Christ. Loving your country is good; it is also possible for your earthly nation to have an unhealthy place in your heart.
People from other nationalities are, at best, met with suspicion, or at worst, met with enmity.
One implication of a gospel-transformed life according to Paul is that “we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16a). We now view people as spiritual beings made in the image of God. Ungodly nationalism prevents us from looking at people in this manner. Instead, people from other nationalities are seen as a threat to the vision we have for our nation. This prevents us from loving people as God first loved us. This is not a statement related to one’s view of the complex questions surrounding immigration. What I’m talking about here is deeper than immigration policy. It relates to how we individually view and think about people from other nationalities. When we unite our national identity and our faith, then people from outside our nation are automatically presumed to be less godly or even a threat to our faith. We view people as outsiders, “those people,” who have no share with “us.” This way of thinking is a good indication that our earthly nation is shaping our sense of identity in an ungodly way. We must make sure that Jesus’s greatest commandments are not demoted in importance behind the pursuit of our national vision.
The goal here has been to demonstrate that godly patriotism does have a place in the Christian life. This flows out of biblical teachings of gratitude, stewardship, and recognizing governing authorities and civil servants as gifts from God. There is also, however, a real danger for Christians to fall into the trap of an ungodly nationalism. We should love our country, and yet, we must maintain a clear distinction in our hearts between our temporary earthly citizenship and our eternal citizenship in the kingdom of God.
This distinction does shape how we approach political and patriotic matters within our gatherings as a church. We make it our aim to express honor and gratitude at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. However, we don’t center services on celebrating patriotic holidays. We avoid putting the American flag on stage in our corporate gatherings. We don’t align our church with a particular political party. Why? Because the church is the manifestation of a kingdom that is not of this world. It is a multi-national body united under the rule of Christ rather than national origin or political association. We are a kingdom emissary that gathers within an earthly nation but who represents the King over every nation. We want every nationality to feel welcomed in our church because they are welcomed in the kingdom. When people leave our church, we want them thinking about how much we love Jesus more so than how much we love our country. We want Christ to be the center of attention. We want to make sure people are never left with the impression that they must become American (or Republican or Democrat) in order to be a Christian. This, we believe, is the right relationship between God and country—being explicitly thankful for the country God’s given you, giving honor where it is due, stewarding your citizenship for the glory of God, and remembering that our identity is rooted in the new name we’ve received in Christ rather than the name written in our passport.