Let me get something straight right from the start ... because I’m going to say some things that could be misunderstood. I am an American ... and proud of it. I never make a trip overseas but what I am thankful for the progress and predictability of the United States. I enjoy its comforts and its people. If called upon to do so, I would accept the responsibility of being a soldier in Uncle Sam’s army. It’s great to be an American.
However, there is something greater to me than being an American.
I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God requires my love and my allegiance ... and it has them both. I seek first the kingdom of God. The joys of being an American are an added bonus. I accept them gratefully, but they are not cardiac to my being a Christian.
But there is a form of allegiance I owe to my country, too. The apostle Paul tells us, in Romans 13, that the “powers that be are ordained of God,” and that we are to obey them. “Obey and pay” is what is required of a Christian.
There was a reason for this in Paul’s day. The Roman government was totalitarian, heathen, and oppressive. It wasn’t easy to be a follower of Christ. A confession of faith was often as good as a death warrant. Consequently, there was no love lost on the Roman government by the Christians. Their natural reaction to oppression was one of resistance. And that’s why Paul had to admonish the suffering saints not to fight back. “If you resist the powers that be,” he told them, “you are resisting God.”
This passage of Scripture helps us understand the role of a policeman or a soldier.
They are God’s servants. A Christian policeman or soldier is often called upon to take violent action. But so is a parent. And just as a parent must not punish out of anger, so a Christian soldier or policeman must do his duty without malice or hate. This is asking an awful lot, but it is not asking too much of a genuine Christian. You see, the Lord loves those He chastens. Parents love the children they chasten. Christian soldiers and policemen are called upon to do the same. Impossible? No! Difficult? ... very difficult ... somewhat like a rich man entering the kingdom of God ... difficult, but not impossible.
It is interesting to note that Paul does not say that the Christian must love his country. The Christian is asked to obey authority, but nowhere does it mention that he must love that authority. He must obey even when authorities are despotic and demonic. Nero was the most evil of rulers ... yet Paul said, “obey and pay!” He went farther. He said, “They are God’s servants!”
Wow! That’s heavy! But not too heavy for one whose citizenship is in heaven!
Sometimes we Americans seem to confuse allegiance to country with allegiance to Christ. It’s as though the two were synonymous. They are not ... not by any stretch of the imagination. Paul was obedient to the Roman rulers, but you couldn’t call him patriotic. He was no flag waver.
Neither was Peter or any of the other apostles.
They were careful to keep aloof from the politics of their time.
They rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s ... but they didn’t confuse what was Caesar’s with what was God’s. They carefully separated Church and State. Their love was reserved for Christ and His kingdom.
You often see bumper stickers that say, “America ... love it or leave it.” The Bible has much to say about loving God and loving our neighbor, but it has nothing to say about loving our country. Obey and pay ... yes. Love ... no.
Now don't misunderstand me. The Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong to love your country. It doesn’t say it’s wrong to wave flags. It doesn’t say its wrong to pledge allegiance. These are all legitimate responses to good government. But if your patriotism causes you to say, “Evangelize America first and the rest of the world when we get around to it,” or warps your priorities until your country means more to you than the kingdom of God ... then you have parted ways with Paul’s perspective, and you are in danger of idolatry.
Living in a country nurtured on freedom does funny things to a Christian’s philosophy.
We talk about the glories of independence, and we celebrate the 4th day of July. We are quick to say that God was with our forefathers when they resisted authority and revolted against the “powers” that ruled them. Then we turn right around and condemn the terrorist movements of today, and tell them that they are wrong to resist.
We are inconsistent. We are a classic case of the pot and the kettle. If terrorism was right in 1776, then it is right in 1982. If it is wrong in 1982, then it was wrong in 1776. Let us not sit in judgment of the freedom fighters of Southern Africa if we hold the view that the American revolution was ordained of God.
I have a problem with patriotism when it is equated with allegiance to God.
Let me explain my hang-up. I attend our church councils and conventions. Often, on opening nights, there is a ceremony that goes like this:
The lights in the auditorium are dimmed, and suddenly a bugle sounds. Then there is movement at the back and a spotlight picks up boys and girls marching down the aisles following flag bearers ... one with the stars and stripes, and the other with the Christian flag. The crowd stands as the procession files to the front. The master of ceremonies then directs the crowd’s attention to the American flag on which the spotlight is now shining. Hands over hearts, the audience pledges its allegiance to the United States of America. Then the spotlight shifts, and the Christian flag is illuminated. The audience now repeats the pledge of allegiance to Christ and His Word. All very beautiful ... all very moving ... except ...
Imagine a parallel scene.
This time in Russia. It is the annual convention of believers. The hall is darkened, and down the aisle march the Christian youth of that atheistic State carrying the hammer and sickle. The bugle sounds ... the crowd rises to pledge allegiance to ... to what? What business has a flag that stands for atheism alongside the Christian flag? While the Christian Russian will salute his country’s flag as a sign of respect and obedience to his government, it is hardly appropriate that it should occupy a place of honor with the Christian flag in a place where God is worshiped, or that it should be saluted first and the Christian flag second. Is this not a case of Dagon and the ark in reverse? Surely a convention of Christians is no place for the hammer and sickle!
But if the hammer and sickle has no place in Christian convention, can it be said that the stars and stripes do? I think not. Here is where Church and State must be separate. Here is where the kingdoms of this world must stand back and give way to the kingdom of God. Neither the hammer and sickle nor the stars and stripes are worthy to be placed alongside any symbol of Christ's kingdom. Let earthly flags be flown in their domain, but when we meet to worship, let one kingdom be exalted ... let one king be magnified. Do not equate Christ’s everlasting glory with the passing powers that be.
I know that what I’m saying sounds almost like citizen blasphemy. We have made the stars and stripes a sacred symbol. We want our children to appreciate the freedoms it stands for. We want them to be proud of America and loyal to its authorities ... which is as it ought to be.
I’m all for teaching good citizenship to our kids, but what are we teaching them when we have them salute the American flag before they salute the Christian flag? I want my children to respect and obey the law, but I don’t want them to get the idea that being a good citizen and keeping out of jail qualifies them in any way to the title of “Christian”. I don’t think the apostle Paul would have hoisted the Roman banner in the courtyard of the temple, even though he taught “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities”.
Let me repeat ... I’m glad to be an American. I’m glad for our freedoms. I’d be a policeman or a soldier in Uncle Sam’s army if called upon to do so. But I don’t, and I won’t, give equal allegiance to earthly governments that I give to my real country and King. I’m a sojourner here. America has my respect, my obedience and my tax money. Jesus has my love and my allegiance. But enough of that. Let’s consider something else.
Paul said, concerning earthly governments, “obey and pay”.
He said it in the context of despotism and oppression. What recourse for reform, then, has a Christian under colonialism, despotism, corruption, and social injustice? Can he idly stand by and say nothing? Is there no action he can take to remedy evil and injustice? Must evil men be allowed to go unpunished? Is the Christian only to endure, and never to seek change? Is social reformation the domain of the unbeliever?
There is something important to remember here. The powers that be are ordained of God. This means that they can do nothing but what God allows. It also means that, in God’s time, He will punish evil doers. It means, too, that He is able to deliver the believer out of his troubles or to keep him in the darkest hours.
Careless seems the great Avenger,History's pages but record
One death grapple in the darkness ’Twixt sin’s forces and the Word.
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne ...
Yet that scaffold sways the future, And beyond the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch upon His own!
The New Testament does not teach that governments will get better and better until this planet is Paradise. Rather, it pictures believers living in a world that progressively gets more and more evil until God’s wrath is poured out upon it.
However, the Bible does tell the believer how he should live in this sinful world until Christ’s return. We are the salt of the earth, and the Christian presence is what keeps it from total corruption. What then, can the Christian do to change the world in which he lives?
There are those who tell us that, to be relevant, the believer must be involved in social reform.
They say that political oppression, racism, and inequality must be the focus of the church’s attention. This “liberation theology” teaches that the end justifies the means ... that “all is well that ends well”. One theologian said, “God sanctioned violence as a means of redemption through the cross”. So these modern preachers advocate terrorism, revolution, and rioting as a means whereby social reform can be accomplished.
We totally reject this rationale. It is contrary to everything Christ taught. Before quietly walking to His death, Christ told an advocate of violence to put up his weapon. Later, when Jesus stood before Pilate, He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36).
Significant words! It is to be expected that, when a man’s kingdom is of this world, he will fight for it. For unbelievers, fighting for their rights is justified. By fighting, they are saying, “I have no hope beyond this world ... I have no kingdom other than this one.” No wonder they fight for it!
But for Christians it is different. This world is not our home.
We cannot use violent means to obtain earthly advantages. We belong to a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. We dare not take action that is against the very nature of our kingdom. Our King teaches us to turn the other cheek ... to seek the other man’s good ... to forgive our enemies ... to do good to those who persecute us ... to be content with such things as we have ... to overcome evil with good. In the light of this, how can a Christian resort to violence? He cannot.
What recourse, then does a Christian have under colonialism, despotism, corruption and social injustice? He can do this: He can speak out. John the Baptist did. Jesus did. Paul did. They fearlessly spoke out against the evils of their day.
They spoke out, but note what they spoke out about. They spoke out about the oppression of the poor by the rich. They spoke out about accumulation of wealth for selfish purposes. They spoke out about permissiveness ... about infidelity and divorce. They spoke out about divisions and strife in the church. But above all, they spoke out about rebellion against God and pointed to Jesus as the Redeemer and Savior. They preached good news ... good news that always centered on Christ and on what His death and resurrection accomplished for the believer.
The truth is that the early Christians never concentrated on changing this present world. They were more concerned with making men ready to live in a better world, than they were with making this world a better place to live in. This may sound rather callous, but it is true. It is significant to note, however, that those who change men’s environment without changing men, find that unchanged man soon reduces his environment to a reflection of what he is inwardly. So, inward liberation is the real remedy for man and his environment. The real need of man is for righteousness, peace and joy, and this is why the reform of the gospel is more relevant than the reform of the revolutionaries. Revolution must start in the heart. Otherwise, evil men are overthrown only to be succeeded by men equally evil.
But to be a reformer of the heart is no easy task. Those who seek reform by spiritual transformation are not understood by impatient “reform by violence” revolutionaries. The very non-worldiness of the believer makes him suspect. His refusal to respond violently ... his adherence to truth at all costs ... and the contrast of his character to that of ungodly men draws animosity and anger. He becomes persecuted for righteousness sake.
When this happens, there are times when civil authorities demand obedience to something contrary to the Word of God. It is then that a choice has to be made. Like the disciples, the believer has to say, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). This does not mean that the believer resists the powers that be. No! Rather, he submits to the penalty they impose for his disobedience. He accepts their right to imprison him. He does not strike back. He does not resist or riot. He goes peacefully with the soldiers or police, and he accepts his “punishment”.
How different this is from the foment, the harangue, the violence, and the hate that are accepted today as part of the right to protest. The Christian is opposed to evil, but he follows kingdom principles when he protests. As God’s ways are not man’s ways, so the believer’s ways of righting the wrongs of this world are not the ways the world uses. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal”. “Though we live in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh.”
Romans 13:7 spells out our debt to the powers that be. We are to give everyone what we owe:
If we owe taxes ... pay taxes.
If revenue ... revenue.
If respect ... then respect.
If honor ... then honor.
The Christian, without doubt, makes the best citizen because he does not have to be forced to do right. The powers that be get his obedience, his respect, his honor, and his tax money ... but Christ gets his love and his allegiance!