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Introduction: Perhaps some of our blog’s regular readers will remember that I have offered some reflections on the topic of Christian patriotism in the past. However, since we are celebrating Independence Day today, I though it would be good to offer some additional thoughts about the concept of patriotism and what that means for us as Christians. But before we get into the issue from the standpoint of Scripture, I will begin by briefly explaining my understanding of the word patriotism and then deal with my understanding of what it means to be a Christian patriot.
I understand the word patriotism basically to mean “love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it” (as defined by WordWeb). Wayne Grudem appears to agree with this basic definition when he addresses the matter in his book Politics According to the Bible:
What should the attitude of citizens be toward the nation in which they live? Because any nation can have rulers who are evil, or basically good rulers who still do wrong things from time to time, a Christian view of government would never endorse a kind of “blind patriotism” according to which a citizen would never criticize a country or its leaders. In fact, a genuine patriotism, which always seeks to promote the good of the nation, would honestly criticize the government and its leaders when they do things contrary to biblical moral standards.
But is patriotism a virtue at all? My conclusion is that the Bible gives support to a genuine kind of patriotism in which citizens love, support, and defend their own country.
Biblical support for the idea of patriotism begins with a recognition that God has established nations on the earth. Speaking in Athens, Paul says that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). (p. 109)
I agree with Grudem and his conclusion that “The existence of many independent nations on earth should be considered a blessing from God” (p. 110), and I would argue that we are especially blessed by God to live in the United States of America, where we enjoy so many freedoms that others around the world can only dream about.
But what are the limits or parameters within which we should exercise our patriotism toward our country? This is the issue I want to address in this post. In order to help us to think in a Biblical way about the matter, I would like to briefly set forth three basic propositions concerning Christian patriotism: 1) that Christians must be patriotic citizens of their heavenly country, 2) that Christians must be patriotic citizens of their earthly country, and 3) that Christians must always give priority to their heavenly citizenship.
I. Christians Must Be Patriotic Citizens of Their Heavenly Country
This is without a doubt the first principle we must remember when we consider the issue of Christian patriotism. Remember, for example, what the Apostle Paul said to the Philippian believers:
NKJ Philippians 3:17-21 Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. 18 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.
In other words, since we are ultimately citizens of Heaven, then our lives should reflect this higher loyalty. We should actually live as obedient citizens of Heaven no matter how mere citizens of the earth may live their lives all around us.
The author of Hebrews concurs with Paul’s assessment and offers the Old Testament saints as an example of how we must persevere in faith as strangers and pilgrims on this earth, who look for a city and a homeland that is not found on this earth:
NKJ Hebrews 11:8-16 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude – innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers [ξένος, xénos] and pilgrims [παρεπίδημος, parepídēmos] on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
This city is later revealed to be the Heavenly Jerusalem, to which we have come in Christ, and of which we are citizens even now:
NKJ Hebrews 12:22-24 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
We are thus ultimately citizens of a heavenly country and a heavenly city, and we must live our lives here on earth as strangers and pilgrims who are just passing through. This means living lives that demonstrate our allegiance to our heavenly King. It means loving our heavenly country and being willing to sacrifice for it, even when doing so puts us at odds with those who are merely citizens of this earth. If we keep our focus where it should be and realize that we look forward to a far better place, then we will also be enabled to persevere in faith just as our forefathers did. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not be patriotic citizens of our earthly country, which leads us to the next point.
II. Christians Must Be Patriotic Citizens of Their Earthly Country
Jesus acknowledged such a responsibility when he taught us to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21b). And the Apostles expanded on this principle when they dealt with how we should relate to the earthly governments under which we live. Let’s consider two passages, one from Paul and the other from Peter, in our attempt to understand their teaching:
NKJ Romans 13:1-7 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
As I understand this passage, there can be no doubt that Paul sees Christians as having a duty to support their country and its rulers insofar as it is possible for them to do so under God. In fact, I agree with Rick Phillips when he writes in an article entitled Thoughts on Christian Patriotism that:
July 4 reminds us that God has sovereignly placed us in this land and under this government. I praise God to be an American, precisely because of what Independence Day represents. As I have traveled on other continents and had personal interactions with government tyranny and injustice, I have learned once more to bless the sight of an American flag. Yes, Christians should frankly admit and oppose the evils of our nation, but we should not fail to be grateful for the many good things our country does and represents. Moreover, when Romans 13:1-7 commands us to honor and obey civil authorities, Christians should do so from the heart, with love and fervor for the blessings of the land in which God has placed us and with sincere loyalty to all public servants who are seeking to do good.
The Apostle Peter, I am sure, would also approve of such sentiments, such as when he writes:
NKJ 1 Peter 2:11-17 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners [πάροικος, pároikos] and pilgrims [παρεπίδημος, parepídēmos], abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. 13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
So, we see again that we must not forget that we are ultimately strangers and pilgrims on the earth, but that this does not mean that we are not actually also citizens of an earthly country to which we also owe allegiance and obedience. As a matter of fact, as sojourners and pilgrims on this earth we are to be good citizens who pray for and submit to those in authority for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God. And this makes us even better citizens of our earthly country, not worse ones. Indeed, it means that we should be willing to show the love of Christ to and for our country, even to the point of sacrifice for the good of our country.
And so we have seen that we must be patriotic citizens of both our heavenly and our earthly countries, but this does not mean that they should have an equal claim on our devotion and allegiance, which leads to our final principle.
III. Christians Must Always Give Priority to Their Heavenly Citizenship
We have already recalled that Jesus taught us to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21b). But now we must also remember that He taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33a).
This means that, when there is a conflict between allegiance to our heavenly country and allegiance to our earthly country, our heavenly country must always take priority. And this means that civil disobedience is permissible and even necessary at times. Consider the example of the Apostles in this regard. The Book of Acts reports their response to the governing authorities when they were commanded to stop preaching the Gospel, and their response is instructive:
NKJ Acts 4:18-20 And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. 20 For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
Thus the apostles refused to obey a command of the governing authorities when it was in conflict with the command of God, just as they also did again later under similar circumstances:
NKJ Acts 5:27-29 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” 29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Of course we could add other Scriptural examples of civil disobedience, such as the Hebrew midwives in ancient Egypt (Exod. 1:15-21) or Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in ancient Babylon (otherwise known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, Dan. 3:8-18), or Daniel in Persia (Dan. 6:1-23). In each case these believers disobeyed the earthly governing authorities, but they disobeyed only at those points where these authorities expressly required them to disobey God.
Kerby Anderson, President of Probe Ministries, cites such examples in an online article entitled Civil Disobedience, and he makes the following helpful observations:
Notice that in each of these examples there are at least two common elements. First, there was a direct, specific conflict between God’s law and man’s law. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill male Hebrew babies. Nebuchadnezzar commanded his subjects to bow before the golden image. King Darius ruled that no one could pray. And, in the New Testament, the High Priest and the Council forbade the apostles from proclaiming the gospel.
Second, in choosing to obey God’s higher law, believers paid the normal consequence for disobedience. Although most of those previously cited escaped the consequence through supernatural intervention, we know from biblical and secular history that others paid for their disobedience with their lives.
Actually, we may be called upon to carry out such civil disobedience in the near future. As the 2009 Manhattan Declaration asserts in its final paragraph:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s. (This document was drafted October 20, 2009 and released November 20, 2009.)
Although I personally could not sign the “Manhattan Declaration” because of the way it leads to confusion concerning the nature of the Gospel, I certainly agree with these concluding sentiments. And I would even argue further that, if we truly love the country in which God has providentially placed us, then civil disobedience in such cases is actually the patriotic thing to do, since it is the most loving thing we could do for our country as we seek to help lead its citizens to Christ as the supreme authority over all the universe.
Conclusion: And so we have come to the conclusion of our brief survey of Scripture on the matter of Christian patriotism, and I hope we have all seen that Christians must be patriotic citizens of their heavenly country, that Christians must be patriotic citizens of their earthly country, and that Christians must always give priority to their heavenly citizenship. For it is to Christ that we owe our first and highest allegiance.