I am a Christian who happens to be an American. I am not an American who happens to be a Christian. For me the distinction drawn in those two statements is very important. My commitment and submission to the Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign over all other commitments and relationships in my life.
My identity as a citizen of the United States is subordinate to my identity as a citizen of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus. My identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ puts limits and constraints on what kind of American citizen I am permitted to be. Jesus Christ will not share my allegiance with any other person, cause, party, or nation.
In matters of ultimate importance, I have and must have, more in common with a Christian from Jakarta, Indonesian than I do with a non-Christian from St. Louis, Missouri. That commonality should be visible in what I value, in what I aspire to, in my affections, and in my commitments.
This sovereign allegiance to Jesus Christ will necessarily put me out of step with those of my fellow Americans who do not share that allegiance with me. They may become suspicious that America is not first in my loyalties, and they would be right. My submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ forbids me to make America first in my heart. It is a matter of Christian discipleship.
I recognize that it is just this sort of view that has gotten Christians into trouble throughout the past two millennia. It has the potential to get me into trouble today. I write these words now with some measure of anxiety, because I know that there may be—no, certainly will be—some people who take offense at what I’m writing. It is not my intention to try to offend anyone. But I am troubled by my awareness that there is considerable confusion of loyalties in the Christian community in America today.
In the first three hundred years, Christians encountered hostility from the Roman government authorities. There is, I think, among modern Christians the popular assumption that Christians in the Roman empire came under persecution primarily for religious reasons. That is not correct. The Roman government was generally tolerant of a wide religious diversity. The Roman imperial authorities were not at all tolerant of any worldview that asserted any ultimate allegiance superior to a person’s allegiance to Roman. The Christian assertion “Jesus is Lord” brought them into serious conflict with the prevailing Roman political creed, namely “Caesar is Lord.”
Roman authorities correctly recognized that for Christians the creed, “Jesus is Lord” was supreme, that for them the lordship of Jesus applied to absolutely every aspect of their lives not just their religious practices. When Christians asserted that Jesus was the supreme lord of their lives, they were also asserting that Caesar was, therefore, a subordinate lord. The Roman authorities found that point of view to be dangerous and subversive, because they understood that it had serious political and cultural implications.
That challenge of allegiances is often at the heart of modern persecution of Christians today as well. It is true that some modern persecution of Christians stems from a clash of religious loyalties. Much of the persecution of Christians in predominantly Islamic countries comes from the unwillingness of hardline Muslims to tolerate the practice of another religion in their communities. That is also the case in predominantly Hindu India and Buddhist Laos. In other cases, such as in China, North Korea, and Belarus, opposition to Christians comes not primarily from clashing religious allegiances but from the recognition by authoritarian regimes that the Christians in their midst are willing only to offer qualified or limited submission to their political regime.
All of this is a matter of Christian discipleship, as I mentioned just above. Either Jesus is Lord of every aspect and element of my life, or he is not Lord of my life. Jesus is not lord only over my religious beliefs and my person morality. He is lord even over my life as a citizen of America. My loyalties to the Lord Jesus must know no bounds or limits.
What then about loyalties to political parties? I am suspicious of Christians who find that their political vision for America coincides comfortably with the political vision of some secular political party. On given issues, I can find common ground with this party or that. But why must my opposition to abortion require me also to oppose strict environmental regulations on industry? Why must my opposition to same-sex marriage require me also to favor large tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations?
I am not a liberal. I am not a conservative. And there is nothing moderate about my views. The very political categories of “liberal” and “conservative” have no biblical basis or meaning. They are entirely foreign to the Scriptures and to biblically informed theology. A biblically Christian approach to politics in America will not be liberal or conservative. It will not be a middle way, splitting the difference between those two. The biblically Christian approach to politics in America must be a completely other way. It will not fit into categories that secular America can understand. Biblically committed Christians should seem weird and out of step with the trends. Biblically committed Christians should be viewed by the secular political parties in America as unreliable partners, because our loyalties are not to party nor even to a particular candidate but are rather to the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.
The current president of the United States told a group of Christian leaders that they were “one election away from losing everything.” There was a Roman governor in Judea some two thousand years ago who also believe that he had the power to save or destroy the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus declared him to be in error then. So too are all political leaders who believe the kingdom of God depends on their political success. The president also clearly believes that Christians see the political process as a way of serving their self-interest. Sadly, tragically, he seems to be right about many who claim the name of Christ. They do seem to see the political process of as a means of serving their self-interest. In that case, the community of Christ-followers becomes just another interest group to be pandered to and coopted by politicians seeking votes. Is that not exactly what is happening today in America?
Biblically committed Christians must see the political process quite differently. Our calling is obedience to the servant King. Our calling is to love our neighbors, even those who consider themselves our enemies. Our calling to use the political process to love and bless our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Ours is to serve the common good not just our own good.
Michael Horton recently addressed these matters in an essay in Christianity Today:
The only Christian nation in the world today is the one gathered “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) to be addressed by its king. In his Great Commission, Jesus gave authority to the church to make disciples, not citizens; to proclaim the gospel, not political opinions; to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, not in the name of America or a political party; and to teach everything that he delivered, not our own personal and political priorities. And he promised that his presence with us is something that the world can never take away.
We Christians who happen to be Americans can best serve our country by following only Jesus in our political engagement. The more closely we align ourselves with this secular political party or that, the less closely we will be aligned with the Lord Jesus. America is not made up of friends and foes. America is made up of neighbors whom we are to love and to bless. Secular political parties cannot comprehend that. Presidents who believe that the world is made up of “winners” and “losers” cannot comprehend that. And that is why the disciples of the Lord who laid down his life for the redemption of the world must allow only their Lord to define their political path.
©2018 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.