Recently, I heard the question raised, “Doesn’t living in a ‘Christian nation’ change the context of the various New Testament statements about behavior and attitudes, especially with respect to ‘enemies’?”
Although that might be a quite valid concern in a context that assumes, contrary to the previous study of the concept of “institutional church”, that such a situation is even possible, it is troubling for people committed to a New Testament understanding of faithfulness. From a perspective of total commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus, one’s life can no longer be compartmentalized!
Although I am quite certain that it is not what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended in “Oklahoma”, they have described a distinct parallel between Jesus and (of all unlikely people!) Will Parker, when he sings, “With me, it’s all or nothin’! Is it all or nothin’ with you? It cain’t be in-between – it cain’t be now-and-then! No half-and-half romance will do!”
In a drastically different context, that is exactly the choice faced – not only in the first century under threat of execution, but in every age – by those contemplating citizenship in the Kingdom.
Although “This is a Christian nation!” has become a popular battle-cry for encoding some people’s version of “morality” into legal requirements or prohibitions, the fact is that from the very beginning, there has never been such a thing as a “Christian nation”. No such entity exists today – or has ever existed (even in areas that boast of “state” churches) – or ever will exist – until the final consummation of the King’s arrival.
There is only one way to be “Christian”: and that is by making – and living by – a personal commitment of loyalty to Jesus Christ. Those who have done so are gradually and deliberately incorporated into a Body – but that Body is made up of people who have deliberately chosen his sovereignty.
No political structure on earth is so composed. Like it or not, virtually every “nation” on earth is composed of people of varied – or no – faith commitments, some of whom lead exemplary lives.
People may join an earthly nation by their personal choice. But most are merely “citizens” wherever they were born. “State churches”, being institutional, have tried to enforce a similar pattern, but as we saw in the essay about the “institutional church”, the result is a far cry from the interactive, voluntary New Testament brotherhood described in Scripture. Please refer to the first chapter of Citizens of the Kingdom.
No one who has deliberately ceded absolute loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom can thereafter offer that total loyalty to a mere human institution, whether political or ecclesiastical.
And no one who has not so ceded his loyalty can – or should – be expected to be capable of Kingdom behavior! This is not to say that there are not many good people who have no such commitment. There are. However, making laws for other people, and legislating what we have failed to teach, is not part of our job description.
Please refer to word study #62 for the New Testament treatment of the word “nations”. It is clear that the concept of “nation” as defined in the 21st century did not exist in the first. The Roman Empire had dominated many “nations”, allowing most of them a considerable degree of autonomy, as long as both the puppet leaders and the common citizenry overtly acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord”. (See Word Study #4.) “Nation” defined ethnicity, more than political allegiance.
Notice that in Paul’s testimony in the trials recorded in Acts 24 and 26, and in his interview with the Jewish leaders in Rome, he speaks of “my nation”, obviously referring to Israel, although he also on occasion referred to his Roman citizenship. Citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom does not expect one to renounce nor to reject his earthly allegiances and responsibilities. It simply subjects them to his ultimate, primary loyalty to the Kingdom.
Unfortunately, this is seldom acceptable to the people in power – in any institution, political or ecclesiastical – and consequently may incur the wrath of one or the other – or both.
Peter is the only one of the New Testament writers to refer to the committed as a “nation” (I Pet.2:9). We are not only a “nation” (of common birth and cause), but a “holy nation” – one set-apart for God’s deliberate purposes. The rest of his description makes abundantly clear that this is a very different sort of a “nation” – one designed to demonstrate, by its faithful living in the face of extreme persecution by the “official” nations with which it co-exists, the excellence of the Lord who has called its people “out of darkness into his amazing light”!
Notice, please, that Peter does not call for his readers to oppose the structures under which they suffer, but “by doing good” to counteract the wrong that surrounds (and even abuses) them. It is an exercise in futility to expect the uncommitted to exhibit behavior that is enabled only by the Lord we serve.
Obeying when we can, and refusing only when we must in order to remain faithful to our prior commitment, bears testimony to the true justice of our King.
Notice also, please, that IN NO INSTANCE are the faithful called upon to force their own principles upon any other individual or group – legally or by any other form of coercion. It is not only impossible, but not even permissible, to expect Kingdom behavior of the uncommitted. We are not called to reform the society around us, but to DEMONSTRATE AN ALTERNATIVE to the futility, the oppression, even the evil that prevails there – whether or not such a demonstration project is acceptable to that society.
To what extent it is ever appropriate for Kingdom citizens to participate in any sort of prescriptive action beyond their own brotherhood, is a question best settled on a situational basis by a consensus of folks personally and corporately committed to their acknowledged King and to Kingdom principles.
For the most part, our energy would be far more productively spent in working together to become the Body – the brotherhood – the “holy nation” – in which onlookers can see “the excellence of the one who called you /us”. That is the only truly “Christian nation”.