Dwayne Phillips asked in a comment to Part 3 of this series,
I enjoy reading your blog. This entry, however, sounds much like what I heard years ago from people who refused to say the pledge of allegiance and who now condemn any Christian who serves in the US armed forces. Please help me understand the differences.
It’s a good question — especially because it’s helped me clarify my thinking. Now we’ll see if it’s helped clarify my writing!
Okay, let’s start with first principles. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). I take this very seriously, so seriously that I don’t think I can serve the US government as a master at all. There is no balancing or weighing my loyalty to Jesus with or against my loyalty to my country. There’s just Jesus. I’m loyal to no one else. Period.
You see, I think that when we become Christians we are obligated to offer all of ourselves to Jesus as a sacrifice (Rom 12:1; Gal 1:10; 1 John 2:15; 1 Pet 2:5). Therefore, we place on the altar everything — including our patriotism and citizenship. Everything.
But, of course, Jesus does not leave us destitute. Some of what we offer to him he returns to us — as a gift to be used in his service. Thus, although I offer my wealth to Jesus, he gives much of it back to be used to God’s glory.
Now, this concept of giving back makes better sense when we understand the Jewish sacrificial system. Some sacrifices made to God were for atonement, and we cannot repeat this sacrifice, because Jesus has made it once for all (Heb 7-10). But other sacrifices were given as thanks offerings or as fellowship offerings. Fellowship offerings in particular were shared with those making the sacrifice — rather like a meal eaten with God. You see, going back to Leviticus, God gave some of the sacrifices back to his people — to be used for his glory.
But I digress …
So if my patriotism, my citizenship, my love for my country and its people have been given to me by God, well, if I use them at all, I must use them to bring glory to God. They must be used in his service. Thus, when Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen, it was to bring glory to God.
And so, the question is simply stated: How does a citizen of the U.S. bring glory to God through his voting, his military service, his jury duty, or otherwise as a citizen?
And the principle is simple enough, even though it’s application can be quite complex. The principle is two-fold: love God, love your neighbor. These are the two greatest commands. Indeed, if we believe Paul, they are the only laws binding on us (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14). And so, how does love dictate how we exercise our citizenship?
Plainly enough, it has to mean that I can’t be selfish in the voting booth. As much as I’d like to vote for those who will cut my taxes and give me subsidies, I actually have to vote for what’s best for everyone — “best” being defined by Christian principles and hence not necessarily defined in terms of material wealth.
Obviously enough, you and I may disagree about what governmental policies are the best. I’m an economic conservative and believe in minimal government. But I’m no Libertarian. I don’t want to see the FDA and EPA dissolved. Some government is a good thing for everyone. We can disagree about these things and still be brothers — and both be motivated by a truly Christlike love.
The best example I can think of is the immigration debate. Most Christians I’ve discussed this with start with the premise that we should do what’s best for Americans — especially what’s best for me. In other words, most Christians think exactly like the world — selfishly. And people get mad when I suggest that the Mexicans are people, too, loved by God just as much as we are, and many are Christians, even evangelical Christians, even members of the Churches of Christ. I mean, we’ve been sending missionaries over there for years.
The response is, of course, that they are here illegally, which is true, but not relevant as the debate is over what the law should be. The debate is whether it should be illegal for them to be here, you see. And if I had the power to change the law, well, I’d have to change it to glorify God. That’s it.
Now, I honestly don’t know which immigration policy best glorifies God. I just know that our attitude on the subject is worldly and un-Christian. We must instead start with the fact that God loves the Mexicans just as much as the Americans. And he loves the American laborers whose wages are bid down by immigration (legal or illegal). We simply can’t discuss the subject as though the consequences to our brothers in Mexico are irrelevant. But that doesn’t give the answer. It just tells us how to think about the answer. Which is essential.
Now, it’s a good exercise just to sit down and ask yourself: If a Mexican has the same value to God as an American, how would a truly Christ-like Congress write immigration law? The answer is hardly obvious, but it’s important to ask the question. Surely it changes the answer somehow or other.
The same thought process goes into military service. Can you, as a member of the military, use your service to God’s glory?
The early church refused military service. Tertullian is quite typical —
Now inquiry is made about the point of whether a believer may enter into military service. The question is also asked whether those in the military may be admitted into the faith even the rank and file (or any inferior grade), who are not required to take part in sacrifices or capital punishments … A man cannot give his allegiance to two masters — God and Caesar … How will a Christian man participate in war? In fact, how will he serve even in peace without a sword? For the Lord has taken the sword away. It is also true that soldiers came to John [the Baptist] and received the instructions for their conduct. It is true also that a centurion believed. Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. (c. 200), ANF 3.73.
But by Constantine’s time, there were certainly Christians in military.
Under such church leaders as Augustine and Aquinas, a theory of “just war” was developed, allowing military service for just causes only.
Now, in Restoration Movement history, David Lipscomb famously forbade Christians from all military service, voting, or jury duty in his book Civil Government. He followed in the teachings of Barton W. Stone, Benjamin Franklin, and Moses E. Lard in coming to this conclusion (Murch, Christians Only, p. 153). G. C. Brewer and H. Leo Boles opposed participation in WWII (Hooper, A Distinct People, pp 120ff).
I grew up in North Alabama, and even in the 1950s and 60s, some people still considered this sound doctrine, although it had largely been forgotten in the wake of WWII.
During WWI many Church of Christ and Christian Church young men refused military service based on the pacifistic teaching of the Churches of Christ. And our government sometimes banned Church writers from expressing pacifist thoughts in print! (Hooper, p 112).
Now, although I respect the position, I am not myself a pacifist. However, neither do I believe that we should fight in any war that the government wants us to fight. Our loyalty to Jesus first-and-only means we can only participate in military service if so doing is consistent with Jesus’ teachings. Obviously enough, there are strong disagreements on how to apply his teachings, and that is not today’s topic.
And so, to summarize, voting, military service, lobbying, giving to candidates, petitioning the government — the exercise of all civil rights and the acceptance of all “duties” imposed by the government — are to be used to glorify God and for no other reason. Our rights as citizens are not gifts from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — they are gifts from God to be used as God wishes.
Certainly I’ve not answers all the questions. I doubt that I could. But the point is simply this: the discussion starts and ends with what God wants.
We Americans are routinely encouraged by the politicians and parties to act out of self-interest and with little regard by those who are not Americans. We have no such right. And this changes everything.