Church and State

I just read an article by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition: “Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day”. Listen to his intro:

This post probably has something to make everyone unhappy. But here goes.

With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is a blog and not a term paper, I’ll try to keep this under 1500 words.

DeYoung goes on to cover five main points:

  1. Being a Christian does not remove national and ethnic identities.
  2. Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.
  3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
  4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.
  5. All this leads to one final point: while patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.

Overall, I really appreciate this attempt to arrive at a balance between those who simply baptize their American patriotism and call it Christianity and those who view every instance of patriotism as damnable idolatry. I loved DeYoung’s last paragraph: 

In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own. But in other parts of the church, true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion. You are allowed to worship in our services as long as you love America as much as we do. I don’t claim to have arrived at the golden mean, but I imagine many churches could stand to think more carefully about their theology of God and country. Churches should be glad to have their members celebrate Memorial Day with gusto this Monday. We should be less sanguine about celebrating it with pomp and circumstance on Sunday.

In the end, while I want to avoid the extreme position of viewing every form of patriotism as idolatry, I think that American Christians too often give unthinking allegiance and support to the country in which we live. Without demonizing the country in which we live, the amazing freedoms which we are able to enjoy, and the men and women who have sacrificed to secure and preserve those freedoms for us, we need to always remember that we, if we belong to Christ, are ultimately citizens of a greater Kingdom than the United States of America. DeYoung has this to say about the compatibility of allegiance to God and allegiance to one’s country:

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. In general, then, it’s possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Ghanaian or a good Korean. Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country do not have to be at odds.

Correct, allegiance to God and allegiance to country do not have to be diametrically opposed. Christians should live as respectful citizens of their respective nations. However, do we really believe that Ghanaian and Korean Christians are every bit as good as American ones? I know everyone’s going to say “yes,” but do we really believe this? What if those Ghanaian and/or Korean Christians don’t like the United States of America? Are they still as pleasing to God in our eyes, or does their righteousness depend on their support of the Red, White, and Blue? Because a lot of what I have seen/heard/experienced in the American church seems to subtly teach that our country is the best and most deserving of God’s favor. I retweeted the following recently:

I’m waiting for the Iranian and N. Korean editions of the Patriot’s Bible. http://www.americanpatriotsbible.com.

Why does something like this have the potential to upset so many American Christians? “Iran and North Korea are clearly more morally evil than the United States,” some will say. Maybe so, but since when does our country get to claim the right of being God-approved? Can Christians in Ghana sing “God bless Ghana”? Perhaps our reactions to tweets/messages/statements like the one above only prove the problem.

Before someone calls me a heretic or an anti-American, please know that simply questioning the American church’s commitment to the USA does NOT immediately make me into someone who burns flags and pickets soldiers funerals. That would be swinging to the other end of the spectrum, and I do not believe that such a dichotomy exists. If someone does not give unquestioning allegiance to the USA, it does not mean that they automatically align themselves with the crazies over at Westboro Baptist Church.

I am a Christian.

I am also an American citizen. I obey the law, salute the flag, am respectful of the men and women in the armed forces, grateful for their sacrifices, and thankful for the fact that I live in a country where I can enjoy unparalleled freedoms (such as writing blog posts like this without having to fear for my life).

…but I do not give my ultimate allegiance to the American flag, or any other national standard for that matter. I pledge my ultimate allegiance to Jesus the Messiah. And while most Christians in the United States of America would nod their heads and agree with that previous statement, I think that we all need to consider whether we are living it out or not. Will our church services on Memorial Day reflect this?

May our eternal and infinite God bless his global bride, his global people, his global Church as Christians from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language follow their true King, Jesus the Messiah.

~Josh.

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