by ProfDave, ©2021

(Oct. 7, 2021) — One July 4 evening a couple friends and I took in the fireworks at Manchester Community College.  Once again, I heard the “wump” of the mortars as from Vietnam days (not in combat, fortunately, but for illumination) and saw the “bombs bursting in air.” It got me thinking.  What does the USA mean to a Christian?

In the wake of that weekend’s events, guess what my pastor preached on: Matthew 22, God and Caesar.  Perhaps you remember the story.  Trying to trap Jesus, spies from the religious establishment asked him if it was right for devout Jews to pay taxes to the pagan Emperor.  In answer, he asked to borrow a coin.  Whose image and inscription was that?  Ironically, they were carrying graven images with a blasphemous inscription (hailing the divine emperor) in their purses.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” Jesus said, “ and to God what is God’s.”

On that one statement hangs Western civilization’s understanding of church and state.  Dan Whitney – and many others since St. Augustine – pointed out that Jesus-followers have dual citizenship: in the Kingdom of God and in a kingdom of this world, the City of God and the City of Man (USA or Rome).  Eric Metaxas and others have written that we are exiles in our own land – another dimension of the same thing.

But our loyalties are not to be divided.  We are not half in heaven and half on earth, but we must not give to Caesar what belongs to God. Caesar provided the coins, the roads, the Pax Romana for ancient PalestineEven though the Caesars ruled by conquest and their position was unconstitutional, the Jews enjoyed Caesar’s benefits, so they were obligated to pay Caesar’s taxes, pray for the welfare of Caesar’s Empire and obey Caesar’s laws so long as they did not contradict the laws of God or usurp what belonged to God.

God, of course, is the supreme authority figure.  All legitimate authority comes from Him, as St Paul explained, and obedience is, in principle, a moral obligation upon all Christians.  Parents, employers, police and governors.  In a democracy, the only difference is that the servants of the state are our delegatedservants – and we can vote them out.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” But what belongs to God?  What do Jesus-followers owe to Him?  

 “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  We must not give to Caesar what belongs to God alone (Dan Whitney).  But what belongs to God?  What do Jesus-followers owe to Him?  Everything, really.  I mean, He owns it all.  Especially us.  He made us in His image.  He wove together our individual DNA.  He lived, died, and rose again to buy us back from destruction and death.  And we, as believers, acknowledge that “it is He that has made us and not our own selves.”  Caesar himself draws his breath from God and government is His gift. So far as authority is concerned, God is not just #1, He is the singularity from whom all other authority comes. 

We owe to God alone our worship.  Early Christians died in droves rather than burn a pinch of incense to acknowledge the divinity of Caesar.  His is a sovereignty different in kind as well as degree from any earthly power.  His commands are supreme.   The very laws of nature are His, let alone the moral law which He has put in our nature and revealed to us in Scripture.  The law of God without question trumps the law of mankind.  The “world” – individuals and nations who do not fear God and recognize His kingdom – may defy His law in some matters for time, but not eternity.  People of the Kingdom know better!

But if all authority belongs to God, then what’s left over for Caesar?  The biblical answer: the authority of the state is delegated by God to restrain evil, rendering freedom to its citizens to be and do the good.  When we forget the difference between good and evil, we are in trouble!  So the USA is to the Kingdom of God as Connecticut is to the USA.

But if everything belongs to God, then isn’t everything his kingdom?  Short answer: yes.  But the human race is in rebellion.  So, to one degree or another, those who acknowledge the King are like loyal Unionists living in Georgia during the Civil War!  They were Americans first, and Georgians second.  In most matters of ordinary life they were obligated to the authority of Georgia, except to the extent that it brought them into conflict with the authority of the USA.

Did you see the picture on face-book of the church flying the Christian flag above the American flag?   Flag protocol aside, that is the situation in the heart of every Jesus-follower.  We fly both flags, we love both God and Caesar, but there is only one God for us and that is that.

So the rule of God encompasses all things existentially and eternally, but the world insurrection has removed itself from obedience by denying His sovereignty.  We who willingly accept His rule remain agents of the King.

That’s what it means to be a Jesus-follower in a fundamentally hostile world.  But what does it mean for a Jesus-follower to be citizen of the USA?  Can they, should they pledge allegiance to the flag?  Be patriotic or nationalistic?

But what does it mean for a citizen of heaven to be citizen of the USA?   Modern patriotism and nationalism date from the time of the American and French revolutions.  They gave meaning to geographical borders, ethnic and linguistic identity, and unique heritage or ideals of the nation state – previously inchoate.  For the USA those ideals were “from sea to shining sea,” the melting pot, and “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Ancient loyalties were connected to tribal or civic gods. In biblical history peoples are identified by their ancestors, and secondarily their gods.  God chose one man, Israel, aka Jacob, and his descendents – “the children of Israel” – to be “a light to the Gentiles.”  The God of the Hebrew Scriptures clearly deals with nations as well as individuals.  Nations mean something to God.  He has plans for them.  He holds them responsible for their character and behavior.  He uses them (with or without their consent) to execute His judgment on evil.  And not just Israel.  Not just ancient times.

Does God have a purpose for the USA?  Will he judge it as he did Sodom?  Or Jerusalem?

Does God still deal with nations as nations?  Does He have a purpose for the US of A?  Our founders certainly thought so.  At least the founders of the most of the colonies.  New England was to be “the city on a hill” to show the world what a godly society looked like.  Pennsylvania and Maryland were to be havens from religious persecution. 

The clergy provided the intellectual leadership of the revolution.  The shift from praying for the king to the justification of rebellion embodied in the Declaration of Independence (a profoundly religious document) was a spiritual movement.  George Washington credited his victory to divine intervention and, like Moses, dedicated this country to the worship of God.  There is no mistaking his language.  Did he have the power to do that?  Did the Almighty accept the gesture?  Does it, in God’s eyes, still bind us today?

And Abraham Lincoln attributed the suffering of the Civil War to God’s judgment.  Was he right?  Clearly, we are not the nation we once were.  Some would say it is a good thing.  Others long for “the good old days.”  But the chastening of the Civil War, for example, was forgotten in a generation or two and that of 9-11 lasted only a few weeks.  We are not yet the nation we will be, either.  If God tarries.

In the “Common Era” (aka AD) does the king doing “right in the sight of the Lord” still determine the health of the modern nation-state (I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles)? Or is it every man for himself?  Oops!  In a democracy, aren’t “we the people” the king?  Hmmh.

Note that God and Caesar and the dual citizenship of the Christian are not the same as the separation of church and state.  The true Church, the people of God in every age and every place are “the body of Christ,” but no visible, institutional denomination is God.  Civil government is right to remain neutral between any number of institutional churches.

For serious Jesus-followers, what the Bible actually says about the authority of church and state is of utmost importance.  The Davidic kingdom was the model for separate spheres of priests and kings for Western Civilization.  Kings of Israel were strictly forbidden to take on religious roles on pain of death or leprosy.   But they were anointed by prophets or priests, were expected to rule in the fear of God, and took orders from the prophets as His spokesmen.  The legal structure came directly from Him and judges, in particular, were vicars of the Almighty.  In short, both kings and priests were answerable to the Holy One.  Even pagan kings are called servants of God.  In New Testament times the Caesars were to provide peace and good order so that the Kingdom of God might advance freely.  Christ is the King of kings as well as Lord of the church.

My purpose is not to give the historical origins of the separation of church and state, nor its post-modern distortion.  I spare you.  But what sort of love and loyalty should a Jesus-follower give to the USA?  Is it idolatry to pledge allegiance to the flag?  Is it wrong to resist any government action?  My country right or wrong?  Or is my country always right?

Jesus-followers take the Bible seriously.  When it tells us God has assigned times and places to all the peoples/nations of the world, we believe that means the USA (and Canada, too).  It could be our time is just about up.  Christianity is and always has been an international movement, transcending borders, cultures and centuries.  All times are ‘now’ and all places are ‘here’ to the Eternal One, but we are born for this time and in this place.  What are we supposed to do about it?

When the prophet exhorted Jewish exiles centuries ago to seek the welfare of the city where they lived, that means us – exiles from Heaven.  When the Apostle commanded early Christians to pray for their magistrates (including Nero!) and give honor where honor was due, the principle applies to our allegiance.  Do you pray for the President?  He surely needs it!  And the second commandment, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” certainly implies an appropriate willingness to sacrifice for one’s own people as well as our foreign brothers – to the extent of laying down one’s life for one’s friends.  No society can long endure without people willing to do that!  Jesus-followers are called to be sustaining members of their society.

Both passive obedience and active support of civil government has been a feature of Christianity since Roman times – even when the state was hostile.  Sometimes the partnership has been troubled, sometimes badly abused by both sides. 

In America, many early settlers and the intellectual elites of the Revolutionary period wrapped their settlements and their patriotism in sacred mantles.  From the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, they visualized themselves and America as having a sacred mission, to be a “city on a hill” to the rest of the world – American exceptionalism.  Many saw themselves as a new Israel, with America as their “promised land.”  For two hundred years our patriotism had a religious flavor and Christianity – at least Protestantism – was wrapped in the flag.  Was that right?

For most of our history we considered ourselves a Christian nation – though real Jesus-followers were not so sure.  We displayed the Bible in public places, believed in the Ten Commandments, and at least sent our children to Sunday School.  Sociologists called it our “civil religion” – a bland ecumenical Protestantism or Deism with a special niche for Roman Catholics.  It was universally recognized in law, in education and in the media.  And the Stars and Stripes adorned all our places of worship.

Thus, when the pampered youth of the sixties (some of them, not all of them) rose up to reject the materialism and hypocrisy of their elders, they included Christianity.  And rightfully so.  The “Christian” America of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism had failed to bring the promise of the teachings of Jesus to bear on immigration, urbanization, labor relations, and – above all – racial relations.  Unfortunately, the social revolution threw the real Jesus out with the civil religion, weakened basic social structures, and attacked patriotism, too. 

President Obama and the Supreme Court of his day made it abundantly clear: we are a post-Christian nation.  Christianity is no longer welcome in law, education, or “main stream” media.  It hasn’t been for some time.  But does that make any difference to the loyalties of Jesus-followers?

Civil religion in the USA is pretty much moribund except in the buckle of the Bible belt.  We have been told that we are no longer a Christian nation, and the established religion of education, law, and public media is decidedly not Christian but an amalgam of scientific naturalism and existentialism.

But Jesus-followers are right back where we started, serving God first as loyal subjects of Heaven, and secondly of Caesar, too – in all things not contrary to God – as loyal citizens of the state.  We have, if anything, been disabused of the notion, so alluring for some centuries, that they are the same thing.  The powers-that-be no longer feel obliged to salute our flag.  The lines have become more clearly drawn and civil Christians are melting away.  Paying lip-service to piety and virtue is no longer “in.”  The lines between Jesus Christ and culture are being clearly drawn.

There will be a cost to discipleship as the state becomes more comprehensive (not to say totalitarian) and the culture becomes more hostile to Christian values.  Discrimination and repression are on the way.  But, as in Roman times, the faithful will shine like stars in the night sky of pagan decadence (see Daniel 12:3). 

At the same time, Jesus-followers should and will remain sustaining members of American society and their families and fellowships islands of sanity and stability in the midst of chaos.  As in Rome, they should and will continue to reach out to heal the brokenness of their pagan neighbors, with or without tax exemption and in the face of all persecution, official and unofficial.  The Kingdom will come and the will of the King will be done, one way or another.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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