This week, the United States celebrated our Independence Day. This time of year always raises questions about how Christians should relate to an earthly nation, and the resulting conversation often generates a fair share of fireworks among believers.
Whenever a Christian thinks about his or her role in society, there are two things that Scripture calls us to remember.
In his letter to the churches in modern day Turkey, Peter referred to his audience as “exiles” and “sojourners.” He does this as a reminder to those Christians that they were not currently living in their rightful home. As members in God’s new covenant, they were to see themselves as the constituency of a “holy nation.”
This new citizenship may have led some to believe that this meant they were to disdain the “unholy nation” in which they found themselves. One may have naturally thought this especially given that the Roman government was starting to put serious pressure on Christians. In fact, one might expect that Peter is about to launch into a manifesto that justifies a revolt against their Roman oppressors.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, Peter encourages these persecuted Christians to persist in good works and to submit to every human authority for the Lord’s sake. Rather than encourage a revolt, the doctrine that they were members of a “holy nation” required that they subject themselves to the government’s laws.
Does this mean that Peter was encouraging them to bow the knee to Caesar? No. Peter intended that Christians willingly accept the legal repercussions for saying “Jesus is Lord” rather than Caesar. After all, the Ultimate Source of justice would vindicate them; they need not worry about avenging themselves.
The irony is that, by accepting the punishment, the Christians were good citizens of both nations. They served both God and the State by trusting that God would judge the State for the injustice.*
In another message to exiles, God commanded His people to seek the good of the place that He had sent them. They were to make their lives there and do what they could to be good citizens. God did not order them to begrudge their new nation even though it had just brutally ripped them from their ancestral home.
We have orders to be good citizens of both our heavenly country and our earthly one. The priority of the first even commands faithful service to the second. There should be no fear in patriotism, so long as that patriotism does not become idolatrous.
Earthly national identities can rightly be celebrated. Just remember which citizenship has priority.