|On parade with a few of my friends, March 2011|
On the other hand, a Christian surely has a higher allegiance! Scripture leaves no doubt that our ultimate fidelity is owed to our Eternal King, not any temporal one. For this reason, many evil governments throughout history have oppressed and persecuted the church, fearful of what disruption unwavering allegiance to God might bring to despotic rule.
So how does this play out? Does my country have reason to doubt my fidelity? Let us consider an analogy (with the usual caveat that there's no such thing as a "perfect analogy"):
In a Christian marriage, each spouse's primary devotion must be to God. If they put one another over Him, they are guilty of idolatry. Does that make them less devoted? In fact, exactly the opposite! The love and fidelity I give my wife is strengthened by loving Christ first. He both commands and empowers it, pushing it beyond where I, in my natural selfishness, would prefer to turn inward. He thereby makes my marriage to withstand many storms and failings--both hers and my own. By loving God first, I love my wife better.
The same principle holds true of my country. My willingness to be America's good and trustworthy citizen, to serve her well and faithfully, and even to lay down my life in her defense, is undergirded by my belief that in doing so I obey, honor and serve God.
Now, it is true that our allegiance to God may at some point bring us into direct conflict with the government. This has happened throughout history, even in America. Christians must be willing to disobey our earthly rulers when they attempt to force us into disobedience to our Heavenly King--such as refusing the right to worship and make disciples as we have been commanded, as occurs in many places even today. We may even be called to engage in civil disobedience to voice our objection to grievous wrongs, such as human slavery or (more currently) abortion. In other words, we need to know when it is time to stand and say, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29)
On the other hand, we need to be careful and choose our battles wisely. The church frequently loses its way when it becomes so concerned with earthly government that it forgets its primary calling. The freedom to worship freely is not the same as demanding civil society conform to our beliefs or value them above others. While we can and should certainly advocate and vote for godly institutions and outcomes, God has not called upon the church to expend our best energies to perfect our secular governments. That would truly be a tall order. In fact, the church would do well to first examine our own legion imperfections, removing the plank in our own eye. Purifying ourselves is hard enough, and more clearly our direct responsibility.
The Apostle Paul gives us the guidelines for our understanding of worldly governments. Besides flatly calling for our obedience (Everyone must submit ... The authorities that exist have been established by God ... pay taxes ... respect ... honor. Romans 13:1-7), he also tells us how to pray for them: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
So then, when we have a government which will allow us to live out our faith peaceably, we have much to be thankful for. And remember, Paul wrote this at a time when there were no "Christian" governments on the face of the earth! In other words, he wrote this at a time when governments were far more oppressive, corruptible, and tyrannic than most of us who live in 21st century democracies are likely to encounter.
So can a Christian be a patriot? Absolutely ... in fact, the very best kind of patriot. The Christian is one who believes in godly obedience to every authority He has established ... but also believes in just and right governance, and therefore is willing to take a stand to obey God rather than men when necessary!
In short, I return to my favorite musician-poet, Rich Mullins, for a healthy perspective on Christian love for & allegiance to country:
Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
So I'll call you my country
But I'm lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me