Politics, Patriotism, and the Pulpit - Ask Pastor John
Video from Desiring God
And we’re back again for another week and for another Fourth of July on the podcast. I think it’s the fourth time an episode has landed square on the holiday — at least our fourth. So happy Independence Day for those of you here in the States. If the inbox is any indicator, questions over politics, patriotism, and the pulpit are perennial concerns. When better to broach the topic than on a day like today?
Jamison, a pastor in Virginia, writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast! I admire your approach to politics and patriotism. You seem to be very careful here. Even when the heat is turned up in election times, and pastors feel social pressure to endorse specific candidates, you notoriously refrain from participating. As you have watched this impulse in American Christian life for many decades, this impulse among Christian leaders to periodically endorse candidates and to get involved in politics, what observations have you drawn from your decades of refraining?”
Maybe the most important or helpful thing that I can do in response to this question is to point to passages of Scripture that capture the emphasis I think is needed, not just in the American church, but in the global church, the church around the world. Because the tendency to confuse and combine Christian identity and its earthly expression, the church, with political identity, ethnic identity, national identity, or any other earthly identity — that conflating tendency is so strong, and I think so destructive to the radical call of the gospel, that it needs steadfast resistance generation after generation.
Christian Identity in a Politicized World
So my burden is to join forces with the Bible (as I understand it), and millions of faithful Christians, to encourage and nurture a faithful Christian identity that will survive and thrive with faith and hope and joy and love and purity, whether America survives, or Brazil survives, or Britain survives, or China survives, or Russia survives, or India survives — or not.
So let me point to six kinds of passages that shaped my passions in that direction.
1. Not of This World
Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). From which I infer that we’d better be very, very careful before we undertake any processes that involve force or coercion to put the kingdom of Christ in place. Any identity that we can put in place by force or weapon or law is not the kingdom of Christ. In this age, King Jesus is creating a people a very different way. That’s number one.
2. Hidden with Christ
Paul said in Colossians 1:13, “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” And again,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)
“Our most fundamental and defining identity and location is the kingdom of Christ, not any kingdom on earth.”
So our most fundamental and defining identity and location is the kingdom of Christ, not any kingdom on earth. It is the right hand of God, not the right hand of any earthly power. Our most essential life is Christ, and only when he comes will we be openly known for who we really are.
3. Citizens of Heaven
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
So no earthly citizenship, whether American or Russian or Chinese, has any ultimate allegiance over those who are in Christ Jesus. Our political allegiances are to Jesus. No party, no nation, no ethnicity, no ideology has any ultimate claim on us. Our decisive constitution is the word of God, and no human document.
4. Chosen Race, Holy Nation
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” These are ethnically and politically shattering words. Born-again Christians, real Christians, are a chosen race (genos eklekton), a holy nation (ethnos hagion). The kind of human we are and the kind of nation we belong to is not any longer our essential identity. We are a new kind, a new nation. None of the existing human realities, ethnic or national, is God’s chosen and holy people. Christians are a new thing, a new reality, a new people, a new nation, a new ethnicity and race. And we should bear witness to it.
5. Resident Aliens on Earth
Therefore, Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Christians are not first Americans, or Canadians, or British, or Russians, or Nigerians. In every nation, we are exiles. Let that sink in. I want to scream that from the top of the buildings to every nationalistic tendency. In every nation, we are exiles.
Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). If you are going to run for office, be sure to inform your constituency that you are a resident alien. Your primary citizenship and allegiance are the kingdom of Christ.
6. Servants of God
Peter said in 1 Peter 2:13–16,
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
“We belong to God. We are slaves of God, not any man. We are his servants. He owns us. We do his bidding.”
In other words, realize as Christians that you are free — free from emperors, free from governors, free from presidents, free from worldly powers and parties. We belong to God. We are slaves of God, not any man. We are his servants. He owns us. We do his bidding. And when the human state tells us to pay our taxes and keep the speed limit and shovel the snow off of our sidewalks, we do it, not because the state is our authority, but because God is. We submit for his sake and in his limits.
7. People from All Nations
Jesus said in Matthew 28:19–20,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Now that does not mean, “Go and turn pagan cultures into whitewashed tombs with the paint of so-called ‘Christian’ externals.” We know that. We know it doesn’t mean that, because Jesus defines “discipling nations” — which is the neuter plural Greek word ethne, “nations” — by “baptizing and teaching them,” and the “them” is masculine plural. That’s crucial. You don’t disciple political entities. You don’t disciple ethnic corporate realities. You disciple “them” — autous, plural in Greek — people that you can baptize.
In other words, our job is to so magnify Jesus and his saving work, among all the peoples of the world, that individual human beings are brought from death to life and formed into the image of Christ. In every race, ethnicity, nation, this new people, this chosen race, this holy nation among all the nations are to let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16). “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
You Don’t Need to Know It All
Now I have no illusions, Tony, that until Jesus comes, Christians will ever agree on precisely what it looks like in professional life, and political life, and cultural life for the church to be the kingdom of Christ — a kingdom, Jesus says, that’s not of this world.
But my encouragement to pastors is that you don’t need to figure that out. You don’t need to figure that out for all of your amazingly diverse people invested in a thousand ways, in all kinds of cultural and professional and political endeavors. You don’t need to be the expert to figure all that out. We’re not smart enough. Speak these biblical truths and others that you see as relevant from Scripture. Call your people to radical allegiance to King Jesus. Set them on a quest of lifelong learning, and trust the Spirit of God in their lives.