The Bible says that believers are pilgrims and strangers on the earth and that we have no certain dwelling place here. As normal human beings we are citizens of many countries, speakers of many languages, and partakers of many cultures. Yet as Christians we are only visitors here, ambassadors for a more noble country, pilgrims on our way home, foreigners and outcasts to the ways of this world, and seekers of a more permanent city which has everlasting foundations, whose builder and maker is God. As believers in God as Creator and Sovereign we understand that He made people and commanded them to govern their affairs. Therefore Christians have been the most conscientious earthly citizens and the best caretakers of this earth and its societies. Yet as believers in an eternal heavenly home we also have the shallowest roots, the least to covet, the most to give, and yet the most to gain when we leave this earthly abode.
How deep does such a person grow roots in this life and with what grip does he take hold of earthly endeavors? Believers throughout history have taken various views as to their citizenship responsibilities. Some have found themselves in God-fearing countries where it has been easy to support, work for, and even die for civil liberties. Others have suffered for their faith at the hands of their own government and have sought to escape the tyranny of despots who violated divine principles of governance and persecuted believers with the sword.
Before giving some Biblical principles of earthly citizenship that believers have most generally followed, I should first make my ecclesiastical point of view clear. I am writing as a premillennial and dispensational Baptist. Though we who hold these views may differ in many details, there are general Biblical teachings with which we would agree.
1) The Church is not Israel. Israel was (at least in an Old Testament framework) a theocracy. It was ruled directly by God through the mediation of prophets, priests, and kings. It was a union of religion and state and there was no other religion than Judaism and no protection offered by the state for any other belief system. The Mosaic Law was a unity of religious, civil, and ceremonial responsibility. The church of the New Testament, on the other hand, has no such organization nor desire. God’s plan for His Church is separate from Israel except where it overlaps at the cross. The cross is the end of the Mosaic dispensation and the beginning of the Church.
2) The Church is not tied to human government. Baptists and other such premillennialists have always desired a separation of church and state. Though such terminology is practically lost on today’s atheistic secularists, it is our basic point of view. Human government was begun by God’s command under that dispensation when Noah came off the ark. It has continued as a divine principle ever since. The Church began at Pentecost, over two millenniums later, operating simultaneously with governments but having its own divine principles of operation which are unique to its purpose. In the 1960s Noel Smith wrote,
And now let us do some reasoning about the separation of Church and state. The fundamental thing is, their respective natures, philosophies, and missions inherently demand their constitutional separation. The union of Church and state runs counter to their natures. Separately, each complements and helps the other; together, each is dead weight on the other.1
3) The Church is not a denomination. Though I for one am very much in favor of keeping “denominational” names on our churches, Baptists have always understood that the Church exists on earth only as autonomous local congregations. Since Constantine the error of churches being part of the national government or part of a larger ecclesiastical structure has plagued this world. Infant baptism has been the entrance into denominational structures and has attached the Church to the state in unbiblical ways. New Testament churches gain members by conversion to Christ and subsequent adult baptism. Neither has anything to do with governmental authority or ecclesiastical oversight.
4) The wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest. When Jesus gave this parable (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43), He was speaking prophetically of His second coming and the establishing of His kingdom on earth. Until then He made it clear that the lost and saved would dwell together in this world under human government and the believers should not try to separate lost and saved by human governmental means. The Church, on the other hand, is commanded to make this separation, but only within its own local body membership and even then by simple exclusion, not by violence or even incivility.
Therefore, as members both of the Body of Christ whose citizenship is in heaven, and also of the country where we now live whose citizenship is on earth (and which we believe is also God-ordained), how does a Christian balance these responsibilities? With what thinking does he come to the civil voting-booth and participate? Here are four “freedoms” that Christians seek to promote when the country they live in gives them the freedom to participate by voting.
Freedom from the State
Leonard Verduin, in his monumental book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren, describes the great mistake the Reformers made in trying to make their Church the State Church and at the same time describes the struggle and persecution Baptists and other independents (their “stepchildren”) had to suffer due to the lack of church-state separation. Yet he says of government’s God-given responsibility,
The State is intended, by God himself, to regulate as best it can, with the insights available to it and with the resources at its command, the things of this age. It is implied in the New Testament vision that the State, being itself a creature of God’s common grace, works with the resources which that non-redemptive grace makes available.2
Christians are glad to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and still give unto God the things that are God’s (Matt 22:21). These don’t have to be in conflict, but where they have been Christians usually end up suffering rather than benefiting. When governments propose to encroach upon believers’ responsibility to follow Biblical teaching and commands, believers will vote in opposition.
Freedom of Conscience
This is the greatest freedom a government can give to its citizens. The Christian conscience will never seek to violate God’s laws or seek freedom to do wrong. Rather, the Christian enjoys order and protection to worship according to the dictates of his convictions. When the apostle Paul had to answer for himself before the governmental authorities in Caesarea he said, And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men (Acts 24:16). At the same time Paul realized that if a Christian becomes a law-breaker he should suffer the consequences as any other citizen, For if I be an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die (Acts 25:11).
Christians clearly understand that every individual must answer to his Creator and, therefore, God’s moral law in the world is incumbent upon all people. Government does best when it helps protect the citizen’s ability to follow it. The American evangelist Charles Finney, himself a lawyer by training, wrote,
It follows, that no government is lawful or innocent that does not recognize the moral law as the only universal law, and God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, to whom nations in their national capacity, as well as all individuals, are amenable. The moral law of God is the only law of individuals and of nations and nothing can be rightful government but such as is established and administered with a view to its support.3
Freedom to Support Government
Christians rejoice when they live in a country that gives them freedom of conscience and at the same time does not interfere in the church’s business. Christians in western nations, including the United States which has a Bible-based heritage, have enjoyed this freedom. Ravi Zacharias has written, “The certainty is this: America was not founded on an Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist worldview, however valuable some of their precepts might be. If we do not see this, we do not see the fundamental ideas that shaped the ethos of the American people.”4
Because of this, Christians in America feel free to enlist in the military and fight for a righteous cause for he beareth not the sword in vain (Rom 13:4); to pay taxes for the benefit of all, tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom (Rom 13:7); to pray joyfully for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Tim 2:2).
Freedom to Evangelize
Christians also bear the burden of world-wide evangelism which is given to them directly by their Lord (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8). This they must do regardless of the country in which they find themselves, and this they have done regardless of persecution or freedom. Evangelism, we believe, must be accomplished by the Spirit of God using the Word of God through a spokesman for God. We want coercion of no other kind whether that be governmental, physical or emotional. Christianity is the only religion that asks for faith alone for adherence.
Many today fear that evangelistic Christians want to force their faith on others. Such a statement only reveals the depth of misunderstanding there is in our day about the Christian faith itself. The fact is, it is impossible for anyone to be forced to be a Christian! Christian conversion can only be by willing faith. Perhaps other religions can gain converts by force, but Christianity would cease to be Christianity if such were applied to it. King Agrippa confessed that Paul almost persuaded him to be a Christian (Acts 26:28). But Paul never forced anyone and neither could he. He only answered, I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds (29). When believers can vote for this freedom, they will every time.
And So . . . .
To these ends Christians in any country feel the need to vote and rejoice when such can be done freely.Notes: 1. Noel Smith, “The Separation of Church and State,” The Biblical Faith of Baptists, vol. IV , p. 102. 2. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 24. 3. Charles Finney, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1994) 236. 4. Ravi Zacharias, Light in the Shadow of Jihad (Sister, OR: Multomah, 2002) 28.