God's Special People?

I attended a highly patriotic Christian school from kindergarten to fifth grade. It would definitely have been categorized as a nationalistic, God-and-country school. We pledged allegiance to the American flag and then to the Christian flag (which seems awfully Charlemagne-esque in hindsight). At the same time, I grew up in a home that was highly appreciative of the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens--but one that was certainly not nationalistic per se. My father wasn't comfortable with some of the nationalistic expressions they taught us at school. I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable pledging allegiance to a national flag when I was a very young boy. Still, I spent very little time questioning how much, if any, national adherence is appropriate in the life of a believer. 

When I was in my late 20's, I moved to Philadelphia to start an internship at Tenth Presbyterian Church. The church happened to be celebrating its mission conference when I began my time there. Flags from countries all around the world hung down from the balcony, awaiting the participants. As I stood there witnessing what was part of the preamble to an incredible mission conference, one of the pastors on staff asked me a question that I had never been asked before: "What do you think," he said, "about having an American flag behind the pulpit in the church building?" Being caught off guard, I quickly responded, "I haven't ever really thought about it. Why?" What he said next continues to have an impact on my thinking today. "We have so many people from so many different nations of the world living here in Philadelphia that I would hate to give the sense that if you are going to become a Christian, that means that you will be have to become a patriotic American. If a Middle Easterner was invited to one of our services, would we want them to have to identify Christianity with American patriotism?" This very difficult issue is one that the church has needed to work through over the past several decades. In short, how are we--as Christians in America--to hold Christianity and patriotism together without harming the cause of Christ through our misplaced or imbalanced patriotic zeal?

In 2009, the Lord called me to plant a church in a coastal town in Southeast Georgia that lies between two military bases. Our congregation has consisted of a majority of Army and Air Force officers over the years. I have certainly grown in my appreciation for the sacrifices that the men and women of our armed forces make in order to defend our freedoms. I regularly pray for the spiritual and physical protection of those officers who are deployed and of their families. We give special attention to the families of those officers when they are deployed. Having now worked closely with so many who have served in our armed forces--and having seen the enormous sacrifices that they make (and they are far greater than most of us will ever realize)--deep and sincere gratitude wells up within me whenever I think about the these men and women. However, when I think of those in our congregation who serve in the military, I think of them first and foremost as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The role they play as members of the armed forces of the United States of America is secondary, at best, to membership they have in the eternal Kingdom of Christ by God's grace.  

The Scriptures are clear that believers live as citizens of two kingdoms. We live as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom of God--while, at the same time, living as citizens of an earthly kingdom. When the apostle Paul wrote the epistle of Ephesians he wrote it to those who were "in Christ" and "in Ephesus." In union with Jesus, believers belong to the nation of Christ--as over against the nation of Adam. Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews of His day--who were citizens of the only manifestation of a theocratic kingdom in redemptive-history: "The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matt. 21:43). What "nation" did Jesus have in mind? The Apostle Paul would remind the Gentile believers to whom he was sent that they were the true "Israel" (Gal. 6:16; Rom. 9:6). Although they had once been far off from the promises of Israel in the Old Covenant, now they had been brought near through His blood. They had been grafted into the only tree, which is Christ (Rom. 11:11-24). This means that the New Covenant church, the true Israel, transcends national identity. No one understood the unsurpassed value of being a member of Christ's heavenly Kingdom (as over against being a citizen of any earthly kingdom) so well as the Apostle Paul. After his conversion, the most zealous and patriotic of all Israelites became the missionary to the nations. He did so because he realized that there was a heavenly Kingdom that had manifested itself on earth through the preaching of the Gospel.

While the transcendent privilege of belonging to the Kingdom of the Son of God's love is the supreme blessing we experience in this life, we recognize that there can also be benefits to our living as citizens of earthly countries and cities such as Ephesus. When the Apostle Paul was about to be killed by an angry mob, he appealed to the benefit of being a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). This, in turn, served to protect the Apostle Paul and aid him in carrying out his ministry among the Gentiles. In the same way, it is not wrong for us to appeal to the privileges that we have as American citizens. We have large blessings and should use them to advance the Kingdom of God when appropriate. J.I. Packer, in massively important 1988 article, "The Christian and God's World: The Battle for America's Soul," wrote:

"I see the United States as having at this time a unique role in the world at both levels of Divine operation. I might perhaps be able to see this more clearly than a native American every could, simply because I look at it from outside. As a non-American, I do not endorse any form of that Utopian triumphalism, the secular counter-part of the Pilgrim's hope of building New Jerusalem in Massachusetts, that periodically breaks surface in the American mind and that looks to outsiders so ominously like the pride that goes before a fall. The idea that America is God's most favored nation, and always will be, is a snare and a delusion that can only sap America's spiritual strength in a way that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Malcolm Muggeridge think has happened already. Do not, I beg you, fall victim to any such notion as that.

Nonetheless, I want to go on record as saying to you, and about you...What it boils down to is, that among the larger nations, only the United States has both the manpower and the money to sustain Evangelical world mission for the next generation, and this gives America an uniquely important role in the global strategy of the kingdom of God at the present time."

This, it seems to me, touches the nerve of how we should respond to the freedoms and resources that we have as Americans. We should be grateful for the country that God has placed us in, precisely because the Gospel has been rooted in this country for so long and so many have come to hear about Christ here. We are able to worship the true and living God without fear of persecution because of the freedom that we have here. This has been an unsurpassed blessing in the history of the world. Yet, our patriotism ought not lead us to embrace freedom for the sake of triumphalism or utopian hedonism. The words of the Apostle Paul--while made in light of the implications of the grace of God in the Gospel--are nevertheless to be well heeded in the context of American privilege: "Do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13). We must never forget that America is not "God's special country" over against other countries in the world and that its citizens are not "God's special people." Christians belong to a greater nation (Matt. 21:43)--one in which we are truly "God's special people" (1 Pet. 2:9)--namely, the everlasting Kingdom of Christ. All of this has massive implications for how we view the privilege we have as American citizens.

I love living in the country in which God has placed me by an act of His sovereign, common grace. There is everything right about loving a country that has provided so much religious and political freedom. There is everything right with thanking God for such large privileges. But, we must never forget that "this is not our home," and that "here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come." John Piper sums up the matter so well when he says, "Long after America is a footnote to the future world, Christ will reign with His people from every tongue, tribe and nation." We must always remember that we belong to a greater nation--a spiritual nation made up of brothers and sisters in China, North Korea, England, Germany, Iran, Afghanistan, Ghana, Morocco, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, etc. After all, we will eternally be a chosen nation of believers from every tongue, tribe and people. Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for the Savior--the Lord Jesus Christ."

*This is an adapted version of a post that first appeared on June 29, 2014 in Christianity.com.