“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
~1 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV)
Early this month we, as a country, celebrated the Fourth of July and I have to admit that, since becoming a Christian, I have struggled with how best to honor this holiday. The reasons why are multiple, but perhaps the biggest reason is because of the tendency, in many American Christian circles, to blend nationalism and faith. The most recent example of this was Holly Fisher’s 4th of July Twitter post of her posing with a flag, an assault rifle, and a Bible. Over the years I have heard too many of my brothers and sisters in faith parade out Bible quotes in support of a nationalist political agenda and question the faith of those who don’t hold those particular political views or whose theological conclusions seem to challenge or question conservative political values, especially on issues of social justice, racial reconciliation, poverty, war & peace, and immigration.
Sadly, the response hasn’t been any better, for as many Bible-quote-toting conservatives as there are, there is an equally large number of Bible-quote-toting liberals doing the same. The problem is that, for both, Scripture and our identity as Christians is being tied to a political allegiance. In fact, in his groundbreaking study of American religion, Robert Putnam noted that for the majority of Christians political and party affiliations play a more powerful role in determining which church they belong to than their theological beliefs.
All of this leads me to ask the question, “How do we, as Christians, actually view our role in society? To what do we pledge allegiance? A nation? A party?” This is my attempt to answer those questions.
PILGRIMS, ALIENS, OR EXILES?
There have been countless attempts to answer this question down through the ages of the Church, even from our very earliest days as citizens under the Roman Empire. So to claim that I am offering anything new or insightful would be arrogant and unfaithful to those who have come before. Christians have variously been called “pilgrims”, “exiles”, and “resident aliens”.
While each of these views has its basis in Scripture, one paradigm that I have found particularly helpful is that of “ambassador”. Christians are to be ambassadors for Christ. Not only is this term Scriptural, but the implications of it are profound for how we view ourselves and how we interact with the broader national culture, especially when it comes to politics and social engagement.
A DIFFERENT ALLEGIANCE
What makes the paradigm of ambassador so compelling is that it assumes that we are a “sent” people. We are sent on behalf of another government or ruler to a country that is not our own. While we live in that country or land, our allegiance remains tied back to our sovereign. It is His laws we are to uphold, His agenda we are to pursue, and His priorities that we are to value above all others. To give our allegiance to the country to which we are sent would be to violate the allegiance that we have already pledged: to our King. As such, Christians cannot and should not hold any allegiance to any earthly power (political or otherwise) that supersedes their allegiance to Christ.
While this is easy to say, I think that oftentimes we are shaped more by our cultures, families, communities, or the political paradigms that we inherited from our parents. However, as Christians we have to be self-reflective and ask, “Which of these values is in line with those of Christ and which are not?” Rather than uncritically sticking the label “Christian” upon the values we already hold, we subject our preconceived notions to the test of Christ and ask whether or not the values we hold actually align with those of our King.
Honestly, the best way to do this is by talking to other Christians who were not raised in the same cultures, communities, families, or even under the same political systems as ourselves. For when we do so we help each other identify those assumptions, beliefs, and practices which may be out of step with those of Christ, for we do not necessarily share the same blinders as one another. In doing so, we become more effective ambassadors for our King as we begin to shed other allegiances which stand in the way of our faithful witness.
A DIFFERENT MISSION
Likewise, as a sent people we have a particular mission. Ambassadors are sent for the purpose of winning a hearing for their home culture and government. Ambassadors are not sent with the strength of arms nor with the power of economic might. Rather, through a combination of personal integrity, diplomacy, and an awareness of the culture to which they are being sent, ambassadors seek to improve the reputation of their home culture among the culture to which they have been sent.
Sadly, I think that this is lost on many American Christians today. We want to win a hearing for Christ, but we use political power games or economic might to try and accomplish this. We vote for “Christian” politicians, establish “Christian” Super PACs, run “Christian” political campaigns, and donate to “Christian” causes. We use the tools of might and power to try and force an agenda rather than winsomely persuading and presenting a case for the Gospel.
The result, sadly, is that Christians just come across as another political option in an already hyper-politicized nation. We are just one more interest group trying to grab the reins of power. This damages our witness, because it looks like we care more about our constituency than about serving our neighbors…all of them. Rather I think we need to consider that, as Christ’s ambassadors, God is making His appeal through us: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
So what does this look like in terms of political engagement? I think the answer is found in passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. In these two passages we learn that God has instituted secular governments to be agents for justice and the welfare of the broader society. Sadly, many secular governments and governing officials seem to only be in the political game to serve themselves and their narrow constituencies or interest groups. Our role, as Christ’s ambassadors, is to call them back to the service and administration of justice and good order, NOT to the establishment of a pseudo-Christian theocracy.
This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t vote nor to give the impression that Christians should hold politics at arm’s length. Rather, it is to say that we engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.
This is part of the reason that Christians should not fit neatly into any political party or group, because the reality is that, in our current climate, neither of our two major parties fulfills this function well. And the truth is that, in our broken world, they probably never will. So, we exhort, challenge, pray for, serve, and encourage whoever sits in power to exercise their God given authority with justice and for the betterment of our neighbors.
“WE PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE ___________________?”
So who do we pledge allegiance to? The truth is simple. We pledge allegiance to Christ. It is to Him and His reign that we look for guidance as we consider our engagement with any political issue. As such, we need to examine our political leanings carefully and weigh them against the priorities of Jesus. I think that this is best done within the community of the global Church as we talk to our brothers and sisters in faith and learn how to question and evaluate our views in dialogue with one another. We must remember that we are ambassadors; citizens of the kingdom of Christ sent to win a hearing for Him in countries across the globe.