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God O Country?
July 2, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


God or country? To put it another way, what is the relationship between our loyalty and faithfulness to God and our loyalty to our country? What is the relationship between your role as a Christian and your role as a citizen? And when there is a conflict in values, or ideals or beliefs between the two roles of Christian and citizen, which has priority, God or country? There have been many answers, many positions over the centuries. I'd like to discuss three of them with you this morning, three positions, three stances that a Christian may take in relation to his or her country. 

The first position are those who say God and country are together, there is no tension between the two. To be a Christian is to be a good American. I don't know whether they would also say that to be an American is to be a Christian, but they certainly believe that to be a Christian is to be a good American. They believe America is a Christian country, a Christian nation, so therefore, there are no conflicts between the two. The role of the church is to make good citizens who by obeying every law of the nation, are obeying God. To submit to the laws of the nation is to submit to God, for they are synonymous. At first reading this is certainly the meaning of Romans 13:1. Paul wrote, “Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God's permission.” Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:13, “For the sake of the Lord, submit yourselves to every human authority, to the Emperor, who is the supreme authority…have reverence for God and respect for the Emperor.” To submit to the laws of the nation is to submit to God. To be a good citizen is to be a good Christian. Popular American religion belongs in this position. God and country are symbolized by the flag, motherhood, apple pie, with the cross thrown in for good measure.

The problem with this position, the problem of the stance of equating God and country is that it assumes there is no sin. It assumes that the wisdom of elected and appointed leaders is infallible, without error, and is to be accepted without question. This position assumes there's no more room for improvement. We have reached the height. But, in equating God and country, where is the ideal? Where is the direction to which our nation should be moving? Where are those values by which the nation is critiqued and evaluated? Those are the problems arising out of the position of equating God and country. 

On the other hand, there are those who say the stance of a Christian is to choose between God or country, that there is an antagonism between the two—a conflict—and therefore one must choose between the two. Paul and Peter wrote in a time when there was relatively little persecution. Paul enjoyed the protection of the Roman government. He appealed to the Roman government several times in order to escape persecution by the Jews. But, in later days, when Christians were persecuted, when they were forced to choose between worshipping the Emperor—the fanatical emperors of that time, such as Nero—and God, the Christians then had to make a choice between the two. The church went underground, and began meeting in the catacombs. They developed secret symbols like the fish in order to identify one or the other as Christians. They went underground and they became a movement in conflict and in opposition to the country. 

The Book of Revelation is contradictory to the lessons we read today. The Book of Revelation attacks the nation, attacks the Roman government and calls the Roman Emperor the Antichrist. The Antichrist is not Russia, or China or any other modern people. In my interpretation of the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist is the Roman government, the Emperor of that day. The Christians were encouraging each other to sustain their faith, not to give in and to have hope in the ultimate triumph of God over the evil wicked nation in which they lived. The Book of Revelation counsels quite a different answer—not God and country but God or country. Tertullian, one of the early Christian leaders after Bible days, encouraged Christians to practically secede from the nation. He encouraged them not to go into military service. To go into the Roman army meant they had to make a pledge of loyalty to the nation that was in defiance and contradiction of their loyalty to God. 

There are many modern examples of this stance where people would like to separate from their society. There are Jehovah Witnesses who refuse to salute the flag. We have many churches who refuse to exhibit the American flag within their building. We have groups such as the Amish where just a few years ago, a group of Amish in Pennsylvania refused to send their children to school. They refuse to obey the laws of the land, they would like to be left alone, they would like to be isolated. They would like to live on a little island in the middle of the country, and have nothing to do with the country around it, to have nothing to do with its laws. They want to just enjoy their own exclusive fellowship. Sometimes this attitude of God against country is expressed with attempts to destroy the nation, to overthrow it, to revolt, revolutions. 

Perhaps the present California voter is an example of this position. Proposition 13 is an example of the anger of California citizens against our government. Howard Jarvis did not read the New Testament lesson where Paul says pay your property taxes as an expression of your loyalty to God. Someone said the other day that Manteca citizens are angry. Some are angry and almost joining the position of God against country. The biblical basis for this position is found in 2 Corinthians 5:14, where Paul wrote, “Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners? You must separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with what is unclean, and I will accept you.” Come out from them, be separate from the world. 

Now the trouble with this kind stance, the trouble with this position—God or country—is if Christians separate themselves from their country, who is left to run the country? When all the “good” people remove themselves, who is left to run the country? And it is naive to think we can separate because the government touches us every day of our lives. And if we're not in there working, it is left to the hands of someone else. 

There's the position of God and country, and there is the opposite position of God against country or God or country. Is there not another stance? Is there not another answer to the question? Of course, there is because I have three points in the sermon! This position inserts a word between God and country— redeeming or saving. God is saving the country. God is converting the country. This stance affirms that God is sovereign, God is Lord. Jesus is Lord of all there is— all creation, all institutions, all governments, all relationships. We sang “America, the Beautiful”, praying God's blessing on it. But we began the service by singing “Jesus Shall Reign”. Jesus is the Lord of life and when there is a conflict between the two, loyalty to Jesus has precedence. 

This stance affirms there is a judgment upon all of life. God is constantly judging all of life and it is in that judgment we find our ideals. In God’s judgment we find how to evaluate life around us, how we decide what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. We look at our society on the basis of God's judgment upon us, based on the Bible, based upon the lifestyle we see in Jesus Christ, and we evaluate all life. 

But God is not only judging our society. God is not only judging our country, God is saving it. There is a biblical basis for all three stances. The biblical basis for this stance is from Paul's letter to Colossians 1:20, “Through the Son, (through Jesus), then God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself.” The whole universe back to God. This includes all countries, all nations, all institutions, all principalities and powers that Paul wrote about. All rulers of darkness, all that exists, is being redeemed, is being brought back to God. 

In this stance, the Christian looks at society,  looks at our country, affirms all that is good, recognizes all that is good and looks at the great accomplishments our nation has made in freedom and opportunities. The Christian looks at these accomplishments, affirms and says, “Thanks be to God, for all the good that has been wrought in this land.” How glad we are to live in this land. How proud we are to be citizens of this country. We look at the culture and we see God is working in it. We can see on every hand that which is good. 

But, we also can look at our nation and see what is weak. We can see what is wrong. We can see what yet needs changing. We can see the poverty that is not yet eliminated. We can see the pollution that is ruining our environment. We can see where there's prejudice. We can see where there's work yet to be done to extend freedom and opportunity to all people. We can look at our nation and see what is good. We can affirm it and we can say what needs changing on the basis of what we see in Jesus Christ. 

God is at work changing our nation and he calls you and me to participate in that task as agents, as ministers, as ambassadors to change our society in accordance with the will of God. God is converting the world. Our stance is to be a good citizen obeying the dictates of the nation, and the same time being not just a good citizen, but being the best citizen. We hold our nation to the judgment of God, and seek to change what is wrong. 

We can look at the world and say God and country; therefore everything is perfect and beautiful. Or we can turn our back on society and say God or country where I choose God and withdraw and isolate. Or we can look out on our society and see God at work, converting, redeeming it and calling us to participate in that glorious task.

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris