The incongruity of the past week has been troubling. On the one hand, we have never witnessed more clear and convincing evidence that the institutions of our nation and civilization are under the direction of the wicked. The gatekeepers of the media, of statecraft, of jurisprudence, and of education are clearly committed to an agenda that is hostile toward God and that is rushing toward oppression for committed Christians.
In fact, the oppression of practicing believers is already beginning. Their federal government is spying on them (and on everyone else). Their central taxing authority has employed its power to diminish their influence in the public square. Governments at various levels are prepared to force them to act as if moral reality is something other than it is.
On the other hand, we Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) have this week witnessed the celebration of Independence Day, the birth of our country. As usual, Christians have placed themselves in the forefront of demonstrative patriotism. They have sung hymns to their country, often during times usually devoted to the worship of their God. They have festooned their homes, their businesses, and often their houses of worship with national symbols. Hands over hearts, they have repeated an oath of allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the country for which it stands.
At the least, this incongruity should remind us that our love for and loyalty to earthly institutions—including governments—is never unconditioned or absolute. We pledge allegiance to “one nation under God,” but what ought we to do when that nation is no longer under God? What will Christian citizenship look like in a civilization that is not merely pagan, but, worse, secular and overtly opposed to the true and living God? What shall we do when Christian expression and practice is legally confined to the private sphere?
First, we should recognize that we are not the first believers to have encountered this question. Indeed, it is a perennial question from which Christians in America have been protected only artificially. It had to be answered by Christians in Nazi Germany and in the nations of the Soviet bloc. It is a question that has to be answered today by Christians in mainland China, not to mention Christians in Islamist societies. In fact, it is a question that Bible-believing Christians have had to answer frequently throughout Christian history. Certainly it behooves us to discover the answers that they have given.
Second, we should remember that, even though our liberties are diminishing when measured against our national past, we are still comparatively free people. Dark clouds are on the horizon, but none of us has yet had to suffer incarceration, confiscation, torture, or martyrdom. We can be thankful for the liberty that we still enjoy. Indeed, we ought to be filled with thanksgiving—to God, whose Providence rules our days, to the founders of our nation who suspected that times like ours might come and who tried to erect safeguards against them, to generations of men and women who have righteously fulfilled their duties and citizens and patriots, and to those at this hour who carry on a rearguard action, impeding the encroachments upon our freedom and delaying the day when either tyranny or anarchy must reign supreme.
Third, we must recall that even a small minority of committed believers can be used powerfully by God within any civilization. A single Obadiah can spare seven thousand. A single Daniel can turn the direction of an empire. A single Nehemiah can rebuild a civilization. Because these people were rightly placed, because they made themselves valuable to evil rulers, and because they committed themselves to obey the Lord their God, they were mightily used. We ought to be asking how we should go about rearing the next Daniels and Obadiahs. We ought to be asking what our churches would have to give them so that they could survive as Christians in the center of the storm.
Fourth, we must remind ourselves that the world is as God made it, not as sinful humans will it to be. Virtue will always be virtue and vice will always be vice. Morality is reality. A law or a court decision will never turn non-marriage into marriage. A governmental fiat will not turn paper into wealth. Congress, courts, legislatures, and administrations may declare the world to be other than it is, but they must still live in the world that exists. The longer they pretend that the world is something else, the harsher will be the shock when their imaginary reality collapses. If we are actually living in the world as it is, by which I mean the world as God made it to be, then we are going to be in the best position to mediate the foundations and traditions that some future civilization will require.
Above all, we ought to rejoice that our place in history is determined by the counsels of an infinitely wise, good, and sovereign God. In His kindness He has given us many years of peace and rest in an earthly country. In fact, we have often experienced difficulty remembering that we are aliens and pilgrims. Perhaps (could it be?) our Ruler now wishes to turn our hearts toward a better country, a heavenly country, a country that we ought to have been seeking all along. In the past, God entrusted us with earthly leisure, wealth, and power beyond any other generation. Perhaps He now wishes us to enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering so that we may be conformed to His death. If so, then this, too, is a privilege.
The past week has been troubling. We have a foot in each of two realms that will not be united until the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ. Is it wrong to long for the day when Jesus shall reign for ever and ever?
For now, temporal duties are still real duties. In the marriage oath, we take a spouse to have and to hold for better or for worse. Patriotism is something like that. Even if the United States is not the most virtuous country, even if it is not the most beautiful country, even if it were not the most prosperous or powerful country, it would still be the country in which a sovereign God has placed Americans. An apposite love of country and an ordinate patriotism are part of Christian virtue.
God shed His grace on thee.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Before the Lord We Bow
Francis Scott Key (1779–1843)
Before the Lord we bow, the God Who reigns above,
And rules the world below, boundless in power and love.
Our thanks we bring in joy and praise, our hearts we raise
To Heaven’s high King.
The nation Thou hast blest may well Thy love declare,
From foes and fears at rest, protected by Thy care.
For this fair land, for this bright day, our thanks we pay,
Gifts of Thy hand.
May every mountain height, each vale and forest green,
Shine in Thy Word’s pure light, and its rich fruits be seen!
May every tongue be tuned to praise, and join to raise
A grateful song.
Earth, hear thy Maker’s voice, thy great Redeemer own;
Believe, obey, rejoice, and worship Him alone.
Cast down thy pride, thy sin deplore and bow before
And when in power He comes, O may our native land,
From all its rending tombs, send forth a glorious band.
A countless throng, ever to sing to Heaven’s high King