Yet even now we struggle at times with questions such as these. The legendary American soldier-hero of World War I, Sergeant Alvin York, originally refused to serve, because his Christian scruples against killing were so great. It is good and right for us to regularly evaluate the dictates of Christian conscience over against the requirements of the state. That tension returns regularly and should never be too easily resolved or ignored. We should be attentive to the question at all times.
To this point, we have mostly dealt with the matter of Christians living in tension with the power of government. But there is another angle to consider, which is Paul’s strong statement in Romans 13 that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities and should not resist them lest they be found resisting God. Given that Paul himself died in prison, we should probably not find it hard to understand that his comments are not meant to be taken as an unlimited license for government authority. However, we still must deal with this very strong recommendation to “be subject.”
In the pre-democratic era, most human beings were indeed “subjects” rather than citizens as we recognize the term today. For the most part, they were acted upon rather than acting through the mechanisms of representative government. In other words, they typically did not have a choice about what the government did, unless they wanted to mount some kind of revolt. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that some Christians viewed government as simply something to be endured, like the weather. What they viewed as important was their spiritual lives in the church. It is interesting that the American Revolution against the British empire took place after the spiritual revolution of the First Great Awakening, in which many began to see themselves in direct connection with God rather than meeting Him only through institutional hierarchies.
We could do another essay on how the Western world moved toward democracy and human rights, but for now it may suffice simply to make the point that the broad scope of citizenship, with its various rights and duties, owes much to the influence of Christianity. It is not a giant leap to go from acknowledging that all human beings are made in the image of God to the realization that we are common inheritors of the gift of reason who deserve to rule ourselves or be governed by our consent.
So, what is the duty of a Christian in a nation like the United States? We are clearly not merely subject to the government. Rather, we share in its sovereignty, the exercise of which depends on our consent. In the American context, we are indeed citizens. In fact, we are a nation that likes to think of itself in the way Aristotle recommended, which is as a middle-class oriented society, filled with people who have experience both in leading and following.
It is here that another passage from Scripture comes to mind, which is the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In that story, we learn of the three servants who are given varied resources to safeguard in their master’s absence. Two of the servants take what they have been given and invest it, thus returning the principal and adding the increase. One fears his master and buries the talent, which he returns, unenhanced, to the master. The master praises the first two servants and invests them with further resources. But the third servant receives criticism and will not be trusted with more.
While the primary impact of the passage does not relate to citizenship, I think the logic is easy to extend. As Christians in the United States, we have been given something extremely valuable: citizenship in a free country. With that right comes the corresponding responsibility of stewardship. What will we do with this great boon of self-government? It would be foolish, short-sighted, and ungrateful not to make the most of it by educating ourselves and then participating fully. We have been given various levels of talents and abilities to organize, debate, run for office, judge disputes, etc., but we have all been given something we can put to use in our capacity as citizens. Do not simply endure the government. Instead, approach it as an object of stewardship. We are responsible for using the rights we have.
I would conclude with one caveat: It is not enough to merely be active, but one must be active in ways that are both wise and faithful. Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the democratic way of life he observed in America when he visited. However, he also detected a significant problem. Heady with the spread of democracy and the empowerment that comes with it, Americans ran the great risk of confusing the wishes of the majority with righteousness. As we exercise the awesome stewardship of citizenship, we must be ever mindful that the zone once occupied by Caesar – and now occupied by us – is subordinate to God’s greater reign. So, let us be sober, thoughtful, and mindful of our own fallen nature as we participate in the power of government. And most of all, let us remember that Christ is the King.