Patriotism: Idolatry Or Effective Service?

Patriotism vs. Idolatry

In the pre-Christian world, Christians were, for the most part, citizens of the nation in which they resided. Required by the Lord to be not just good citizens, but exemplary ones as well, the Bible does not teach that one’s citizenship obligations should ever interfere with the Christian’s duty to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Truth is, there are times when a Christian must refuse to serve his country, and if he didn’t, he would be involving himself in sin. The State does not possess ultimate authority. Whatever authority it possesses is the delegated kind (John 19:11), and any government that doesn’t recognize this truth is idolatrous. Consequently, whatever patriotism is, it cannot—indeed, it must not—automatically exempt itself from the charge that “in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin” (Psalm 36:2, NIV). Whatever patriotism is, it should not suppose that by invoking the name of God in slogans it will tether the Most High God to its cause any more successfully than rebellious Israel did when Eli’s sons took the Ark of the Covenant out of mothballs and propped it like a talisman before the armies marching against the Philistines (1 Samuel 4).

True patriotism does not permit itself to be manipulated by media slogans into a pumped-up frenzy that drowns out all other voices, particularly the voice of Jesus, who said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17, et al.). To the State, then, obedient servants present their bodies and wills for the national defense only so long as such a defense is consistent with the truths taught in God’s Word; to God, of course, such must always present a “contrite and humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). As a result, there need be no contradiction, no conflict of interest, between Church and State unless, and until, the State commands the Christian to do something God has prohibited, or else forbids something God has commanded. So, like Daniel, who knew how to “seek the peace of the city” to which God had carried him into exile (Jeremiah 29:7a), but who, along with Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, would not bow to its “image of gold” (Daniel 3), the New Testament Christian needs to reflect the godly patriotism the Lord enjoins for His priesthood of spiritual pilgrims who, in every age, sojourn in Babylon while “longing for a better country” (Hebrews 11:16, NIV). “Pray,” He says in Jeremiah 29:7b, “to the Lord for [your country]; for in its peace you will have peace.”

Therefore, I do not believe the only choice of action for the thinking Christian is found in the Tweedledee of mindless maddening hawkishness or the Tweedledum of half-baked limpish pacifism. Instead, there ought to be a loyalty to one’s country based on truth, not lies—a manly, unflinching patriotism based on reality rather than popular fiction. The causes of Justice and Righteousness today, like always, call for civil servants (especially soldiers and policemen) who are prudent, courageous, self-controlled, and just. These need to possess the virtues that will enable them to know not just why and when to go to war, but how to properly fight it as well as when to stop it. Particularly, We need soldiers who are distinguished by the kind of character that empowers them to pursue every honorable avenue for victory against the enemy, but who are, in the end, resolved to suffer death before dishonor. Where better to find this character and these virtues than in the Christian? The Christian fights for Justice because God is like this, in that He uses force to check evil and bring Justice. So, the Christian uses force to restrain evil because this is what God is like, and because God is like this, the Christian does not sin when he uses legitimate force, and this remains true even when this force is deadly force.

What’s more, as God’s use of force is a product of His love for His creatures, and as it is clear that God even loves those whom He kills, the Christian, just like God, must love his enemies even when called upon to kill them. (Instead of Christians smirking at such an idea, they should give themselves to a study of it.) This means that any acts that do not appear to be God-like will be morally suspect for the Christian soldier. The acts of a soldier can never be ones of personal vengeance, as Matthew 5:38-41 point out. Therefore, a just war is something Christians participate in out of loving obedience to God and in conformity to His ways. In his personal relationships, the Christian acts in love toward others as God has always required His followers to do. But when he chooses to participate in government as a soldier or law enforcement officer, he acts in accord with the God-ordained mandate given to the State.

There is no contradiction here, as the Christian is free to participate in any legitimate function of government, even war, without violating the restrictions God places on him in his personal affairs. On the other hand, those who think the Christian, simply by virtue of his Christianity, gets to opt out of doing Justice are sorely mistaken. They fail, in their elitism, to comprehend what being a faithful subject of God is all about (cf. Micah 8:8 and Matthew 23:23). As such, they delegate what they believe to be the “dirty hands” duty of doing Justice to unredeemed sinners. In doing so, they fail to fully understand the nature of God (a nature that demands Justice) and demean the very character of those people God has appointed over the administration of Justice—people the apostle Paul called “ministers to you for good.”

Living the Christian life is difficult and complex. The vagaries are many. Decisions involving the when, where and how of the Christian’s participation with or in society and government are difficult. Brethren don’t always draw the line between Church and State in the same place, and all attempts to do so are, by their very nature, arduous. The “yoke is easy” and the “burden is light” only when compared to the glorious reward that awaits us in heaven (cf. Matthew 11:29-30; 16:24-27). The line between Church and State cannot be correctly drawn apart from rightly dividing God’s word. It is unfortunate that many of God’s people, past and present—and this because they have failed to rightly divide God’s word, as 2 Timothy 2:15 requires—have majored in the theology of calling good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). Can a Christian participate in war? Yes, when the doing of Justice demands it. Can a Christian participate in just any war? No. If the war is not morally justified, and by this I mean consistent with the precepts and principles taught in the Bible, a Christian would not remain “unspotted” by participating in it. What’s more, a Christian could not participate even in a just war if the means being used to fight it are not just. Consequently, the Christian must always sit in judgment upon the activities of his government, supporting it when it is right, but refusing to do so when it is wrong. This, I believe, is part of what being a true Christian is all about. Anyone interested in plumbing the depths of this issue more thoroughly should see my book The Christian & War. It may be downloaded for free in PDF format at

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