The point of this article is simple: We serve America best when we don’t serve her first.
This is a crucial point to make, especially for us as Christians. After all, we live in peculiar political times. Take a quick glance at the news—or the Wild West of social media that we’ve created for ourselves—and you may get the idea that what matters more than anything is declaring yourself to be on the correct side of the political issue du jour. From many quarters, Christians are being called to speak to our nation’s cultural and political problems with all of the urgency and fire we can muster.
I’m a little torn about this situation. On one hand, I’m always glad to hear Christians encourage each other to apply the gospel to public life. As Abraham Kuyper famously said, there is not one square inch of the entire cosmos over which Jesus does not emphatically declare, “Mine!” Believers need to learn to think biblically about justice, taxation policy, religious liberty, family structure, prison reform, healthcare, national security, immigration, and everything in between. Christians can and should bring the salt and light of God’s shalom into every sphere of society.
On the other hand, our political efforts can fall into a two-pronged error. First, we can invest too much hope in our nation, thinking that God’s primary agenda on earth is to create a glorious “city on a hill.” We can easily and tragically ignore the charge that Jesus gave us: to build a church that maintains a faithful presence in and witness to a fallen society, a church that the gates of hell cannot resist.
The second prong of this well-intentioned error is letting good political agendas keep us from God’s primary gospel agenda. The Great Commission was not to build great nations but to make disciples. This doesn’t mean that we, as Christians, don’t also work diligently for fairness, justice, and good government; it simply means that the role of the institutional church is disciple-making, not nation-building. Getting the institutional church involved in the former very easily inhibits her from the latter.
Note here that I am talking about the church as an organization, not an organism. Members of the body of Christ can and should be involved at all levels of society. But the church as “organization” has a very specific, focused mission.
EXAMPLE OF JESUS
The ministry of Jesus provides us with a helpful example here. In Luke 12:13–14, a man asked Jesus to help him regain money he believed had been stolen from him by his brother. But Jesus, who cared a lot about justice, refused to adjudicate and said only, “Man, who made me a judge over you?” Now, here we have a legitimate social justice complaint: In those days, older brothers had the leverage to exploit the inheritance process. But Jesus refuses to weigh in—not because he didn’t care about justice but because he knew that if he leveraged his influence to parse this particular situation he would have a line of people waiting for him to arbitrate theirs also. And that would have kept him from his primary agenda: seeking and saving the lost through the preaching of the gospel (Luke 19:10).
So, instead of leveraging a verdict, he preached a sermon on greed that would have addressed idolatry problems in both of the brothers (Luke 12:15–21). It’s not that this social justice issue wasn’t important, just that the gospel he preached was too important to let it be overshadowed by any secondary discussion.
We need Christian judges to help “cheated brothers” get their inheritance today. But this isn’t something that Jesus, or his institutional church, should take on. We are neither called nor competent to legislate these issues, and certainly not in a way where we stake the credibility of gospel witness on them.
The same pattern runs through the lives of the apostles. Paul, for instance, spent very little time arbitrating the various social ills plaguing the Roman Empire (of which there were many) and focused instead on spreading the gospel and planting churches.
CONNECTING VIRTUE AND POLICY
One important caveat: There certainly are times when we have to connect virtue with actual policy, speaking out with specificity in regards to a current situation. The gospel demands, for instance, that we speak up for the vulnerable members of our society—be they homeless, impoverished, imprisoned, or unborn—when we see them exploited. Tragically, pastors have often used their commission as ‘gospel people’ as a reason to excuse them from getting involved and speaking out on legitimate justice issues. In the Civli Rights era, for example, many pastors sat on the sidelines when they should have been speaking up and marching against the evils of segregation, discrimination, and racial inequities. Today, it is not enough for us to say that racial discrimination is wrong, we have to demonstrate where injustice exists and call for individual and societal repentance and change. Even there, however, we ought to exercise restraint when it comes to endorsing particular political solutions to rectify the problem. Christians can disagree about which policies best empower the poor and correct past injustices while agreeing that there is a problem and that Christians need to be involved in it. The “dividing line” in the church should not usually be placed between those who espouse conservative and progressive solutions to the problem, but between those who are aware of and care about injustices and those who don’t.
Furthermore, even if we’re right in our assessment of an issue, wading into political waters clouds our message. Churches have a limited bandwidth to put forward a message to their community. Talking too much on secondary things can keep people from hearing us on the primary thing. I might be wrong, for instance, about global warming, but I am not wrong about the gospel—and I refuse for my opinions on the former to keep people from hearing me on the latter.
When we look backward from the perspective of eternity, I have little doubt that we pastors will wish that we had spent more time teaching our communities what it looks like to be “Christian” rather than focusing our efforts on building a great “America.”
A UNITY THAT SUPERSEDES OUR DIFFERENCES
If we approached our cultural and political situation with this perspective—that we are Christians first and Americans second—we would likely see much more unity within our churches. Many Christians today, for instance, can’t imagine having fellowship with anyone that doesn’t align with them politically. But that attitude betrays the first importance of the gospel. Christians can (and should) charitably disagree on many issues. They should be able to have vigorous discussions on them without it affecting their unity in the church.
There are many people in our church who love Jesus more than I do, but parse certain political questions differently than me. Some disagree with me on the best posture for government to take in empowering the poor or what a reasonable national defense strategy looks like. I’m glad we still worship and pray together each weekend and that we do life together. We need to talk together about these things, learn from each other, and challenge each other. But at the end of the day, we can rejoice in a unity that goes deeper than our politics. That means we can talk about these issues civilly, humbly, and with a love for each other that always gives the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve often pointed out to our church that one of Jesus’ disciples was “Simon the Zealot.” Zealots were those Jews that thought Judaism should revolt against the oppressor, Rome. Included with Simon in that circle of 12 was “Matthew the Tax Collector,” who had worked for Rome collecting taxes. Two completely different—and opposing—political strategies. I’m sure they had some incendiary political discussions by the campfires at night. Personally, I’d love to have observed Jesus’ posture as he listened to them. But at the end of the day, Simon and Matthew found a unity greater in their love for Jesus than the political questions that divided them.
A CITIZENSHIP THAT CAN NEVER BE THREATENED
I’m not ashamed to admit that I love America. I love it not just because it’s my homeland. I’m inspired by its ideals. I cherish its promises of freedom. I’m moved by her many stories of courage and selfless defense of the oppressed. I love the opportunities her liberties have afforded, and I’m grateful for how those liberties have allowed the church to grow and spread throughout the world like never before.
Of course, I know we as a nation have failed—sometimes miserably and dramatically—to live up to our ideals. We’re still healing from damage caused by our horrendous sins of slavery and oppression. Our hypocrisy between what we said we believed as a nation and what we practiced is inexcusable. But I love what America has always aspired to be.
As much as I love my country, recent political events have made me realize more than ever that my true citizenship isn’t here. It’s in heaven. That’s a citizenship I share with millions around the world—believers in Nigeria and China and Afghanistan—that can never be threatened by what happens in the U.S.
We believers are citizens of a kingdom that can never be shaken and whose glories will never fade, and we serve a King who can never be corrupted. That reality doesn’t make me one ounce less passionate about seeing change in my earthly country, but it does keep me from despair. I long for my homeland to come to God, to experience the blessings that come from walking with him. I want America to acknowledge the supremacy and worthiness of Jesus.
As a private citizen, I’m very politically active. But I know that salvation doesn’t come riding in Air Force One. It came from a baby born in a manger. His symbol was not a donkey or an elephant, but a lamb—and our hope is not found in the Stars and Stripes of our flag but in the scars and stripes of our Savior.
May God give us believers the grace to love the gospel and the church more than we love our political positions, cherishing this message and this people as the last and best hope on earth. We must, now and always, be more Christian than American.
Dr. J.D. Greear serves as pastor of The Summit Church and as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He and his wife, Veronica, and their four children live in Raleigh, North Carolina.