How should Christians understand the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship?
THE WEBSTER DICTIONARY defines a citizen as “an inhabitant of a city or a town, a member of a country, native or naturalised, having rights and owing allegiance”. Broadly speaking, therefore, citizenship has to do with the relationship between an individual and a community.
In ancient Greece, when the community in question is the city-state, a citizen is a member of a particular city-state. In modern times, however, with the rise of the nation-states, citizenship is defined in terms of one’s membership with a particular nation.
In modern political theory, the concept of citizenship comprises three important elements. The first is legal: the citizen is a legal person with the freedom to observe the laws of the land, and who has the right to the latter’s protection. The second is political: the citizen is a political agent who actively participates in society’s political institutions. That such participation – in whatever form – is expected of citizens can be traced to Aristotle, who wrote, “To take no part in the running of the community’s aﬀairs is to be either a beast or a god!” And finally, identity: as a member of a political community, the citizen receives a distinct identity.
The socio-political climate of the Graeco-Roman world of the early Christians is radically diﬀerent from that which prevails in modern democratic societies. Even then, the early Christians had always understood their role as citizens of the Roman Empire, and had sought, despite sporadic oppositions and persecutions, to fulfil it to the best of their abilities.
A Christian understanding of responsible citizenship is based on two important theological and ethical principles. Firstly, Christians maintain that civil authority is established by God for the ordering of human society, and that it is the duty of the Christian to submit to it. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in the capital city of the Empire (often described as the “eternal city”), issues this explicit injunction:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Romans 13:1).
Peter reiterated this injunction, urging Christians in Asia Minor to submit “for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men”. (1 Peter 2:13). Responsible citizenship requires also that Christians pray for those in authority, whether kings or governors, that they may fulfil their God-given roles. (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
The second principle governing responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, is tied to the command to love the neighbour. The Christian’s political engagement and involvement are motivated by his profound concern for the welfare of others and for the common good of society. Even the quest for peace finds its motivation in this command. As the great 5th century theologian Augustine put it, Christians seek the “peace of Babylon” because they are called to love their neighbours (even their enemies).
As citizens, Christians therefore must be actively involved in the aﬀairs of the political community to which they belong. Christian prayer for the peace of society, polis or nation can never be made from a ghetto, a safe haven of un-involvement and detachment. As neither a beast nor a god (Aristotle), the Christian citizen must actively engage in the aﬀairs of the nation. If Christians are called to love their neighbour, then it is also imperative that they make every attempt to improve the political lot of their fellow citizens (regardless of race, language or creed). As responsible citizens, Christians must therefore pay their taxes, obey the laws of the land, respect the property of others, vote, and even defend their country. In fact, Christians must strive to be model citizens. (1Peter 2:11-12).
However, Christians must recognise the fact that they hold a dual citizenship. The Apostle who exhorts the Christians in Rome to recognise and obey earthly authorities also wrote these remarkable words to the Christians in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20).
No theologian has reflected so rigorously or written so elegantly on this profound truth as Augustine. In his famous treatise, The City of God (which took the theologian 13 years to write), Augustine argues that Christians are members of the City of God whilst living with members of the earthly city. While it is their responsibility to seek the welfare of the earthly city, and to serve their fellow human beings, Christians have a distinctive citizenship from which they receive their distinctive identity.
As citizens of heaven, they often find themselves in the invidious position of trying to live a Christian life while at the same time struggling to keep the “peace of Babylon”. The members of the City of God can therefore never be fully “at home” in the earthly city.
More importantly, Christians must understand that their citizenship with the earthly city must be defined and shaped by their heavenly citizenship. This simply means that while Christians must do their best to serve the nation, this service must always be part of their greater service to God. Christians are loyal to the nation only if such loyalty does not call them to be disloyal to God. Christians are pilgrims in the earthly city, but their eyes are set on the eschatological City of God. This means, for the Christian, all earthly powers, kingdoms and dominions – indeed all political life – must be relativised. The nation or country to which Christians belong and of which they are citizens can never be the ultimate concern of the Christian.
Responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, can never embrace an idolatrous form of nationalism. Responsible citizenship is not about elevating one’s nation or country to a status that does not belong to it, treating it as an absolute or as infallible. It is about enabling the state to achieve its true purpose, and to fulfil its God-given role: to serve God and the people.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.