A Christian’s (or, in this case, a Christadelphian’s) relationship to this present world is not an easy subject to consider. Our convictions run in many contradictory directions, from those few who feel it is our obligation to be involved in the democratic process of the country in which we live (and boast openly of their involvement through voting and political action), to those who feel strongly that ecclesial discipline should be applied to those who violate ecclesial rules about participating with the world around them (whether it is voting, education at worldly institutions, dating, or similar involvement). Most brothers and sisters find themselves some- where in-between: they would not vote in a national election, but are not quite so sure about local elections. They would not become a criminal lawyer, but they are sometimes unsure whether to serve as a juror. They would not serve in the military, but what about civilian employment with the FBI or some other federal agency fighting crime? They would not join a political or social activist organization to pressure political or social change, but they wonder whether being part of a union might be problem, especially when the union confronts their employer to fight for their rights and wages.
Why do these dilemmas arise for those seeking to faithfully follow the Lord Jesus Christ?
The Bible – A guidebook, not a rule book
As much as we may wish God gave us clear, black-and-white rules to direct our lives, He hasn’t. Instead, He has given us a guidebook of principles for our direction. Principles by their very nature are not as easy to follow as rules, because the application of these principles to the circumstances of our particular life and age must be worked out by us. There is plenty of room for rationalization and human thinking.
Consider Daniel: he was not the only young Jewish man brought to Babylon for a special education in the ways and learning of the Chaldeans. Yet, as far as we know, it was only Daniel and his three friends who sought exemption from the defilement inherent in the foods provided. How easily he could have rationalized his position: Nobody will know. And does it really matter if I eat unclean food? After all, I am in a foreign land and I can’t expect them to respect my Jewish upbringing. Apparently, many other Jewish youths followed this thinking. Why didn’t Daniel? Perhaps the answer has something to do with the course such rationalization sets one on: If eating defiling foods is not a problem, then, perhaps, dropping for a month the habit of praying to God three times a day won’t be such a big deal. After all, we do need to show a loving spirit and not antagonize the other administrators? But where does this stop? When our faith towards God is the final casualty?
Perhaps this is why God also provided in His guidebook many examples how these principles were once worked out in the lives of others, both of those who were faithful and of those who thought they knew a better way. We have the advantage, then, of seeing the results, and, often, of being spared their pain, if we are willing to learn from these examples.
Principles bearing on a disciple’s relationship to the world
There would seem to be two sets of principles that have the strongest and most direct bearing on a disciple’s relationship to the nation of their birth and to the world in general:
1) Principles regarding our relationship to God and His Kingdom; and
2) Principles underlying the life of Christ.
Historically, it was these two principles that guided the Christians of the first and second centuries. Gibbon, a historian of repute, in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” had this to say of the early Christians:
“The defense of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries… Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of injustice or that of war, even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community. It was acknowledged that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven… The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defense of the empire… it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes. This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?”1
We will only look at the first of these principles in this article and the next, as it is felt this is the dominant principle at work, though brethren often use the second as the basis of their arguments. Space does not allow a thorough contemplation of the passages that provide guidance on this subject. The reader is encouraged to follow up their study using the link provided at the end of this article.2 This link will lead to a fuller consideration of the Bible passages that address these issues.
A Christian’s dilemma
The successful functioning of any nation-state depends on four things — some kind of governance structure, a system to administer and enforce the laws, provision for protection and defense, and a system to support and maintain the State. In a democracy, where the functioning of the state depends on the people, duties within each of these areas must be undertaken by the citizens; they are, in reality, extensions of the State.
A Christian believer, then, is not only confronted with the expected conflicts of living within a political structure, he is also confronted with the requirement to participate in that structure. Consider the following difficulties or conflicts that may arise for a follower of Christ:
Governance of the State (governing & law-making structures to create order and purpose)
- political action/political involvement
- public service or government work
Enforcement of the Laws of the State (administration of justice, maintenance of order)
- law enforcement work (e.g. police, FBI)
- judicial work (e.g. magistrates, judges, lawyers)
- jury service Protection & Defense of the State
- military service
- non-combatant service Support and Maintenance of the State
- taxes Living in a State
- use of the legal systems
- giving testimony in court, taking an oath, pledge of allegiance, loyalty oaths
- union membership
Those seeking to follow Christ ought to have no argument about the obligation of all citizens to participate in the support and maintenance of their state, for will not this be the privilege of all the saints in the Kingdom? The question that must be answered then is this: Ought followers of Christ to consider themselves now to be citizens of the states in which they were born, with all the obligations this entails? Or does the teaching of Christ require a different path be taken?
The critical principle
“I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom you have given me… Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world… While I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name… But now I come to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:9-16 NJKV).
This is the vital principle (v.16): The disciples of Jesus must be in the world, but they are not to be of the world. Daniel’s behavior illustrates powerfully what this means in tangible, human terms. Loyalty to God — to the One to whom we be- long, and to His ways — must take precedent over the commands of the world in which we find ourselves.
In Abraham’s day this principle went by another name:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God… These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb 11:8-10,13).
That’s the principle’s other name: “strangers and pilgrims” or sojourners; living in the world, but claiming no part of it as their own. Rather, passionately and faith- fully looking forward to the place, to the city, to the country, to the world God would establish — to the kingdom of God on this earth!
Compromise would have been so easy for Abraham too. He could easily have settled in to this new country, found a nice home and raised his family. He didn’t need to wander around, living in a tent all his life. But Abraham didn’t see it that way. His decision to live the way he did became the Statement of his Faith.
It is on the basis of this principle that we do not participate in politics or voting, in serving on juries or in the military. It is not a Christadelphian rule; it is literally the statement of our faith! As Heb 13:14 says: “for here we have (like Abraham) no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” Ted Sleeper (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)
1. Ch. 15, end of section 4 of his discussion on the progress of Christian Religion
2. See on The Tidings Web site : http://www.tidings.org/2012/08/relation-to-the-world/
Our interest in world affairs in relation to God’s purpose is a natural and proper one, but it exposes us to peculiar dangers. If we see a nation engaged in persecution of the Jews, say, or in repudiation of religion as a whole, we may be tempted to arrogate to it some part in prophecy which might be difficult to prove, and we are entitled to make reference to the warning, “Him that curseth thee I will curse.”
A.D. Norris The Christadelphian, p 1963, p 313.