As delegates to the 1990 General Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church addressed a proposed statement on militarism, the heat of the debate very quickly rivaled the sweltering summer humidity outside the building. Opinions were lobbed across the conference floor on topics from military chaplaincy to the display of flags in church sanctuaries—all propelled by the deeper, more challenging question: What is the appropriate relationship between church and state?
“Displaying the flag in church is a form of idolatry,” one delegate asserted, adding: “Such action unequally yokes one kingdom to another. To whom do we give our allegiance?” Other delegates declared that it would take more than a ruling by the General Conference to remove this national symbol from their buildings.
A few weeks later, an Oklahoman member voiced her opinion in an impassioned letter to The Evangelical Visitor, arguing that “any negative mention of the flag in our statement on militarism is an affront to the country which guarantees our freedom to worship and practice our stand on non-resistance.”
It’s never been easy to live as citizens of two kingdoms, one of this earth and the other of God. Individual Christians, congregations, and denominations must struggle to find the “right” connection between the two, and the Brethren in Christ are no exception. In fact, for many years, our churchly ancestors dealt with the tension by simply avoiding almost all forms of civic engagement. However, we don’t have to look far these days to notice that when it comes to faith and political involvement, we Brethren in Christ are not the church of our spiritual great-grandparents.
Not of this world
The classic Anabaptist “two kingdom” theology prevailed across the Brethren in Christ Church for most of our first two centuries in North America. Drawing upon their understanding of the teachings of the New Testament, early BIC leaders taught that followers of Jesus—as citizens of God’s kingdom—should be separate from many aspects of the kingdom of the world.
The 1780 Brethren in Christ Confession of Faith was drafted to reflect this view, stating that “we also learn from the doctrine of the Lord Jesus and His apostles that it is forbidden to any member or follower of Jesus Christ to occupy authoritative offices, therefore it is and shall be forbidden to us.” So, while members of the church believed in being law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, they drew the line at serving on juries, swearing oaths, joining the military, voting in elections, or running for public office.
But as the world plunged into the First and then the Second World War, many members began to question the more traditional view of political disengagement. Was a staunchly separatist stance really valid in the face of such tyranny and horror? Spurred on by grassroots support, church leaders of the 1930s engaged with public officials to establish methods of alternative service. Their actions modeled how proactive engagement in the political realm could help the Church become a more powerful witness within society.
Two decades later, many members of U.S. congregations participated in a federal election for the first time, viewing the opportunity to vote for Dwight Eisenhower—the grandson of a Brethren in Christ pastor—with much enthusiasm. By 1959, General Conference minutes indicate that with one-third of the membership across the denomination casting the ballot, it was time to make voting a matter of personal conscience. And in 1986, the denomination’s Articles of Faith and Doctrine were amended to include the following statement:
“The church recognizes the place God ordains for government in society. As Christians, we pray for the state and those who are in authority. At the same time, we believe loyalty to Christ and the church, which is transnational, takes precedence over loyalty to the state. Selective involvement in the affairs of government [is] appropriate for believers if loyalty to Christ and the principles of His kingdom are carefully guarded, and if such participation will enhance one’s Christian witness and service. . . . We follow our Lord in being people of peace and reconciliation, called to suffer and not to fight.”
Navigating the boundary lines
The trend toward engagement in the political process has accelerated in the 21st century. In fact, the 2006 “Church Member Profile” showed that Brethren in Christ members actually exercise their voting rights in higher percentages than the general population, with 88 percent of U.S. and 86 percent of Canadian respondents reporting that they had voted in the most recent federal election.
In addition, individuals as well as congregations are involved in their communities—often in partnership with governmental or nonprofit organizations—to address issues such as poverty, affordable housing, and education. Some within our churches are comfortable participating in political events or protests, lobbying officials, signing petitions, officially joining political parties, or holding public office at various levels of government. Others prefer to work behind the scenes, exerting influence as government employees or community volunteers. And within their congregations, church leaders initiate opportunities to pray for our government officials and provide guidance on issues about which the government and church do not always agree, such as gambling, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
With increased involvement in local and national platforms have come new tensions as Brethren in Christ churches and individuals seek to navigate the boundary lines between kingdoms. Although as a denomination we don’t prescribe how people ought to relate to the state, there are principles in Scripture that can give us direction as we journey through these borderlands.
Stewards of a fallen world. In the first three chapters of Genesis, we read of our calling to steward a good, but fallen, creation. We need to understand how this “fallen” reality plays out in all aspects of life—including politics, culture, power, government, and political processes—while also working faithfully to carry out our role as stewards of this wonderful gift from God.
Advocates of compassion. As Christ’s body on earth, the Church is called to pursue and model justice and righteousness. Passages like Isaiah 10:1–2, Amos 5, Zechariah 7:8–10, and James 1:27 show us that God’s people are to tirelessly serve and seek justice for the poor and marginalized in our communities and world. We are to view the alien (refugees and immigrants) with compassion rather than fear (Leviticus 19:33–34). We are to both proclaim and actively live out the good news with our lives (Luke 4:18–21, James 2:14–26).
Followers of a higher law. With the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God broke into the kingdom of the world in a new and dramatic way as Christ proclaimed that His kingdom had come (Matthew 4:17), that it would grow (Matthew 13:31–33), and that it was not from or of this world (John 18:36). Jesus’ life demonstrated that the worldview, values, and ethics of God’s kingdom are very different from those of this world (Matthew 5–7).
So, as followers of Christ and His kingdom, we are called to live differently from the norms set by the culture around us. We show our allegiance to God through the integrity of our word (Mathew 5:33–37), our responses to aggression and violence (Matthew 5:38–48; John 18:36), how we exercise power and authority (Matthew 20:22–28), and how we love our neighbors (Romans 13:10). Clearly, our main goal should not be the preservation of our own self-interests, but to be other-centered.
Members of a faith community
We are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God while being, at the same time, citizens of particular countries. We need the help of the Spirit, within the community of brothers and sisters, to discern what it means to owe our primary allegiance to Jesus while also accepting the rights and responsibilities of national citizenship (Acts 22), living an ethic of love and peace, and submitting to the role of government (Romans 12–13). We do all this affirming the function that the state has to play within society. Yet we live with the tension that, since our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, we are not first identified as citizens of any one nation. Our nation spans the globe, and there will be times, places, and situations in which we will not be able to engage nor even obey what authorities might be demanding (Acts 4:19, 5:29).
Two kingdoms, one king
The Church dare not be just one more strident voice barking instructions on how “good Christians” should vote on a particular issue or which party to join; our communities don’t need more examples of anger, pride, and polarization. Rather, as Christ’s followers, we should model humility and a willingness to study, talk, and pray together as we seek to make a difference in the kingdom of this world. We must be compassionate and loving bridge-builders. As people with dual citizenship, we realize that we live and work in two different kingdoms. We also know that there is but One who is Lord and Ruler over all, and this should help ease the tension.