My favorite anecdote about citizenship concerns a confederate soldier brought before General Benjamin Butler at the end of the Civil War. “We gave you hell at Chickamauga, General!” said the soldier. The irate Butler admonished him that if he did not take the citizenship oath immediately, he would be “ventilated” by a firing squad. With some unwillingness, the defiant Southerner took the oath and then said, “General, I suppose I am a good Yankee and citizen of the United States now?” The general responded unenthusiastically, “I suppose so.” “Well, General, the rebels did give us hell at Chickamauga, didn’t they?”
The anecdote illustrates the privilege of citizenship and how, on the basis of an oath, an enemy was saved and guaranteed a Niagara of civil liberties, including the freedom “to mouth off.”
The Meaning of Citizenship
What is a citizen? The word comes from the Latin civitas, meaning a member of a city or polis. The etymology derives from the city-states of the ancient world, such as Athens and Rome. The word citizen refers to one’s legal position and allegiance in a country.
In the Greek and Roman city-states, there were slaves, plebeians, patricians, aliens, and citizens. In the Greek states the slaves had no rights, and aliens virtually none at all. Citizens, however, were expected to be just that, to be citizens of their polis. They voted, attended the assembly or senate, served on juries, and volunteered for the military.
As Rome grew into an empire, citizenship became less elitist. In A.D. 212 the Emperor Caracalla conferred citizenship upon virtually every John Doe in the Empire. The emperor’s “gift,” however, was not without financial strings; it was a strategy to levy every citizen with inheritance taxes.
Citizenship declined with the development of feudalism, but made an aggressive comeback during the spread of constitutional republicanism. Just prior to the ascension of democracy, citizens were commonly dubbed “subjects.” They were expected to kowtow to every whim of Europe’s kings, who ruled by divine right. But as constitutionalism progressed, subjects became less and less enamored with their downtrodden status and title.
Old and New Testament Citizenship
In the Old Testament every Israelite was a citizen of the theocracy. There was some differentiation within the body politic, too. Briefly, an Israelite male reached spiritual majority when he became twelve or thirteen. This entitled him to partake of the Passover and to receive other spiritual benefits. In addition, he reached civil or political majority when he became twenty. This entitled him to serve in the army.
The New Testament abounds with examples of citizenship. For example, the Apostle Paul invoked his citizenship to appeal to Caesar. When he first revealed his Roman citizenship, the authorities “feared.” In a stinking dungeon in Philippi, Paul demanded limousine service from the lawless jail keepers. He said, “They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? Nay verily, but let them come themselves and fetch us out” (Ac. 16:37). When the authorities heard the talismanic words (Romanus civis sum), they begged Paul and Silas to depart. According to Cicero, no words disarmed a lawless authority more than “I am a Roman citizen.”
Paul had his citizenship probably by hereditary right (Ac. 22:29 ). It was attained by his father through some special service that he performed in the city of Tarsus (a free city). Citizenship was an honorary status granted as a favor or reward to individuals and families, and it entitled them to certain privileges and immunities. The sacredness of Roman citizenship was so prized that it had become a part of Roman religion, and any infraction of it was considered sacrilege. In our own country, the honorary citizenships of Lafayette and Sir Winston Churchill are roughly equivalent to Paul’s.
Our citizenship in God’s world is two-fold: we are members of the church and God’s kingdom. Yet we often hear the cliché that we are exiles in this world, and even Jesus is portrayed as “a King in exile.” This bogus notion of non-citizenship usually hinges upon such ideas as we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” and that we are seeking another country, which is a heavenly country (Heb. 11:16).
These Scripture verses simply mean that we are ethically not at home in this world. Even the Pilgrims were not called “pilgrims” until 200 years after their landing! They thought of themselves as saints, as did the Puritans. The Mayflower Compact, with its “city upon a hill” emphasis by John Winthrop, permeated Puritan theology. Their city was not “pie in the sky, by and by.”
The Attributes of Citizenship
A cardinal reason for thinking of ourselves as citizens relates to our civil responsibilities. “Subject” implies submission, but citizen implies duty. Consider only jury duty. Instead of growling when we are called to jury duty, we should embrace it as a divinely appointed responsibility. We should not dodge this responsibility, even if it means a little purse-hemorrhaging.
I once ministered in a church where a godly woman, a matriarch in the church, was called to jury duty. She was a reluctant juror and told the judge so. The case was about drunk driving, and she informed the judge in the presence of the whole court, “I’m not qualified to serve on the jury; you see, I’m prejudiced against drunk drivers.” To this flimsy excuse, the judge said, “I’m against drunk driving, too.” But the woman, a pietist, got her way, abandoning her responsibility as a citizen. Why did she do this? She saw herself as a subject instead of a citizen.
Every Christian living in the United States enjoys a triple citizenship. Our first is the church, which God calls a city and nation (Eph. 2; 1 Pet. 2:9).
Our second citizenship is our own national government.
Our citizenship also has a third feature, enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment: we are citizens of the state to which we belong.
Citizenship Under God
Citizenship is not raw submission to a tyrant; it is a thesaurus of duties and responsibilities under the scepter of Jesus Christ.
Citizenship is broader than the church because of the expanse of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom in the narrow sense is the church; but in the broader sense, it is the whole universe. The gospel that the church preaches is not just the gospel of the church, but “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mk. 1:14). We are not Anabaptists and Pietists, who think a citizen and an ecclesiocrat are synonymous. Because of Christ’s kingship over both church and state, citizenship is our calling.
Citizenship helps us to understand the Puritan, who humbled himself before his Maker while placing his feet upon the neck of the king. A Christian citizen will not equate patriotism with citizenship either, knowing that the two do not always mesh. He will understand Dr. Samuel Johnson’s insight that patriotism is often the last resort of the scoundrel. He will not say, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Nor will he swear “unconditional obedience to the fuhrer,” or even to the red, white, and blue. Of course, when a civil government demands that we sin against Christ our King, we especially prioritize our citizenship in God’s kingdom. Our alternatives include prophetic dissent, flight, legal strategy, or even revolution in some cases. When the American colonists rebelled against George III, they did so believing that their actions were counter-revolutionary, since the king and Parliament initiated the real revolution.
In the last analysis, God bequeathed us citizenship at creation when He commanded man to exercise dominion. We were created citizens of the world. Citizenship is not the gift of the state or nature.
Let each of us be citizen Christians!
- Jim West
Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!