I love America. I thank God almost every day that I was born here and get to enjoy all of the advantages of life in this country. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m strong enough to be an ambassador of Christ’s kingdom in a place that’s made it so effortless to claim to be a Christian and so difficult to be distinguished as one.
It’s undeniable that Scripture presents the church as an entity set apart from the world. The only way the church is going to remain separate is if the church is made up of individuals who live in the world without becoming absorbed by it. The idea of being in the world but not of it was a main theme of one of Christ’s last recorded prayers in John 17. It’s interesting that one of the things Jesus made time to pray about before He left His disciples was that they would be set apart by the truth found in the Word of God.
A major part of spiritual growth is learning how to apply what Scripture says to our individual context. So what does it look like for us to be distinctly Christian in an American context? Is there a point where we become Americanized to the submission of our Christian identity? How far can we remove ourselves from culture and still be any good to it?
Over the years there have been many different answers to these questions. Some Christian traditions have taught that we should be totally separate from the world. They argue that we shouldn’t join the military, vote or say the Pledge of Allegiance. Others would say that America should be a Christian nation and that we should be heavily involved in all aspects of the government to help realize this goal.
Personally, I think the answer lies somewhere in between—exactly where, I’m not sure. As is the case with many other issues, this issue creates more questions than can be answered. But sometimes questions are better than answers. Questions are more likely to result in self-examination, as well as honest, open discussions—two things on which the church is frighteningly short. My goal here is not to convince anyone to do things my way, but to encourage the ongoing conversation about what it means to be God’s church in America. Here are a couple of questions which might help to determine if we are becoming too wrapped up in the things of this world.
Whose kingdom are you working for?
Everything we do furthers someone’s kingdom. The issue is whether it’s God’s kingdom or not. All too often we strengthen, and bring glory to, competing kingdoms. We work for our country, class, family, and sometimes worst of all, self.
The Bible describes us as ambassadors of Christ, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador represents the interests of one kingdom while living in another. Ambassadors are surrounded by a culture not their own. Yet in order to be of any use to the kingdom they are serving, they need to understand and to be able to function in the culture which surrounds them. But if they begin to identify too much with the foreign culture, they cease to be any good to the kingdom they are representing.
Sometimes I think that Christ’s church in America has been pretty inefficient at this sort of kingdom work. We have the collective resources to change the world. Unfortunately, those immense resources are controlled by individuals who are more concerned about living in comfort and security than advancing the kingdom they have been born into through salvation. Are we more concerned with our own priorities, such as, family, community or nation, than we are with the priorities of God? Every Christian should regularly examine which kingdom their actions and lifestyles are advancing.
Whose kingdom are we looking to for solutions?
It’s not very hard to find problems when we look around the world today. America is no exception. As His church, we are called to be a part of reconciling the world to God. This means we are to be actively involved in making the world, including America and our neighborhoods, look more like it should. There are not too many Christians that would disagree with this. How we go about solving those problems indicates whether we are becoming too reliant and involved in the ways of the world.
When we see these problems in society, do we look for God and His people to do something about it or do we look for the institutions of the world to solve those problems? Unfortunately, Christians all too often wait for the world to bring about the changes which God has called us to implement. Many times when we do get involved we want to work through man’s systems instead of God’s. We want laws to be created or enforced differently. We want the right person elected for the right office. We want the government to do a better job of caring for orphans, widows, the homeless, the hungry and oppressed. When governments and corporations fail, we are quick to blame them for the sad state of the world. Should they do a better job? Yes, but God calls us to be concerned for people and issues. If our focus is on Christ and furthering His kingdom, we will have solutions which reflect Him. Instead of relying on the ways of the world, we need to rely on the ways of God. We often avoid doing so because it can be costly, uncomfortable and require a lot of faith and patience. It also requires being open to the direction of God with some creativity on our part.
Always a good place to start is by looking at the example of Christ. Christ never founded any nonprofit organizations or created any new programs. He didn’t support any politicians or parties. Not that these things would not have been necessarily wrong, but His example shows they shouldn’t be our primary focus. He built relationships with people based on His love for them. He passionately gave of Himself and His resources out of His love and the world was forever changed as a result.
These two questions go a long way in determining how our lives and actions are stacking up to the scriptural command to be in the world but not of it. We are never going to agree on where to draw that line in every situation, but it’s important to remember that we can disagree, as long as we realize that we need to draw a line somewhere. This is especially true in America because of the relative ease and comfort available to us here.
It’s alright to love America and appreciate the advantages of life afforded here. But, it becomes dangerous when we begin to love the nation of our physical birth over the kingdom we were born into through the redemptive power of Christ’s blood. If this happens, it may hinder the way God uses us in the redemption of others.
Brandon Woodard and his wife Jessica live in Odessa, Texas, with their two boys Jose and Elias. He attends University Park Baptist Church and supply preaches for churches in the area. This fall he begins a Master’s program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Contact him at brandonwoodard77[at]hotmail.com.