God And Country?

July 3, 2022

Series: July 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"God And Country?"


First Reading
1 Peter 2:13-17
13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.

Second Reading
Exodus 1:15-22
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’

God And Country?

            A number of years ago, I attended mass in Mexico.  Behind the altar, covering the entire wall, there were three giant stripes green, white, and red.  It hit me part of the way through the service this was the Mexican flag. It also hit me that this left me entirely unbothered, which I found interesting because were this American flag in an American church I would have walked out.  I am uneasy by Christian nationalism in my own context because it is neither good for the country nor good the church.  This is one of the many reasons I don’t usually “go there” on Fourth of July weekend.  There are plenty of parades and civic opportunities for that. 

            It is important to consider the Christian’s relationship to the state and state authority. The theological tradition wrestles with this question and produces differing answers.  I’ve been teaching on the Presbyterian confessions so they’re on my mind these days.  The Barmen Declaration, written in response to the holocaust and the failure of the church to stand up against the state, affirms time and again that Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, rejecting as “false doctrine” anything or anyone else trumps Christ in terms of ordering our lives.  The older Scots Confession, however, affirms that “empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities are appointed and ordained by God.”[1]  The Apostle Paul said to submit to the governing authorities, Augustine said an unjust law is no law. 

            I likewise chose two Scriptures that likewise point in different directions.  1 Peter says “honor the emperor,” (1 Pet. 2:17). Exodus heralds women who stand up to one.  The king of Egypt instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill any male children, and the midwives, named Shiphrah and Puah—they deserve to be named—refuse out of their faith and ultimate allegiance not to Pharaoh, but to God (Ex. 1:15-22). 

            This is why it’s nonsensical simply to say you believe inthe Bible or even inthe confessions.  The Bible, while it has sweeping themes, does not speak with one voice.  The Bible is aconversation, many conversations actually.The Book of Confessionsis a collectionof statements from different times and contexts addressing differing circumstances. People of faith have to use the tradition with the prayerful direction of the Holy Spirit to navigate life in a contemporary setting, even growing the tradition as they go. 

            I’ll argue there are times to defy civic authority, but let’s begin by understanding some reasons Christians sometimes defer to them:  First, out of a genuine sense of God’s providence, second out of a belief in the legitimacy of their process, as in a democracy, and third, out of sheer survival.  This third reasons shows up in some of the later New Testament letters when it’s clear early Christians are being advised to accommodate to Roman norms of the day, so they aren’t seen as troublemakers.  Ironically, this is where you get many of the oppressive gender norms for which Christianity gets blamed.  Surely, we don’t accept God has ordained or approved every civil authority or else that would put God’s fingerprints on all the worst tyrants of human history. That’s a confession too far for me to make. 

            You may love your country, of course.  You may love your country even as you seek to critique it.  Critique, done right, is a form of love.  It’s wanting to make it better.  Our allegiance as Christians is to God in Christ, not ultimately to any nation.  Nations and their laws sometimes need to be challenged.  This is not to be taken lightly, but remember slavery was the law of the land, persecution of Jews, law; Jim Crow, law; keeping women from voting, law; anti-gay discrimination, law.  We can go on and on.

            Some would say the church should stay out of those things, weighing in on societal matters.  This was the argument of one evangelical pastor lately, one who, to be fair has been critical of his side’s brand of participation in the political realm.  However, his is not the answer.  He advocated that the church stick to: 1) speaking to the heart of human beings and 2) ministering to those injured by societal ills with grace and mercy.  “Stay in your lane,” he effectively said, but as Diana Butler rightly points out “Jesus had only ONE lane—proclaiming the Reign of God.”[2]  That’s a social good, a public good, a physical good as well as a spiritual good. The Confession of 1967, which we studied last Wednesday, states,  “In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act.  The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.”[3]  It then goes on to list the issues in its day and call not just to address the victims of injustice, but to undo the systems of injustice themselves.  This is not about creating a theocracy—again bad for the state and the church—it’s about creating a more just society for people of any or no religion.   

            It’s good to speak to peoples’ hearts and to minister to the injured; it’s just not good enough.  It wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  The gospel writers went to great lengths to plant Jesus firmly within the prophetic tradition, a tradition that constantly critiqued societal ills and their leaders, and they also chronicled how he addressed physical realities all the time. Jesus was a healer.  He cared about bodies and so we should too including—and not to put too fine a point on it—people with wombs. 

            This leaves me about two paragraphs, an entirely insufficient amount of room, to address a contemporary issue, not Roe v. Wade, since I am not qualified to address the legalities of the case law, but abortion as a theological issue.  As you know if you attended the class I led a couple of weeks ago, I am strongly in favor of reproductive rights, of choice, of healthcare including the ability to have a safe abortion.  This is a Christian conviction for me.  I stand with the Scriptures that recognize loss of a pregnancy not as a loss of a person, as significant as this can be, as well as the subsequent Jewish tradition that affirms this repeatedly. There are so many other ways to create a more life-affirming society than this.  That said, as I said in a that class, I can genuinely understand how some people of faith oppose abortion on religious grounds. I see how they get that from Scriptures about God knowing people in the womb.  Some of you may well be here now.  I hope you are here next week too so we can remain in relationship.  I take a different position because when I look at a broader picture, I believe there are so many other things we could do in order to truly cultivate a culture of life without endangering mothers and existing families. 

            We were away last weekend.  I met two families and each of them told me a story about their own pregnancies.  They wanted children, were trying to have them, but had medical complications that made the pregnancies unviable, but gravely dangerous for the mothers.  They wondered what choice they would have in a place where all abortions were banned, particularly if they didn’t have the resources to go elsewhere and we know these things always hurt the under resourced the most.  We know how those with resources will continue to navigate around laws that will go into effect.  Forcing these women to endure and potentially die from that, in addition to so many other circumstances where forced pregnancy is nothing short of sinful, does not look like a culture of life and it certainly does not look like the reign of God. 

            We don’t have a giant flag behind the chancel even though we may love our country. What we have is the cross of Christ, and that is the reminder of to whom we belong and in whose image we are to model ourselves as we struggle to live together.  Amen.


[1]The Scots Confession, 3.24.

[2]Diana Butler Bass, “The Kingdom Heresy” in weekly email, The Cottage, July 23, 2022.

[3]The Confession of 1967, 9.43-9.44.