The Limits of Patriotism
By Chris Hutchinson
Statue of Liberty

In my first church out of seminary, I preached a sermon in which I mentioned specific atrocities of the 20th century as illustrations of human sinfulness. After the service a man came up to me livid that I had singled out Nazi Germany as an example of evil. Flummoxed, I asked him, how could he possibly object to that?

He had been a 16-year-old Austrian drafted by the Nazis in 1945 but who never saw the battlefield before the war ended. He was shipped off by the Soviets to a gulag along with thousands of other draftees where they experienced years of deprivation, forced labor, and torture. With emotion, he recalled the period after World War II in which millions of ethnic Germans were displaced and persecuted across Eastern Europe simply for being German.

Historians estimate that anywhere from 500,000 to three million ethnic Germans died as a result of this anti-German persecution. Many died from direct political violence as vengeance for what the Nazis had done. This man’s point was not that the Holocaust was not wicked, but that many Germans suffered who were not complicit in their government’s atrocities.

Patriotism, Citizenship, and the Gospel

Sin not only separates us from the love of God, but it causes divisions between humans as well. The pages of Scripture are filled with examples of divisions between families, tribes, and nations as a result of Adam’s fall. One of the primary reasons for these sinful divisions is the tendency towards partiality and partisan bias, which makes us quick to point out the faults of other groups while turning a blind eye towards our own.

The good news is that Christ Jesus came into the world to forgive the sins of those who believe in him and to bring about a new community, the Church. By his Spirit, Jesus removes the dividing walls that naturally set people apart and create hostility. He gives us a meal where we put our knees under the same table, where we identify with him and each other. There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) All who believe are included as equals in Christ’s kingdom by grace.

This is why Paul condemned the Corinthians for excluding the poor at the Lord’s Table (I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-33), and James warned about partiality (2:1-9). Jesus called both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot as apostles, requiring them to put aside their political differences for a greater kingdom. Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, for Christ’s kingdom would not advance by human force, but only by the preaching of the gospel to needy sinners.

The church is a colony of heaven whose members are marked by their shared unity in Christ, not class or nationality. Like John’s heavenly vision, when the world looks at the church, they should see people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)

And yet here, as members of Christ’s church, we are still citizens of particular lands. The Reformed tradition, via the Westminster Confession of Faith, has always permitted Christians to serve as magistrates, including the bearing of arms for national defense (Romans 13:1-7; WCF 23.2). As a veteran of the armed forces, I am proud of my service to our country. Commissioned into the U.S. Army in 1989, I served in an infantry battalion during Desert Storm, where I witnessed firsthand the sad price paid by Iraqi soldiers pressed into service by a dictator concerned only for his own power.

Through it all, I understood my love for country and love for Christ to be fully compatible.

I love my country and my military service was for my country. Though the government of the United States has been instituted by God (Romans 13:1), I knew that my service was not part of the Great Commission. The gospel advances by love, not violence (Romans 12:9-13:10). I had responsibilities to both kingdoms but in different ways.

When it comes to just war and the defense of the innocent, Christians may bear arms, but only with great sobriety and sorrow. We are to be as Faramir in “Lord of the Rings,” who did “not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness,” but “only that which they defend.”

After I was ordained as a PCA pastor, I continued to maintain these convictions in my ministry. As our Book of Church Order states so well, “the power of the Church is exclusively spiritual,” so that church and state are “as planets moving in concentric orbits: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’” (BCO 3-4) Our ultimate loyalty is always to King Jesus and his crown rights, not to any nation, political party, or even to our own families if necessary (Matthew 10:37-38).

Patriotism and Political Violence

As a minister, my highest priority is to Jesus and, because of him, to the truth. I must call out sin impartially, whether it involves the church’s most generous patron or the man I look at in the mirror every morning. I must call all people to faith and encourage them to bear the fruit of repentance in their lives (Luke 3:7-8).

In our desire to see our homeland prosper, we must not permit our patriotism to keep us from discerning between good and evil.

Our love of Christ requires us to set appropriate limits on our patriotism. In our desire to see our homeland prosper, we must not permit our patriotism to keep us from discerning between good and evil. It does us no good to repent of the sins of past generations if we are not willing to impartially call out the sins of our own. It does us no good to condemn the sins of those outside the church if we are not willing to call out the sins of those in the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). It does us no good to call out the sins of our political opponents if we are not willing to call out the sins of our political allies.

Unbelievers are not constrained by these commands to impartiality. They scrape and claw for power with a careless disregard for truth and justice. But as Christians, we are called to higher standards. We must love the truth above all else, precisely because we love Christ, who is truth (John 14:6). When we remove any restrictor plates on our patriotism or partisan commitments, it ultimately leads to compromising our Christian walk and witness.

Christians should be the most peaceable and least partisan people on the planet, characterized by a surprising love for our enemies, praying for those in authority, and desiring all men to come to faith (I Timothy 2:1-4). When we only apply the rigors of God’s law to those outside our own circles, we do the very opposite of what Paul calls us to do (I Corinthians 5:9-12) and permit our lives to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:1-2).

Christians are truth tellers. For instance, we are comfortable saying that the U.S. Continental Congress was a lawful, democratic “lesser magistrate” justly remonstrating against the abuses of power by Parliament. Whatever our convictions about the justness of the cause, the American Revolution was a war fought by two constituted nations, albeit one newly declared.

At the same time, we should also be able to state without qualification that it was dreadfully sinful for individual citizens to terrorize and torture political opponents, such as the painful tarring and feathering of loyalist tax collectors. It was wrong for citizens of Savannah, Georgia, to storm the house of Presbyterian pastor Joachin Zubly, throwing his library into the river and forcing him to flee simply because he remained a loyalist. The citizens mistreated Zubly even though, as a member of the Continental Congress, he had joined them in vigorously protesting against Parliament.

Faithful Christians on the scene should have stepped into the gap to prevent such atrocities, even at cost to themselves. As our nation potentially fragments, if we are faced with similar circumstances, may we have the courage to do so in our day, not only for the sake of peace, but for our own integrity and the witness of the gospel. Political violence is always wrong. We should state that plainly, no matter which side instigates it or which side chooses to overlook it because it suits their cause.

But it is difficult to do the right thing when our fellow citizens are doing what is right in their own eyes. After World War II, I’m sure I would have been tempted to say, “Well, the Germans had it coming to them.” Especially when the flames of political fervor burn brightest, we should guard ourselves against such partiality. We must pick up our crosses and follow Christ, whatever the cost to our own persons, career, or influence.

Obedience can also be hard when our media diets are so siloed that we cannot even agree on the facts of the case. During my time as a student at Duke, I witnessed attacks on the truth from my professors on the philosophical left, whether through “reader response theory” in English literature or Marxist readings of history. I’m sure such assaults on truth continue on college campuses.

In more recent years, I’ve seen the truth undercut by those on the political right when it suits their pursuit of power. But in all cases, we must denounce unlawful violence, whether it’s college students destroying property or our neighbors trying to disrupt the constitutional process. Whether it’s on the college campus or Capitol Hill, violence is wrong.

Peaceable Patriotism

Our love of country has to be sanctified. Otherwise, it is just a love of power masquerading under another name. Because we are Christians, we have to tame our tongue, lead peaceable lives, and keep our “conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:12). Church leaders are called to be stewards of the mysteries of the gospel, not surrogates for their preferred political party.

As Bible-believing Christians, we in the PCA should clearly stand against violence in all its malicious forms, whether it’s abortion, sex-change surgeries on minors, or political violence.

Therefore, as Bible-believing Christians, we in the PCA should clearly stand against violence in all its malicious forms, whether it’s abortion, sex-change surgeries on minors, or political violence. We must do so for the protection of the innocent, the purity of Christ’s church, and in hope that the offenders may themselves come to repentance for the sake of their eternal souls (2 Timothy 2:22-24).

This does not mean our public ministry should continually address headlines, bringing the latest political controversies into the church. In “Christianity and Liberalism,” J. Gresham Machen laments, “Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes to Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one finds only the turmoil of the world.”

The pulpit is no place for partisan politics or trading the treasures of the gospel for the preacher’s opinions on policy solutions. But if, in the appropriate contexts, we are unwilling to call out obvious sins of those in our congregation and community, such as political corruption and the fomenting of violence, we have become no better than seeker-driven churches who pursue growth and influence at the expense of truth.

As a citizen, veteran, and minister, I fear where we may be headed as a nation. In many ways, I no longer recognize the country I once defended. The faithful church may need to find new ways of becoming peacemakers, of becoming an oasis of grace in an increasingly volatile land. If so, we have many examples in history and across the globe to guide us.

We must remember what Theodore Beza said to the King of Navarre when he was threatened with persecution, “Sire, it is truly the lot of the Church of God, for which I speak, to endure blows and not to strike them. But may it please you to remember that it is an anvil which has worn out many hammers.”

May we in the PCA be that strong anvil. May we be bold. In the face of an increasingly hostile culture on all sides, may our ministries reflect the words of our King: Blessed are the peacemakers.

Chris Hutchinson is the pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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