Jesus made it pretty clear to his disciples what he expected from them once he returned to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. He said, “Go and make disciples of all people everywhere, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). We call this expectation the Great Commission. He also said, “Love God with everything you are and everything you have—and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-30). We call this expectation the Great Commandment.
The work of the church through the years, then, has been to translate these holy expectations that Jesus gave us into concrete acts of evangelism, compassion, justice, and reconciliation for the sake of those who don’t know the Lord. I like the way that the apostle Peter puts it, writing to the early church in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” In other words, Jesus has gathered a community of believers from all the nations of the world for the purpose of sharing—both in word and in action—the good news of what he has done for us.
That’s the church’s Christ-given job description. It’s rather broad, and it’s certainly much more than even the most-energetic, best-intentioned disciples could ever hope to live up to, apart from the abiding power of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through us. Nowhere in this New Testament job description, though, is the church given the task of celebrating the work of Caesar and his government. That’s Caesar’s job, not ours. When Peter tells us to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17), he’s reminding us that, although our true citizenship is in heaven, we are subject to the civil authorities and their laws while we are on this earth. New Testament Christians, under ordinary circumstances, are not disobedient citizens.
We are, however, bound to speak the truth as God has revealed it to us in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ—and sometimes this kind of witness puts us in the position of being critics of what we see our civil authorities doing. But not always. When they live up to the ideals of honest government, equal justice, and promoting the common good, then we are right to encourage our civil authorities to keep up their worthy efforts.
I appreciate the way that N.T. Wright, who is both a New Testament scholar and a retired bishop in England, sorts out our responsibilities in light of what God has already done for us. The resurrection, he writes, is God’s assurance that His new world has already begun, and with that assurance comes the courage for us to tell the powers of this world that, “We are urging you to do justice, and we’re going to hold your feet to the fire and go on reminding you when you get it wrong, and congratulating you when you get it right.”
It’s tricky, though. The sands are forever shifting, which is why it’s so crucially important for the church to maintain its integrity and its independence from the government, political parties, and other interest groups that pursue their own agendas and causes. We are God’s holy people, Jesus is our king, and our job is to proclaim his gospel to all people everywhere, beginning with those who are closest to us here in Charlotte. As we head toward another Independence Day, let’s remember who we are and what Jesus does (and doesn’t) expect from us, so that we might be faithful disciples who are also responsible citizens.
May the peace of Christ be with you!