Citizenship in the Christian Tradition

The Christian tradition has something of value to say regarding citizenship too. From the beginning, it acknowledged the legitimacy of the political arena: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,”said Jesus when asked a question about taxation (Matthew 22:21). When the Roman official Pontius Pilate asserted his political authority, Jesus responded by acknowledging it; he even added that Pilate’s authority had, in a way, been given to him by God: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).

The apostle Paul, too, was explicit about the divine origins of government and the prerogative of Christians to accept it. In Romans 13:1–7, he wrote,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

As a Roman citizen, Paul would even appeal to his right for a fair trial (see Acts 25:11) as a citizen of the Roman city of Tarsus (see Acts 21:39) after he was arrested in Jerusalem.

While the legitimacy of political order—even one that was hostile to Christianity—and the obligations and rights of citizenship in the secular arena are explicitly recognized in the Christian tradition, they’re also held in view of another reality of citizenship. The Bible suggests that Christians hold a dual citizenship. They are, of course, citizens of political and secular polities on earth, but they also hold a spiritual citizenship. They are, as Paul put it, “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

Christians are, thus, creatures and citizens of two polities. The greatest expositor of this concept was Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In his massive twenty-two book-long City of God, the North African bishop asserted that there are two cities—or world cities (cosmopolises)—that simultaneously coexist and are intertwined with each other. One is the city of man. This is the realm of politics. It comprises all the polities of the temporal world and is ordered around worldly things. The other is the city of God. It’s the church and is ordered by the love for God and the pursuit of his will. The former has a definite temporal end. The latter might be located in time and space for a time, but after the secular world and its governments reach their appointed end, whenever that may be, it would persist with God for all eternity. The loyalty of Christians, then, is to the city of God. To it, they are obligated; by it, they have rights as co-heirs in the Kingdom of God. Only for a time are Christians required to live in the city of man. They may even have temporal rights here. Their loyalty mustn’t be divided though. In matters temporal, while they should strive to be good and dutiful citizens, ultimately a Christian is more of a pilgrim anxiously awaiting the greater end of citizenship in God’s eternal city.

This could and did lead to a sort of rejection, or at least an ignoring, of the importance of political life for Christians in the centuries that followed, especially in western monasticism. However, debates over the relationship between the temporal world and the eternal community of God did persist through the Middle Ages, with a view of the pope being the final authority on earth and leader of men and women to their eternal destiny in heaven prevailing over other alternatives.

In matters temporal, while they should strive to be good and dutiful citizens, ultimately a Christian is more of a pilgrim anxiously awaiting the greater end of citizenship in God’s eternal city.

A revision of Augustine’s thesis emerged during the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther (1483–1546) began to assert what’s often called the doctrine of the two kingdoms:

God has established two kinds of government among men. The one is spiritual; it has no sword, but it has the word, by means of which men are to become good and righteous, so that with this righteousness they may attain eternal life. He administers this righteousness through the word, which he has committed to the preachers. The other kind is worldly government, which works through the sword so that those who do not want to be good and righteous to eternal life may be forced to become good and righteous in the eyes of the world. He administers this righteousness through the sword. And although God will not reward this kind of righteousness with eternal life, nonetheless, he still wishes peace to be maintained among men and rewards them with temporal blessings...Thus God himself is the founder, lord, master, protector, and rewarder of both kinds of righteousness. This is no human ordinance or authority in either, but each is a divine thing entirely. (14)

So as in Augustine, a Christian holds a kind of dual citizenship. But in Luther’s view, while participation or citizenship in the temporal realm doesn’t serve eternal ends, it does serve God’s temporal purpose of establishing and preserving civil righteousness. Luther was careful and always cautioned against confusing the spiritual with the secular. He always strove to make a “precise distinction between...secular society and religion” (15) and regarded participation in the former as incumbent upon Christians. The obligation of the Christian citizen in the secular arena, however, wasn’t subjectively determined. For Luther, it was linked to and defined by one’s vocations (or stations) in life, such as father or daughter, a citizen of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation or of the Republic of Florence, a soldier or pastor, and so on. And it must be taken seriously not for the sake of one’s righteousness before God but for the maintenance of civil righteousness in human societies.

Neighbors

While one’s vocations determine an individual’s activity in civil society, Luther also believed that every Christian has certain obligations to his or her neighbor, not as a matter of politics but as an agent of God on earth. Such obligations are detailed in his explana- tions of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:1–17. For example, the fifth commandment forbids murder. What does this mean? Luther responded, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” The seventh commandment, not to steal, meant that we should “not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” The eighth commandment forbids bearing false witness. What this meant, in Luther’s mind, was that we “should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor or, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend, him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” (16)

In Christianity, all the commandments “are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself ’” (Romans 13:9). In view of citizenship, this begs the question: Who’s my neighbor? Is it just the person next door or is it the person I rub elbows with as I serve in my various roles as a son or daughter, student, citizen, employee, and so forth? Jesus answered the question with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan found in the Gospel of Luke 10:25–37.

Our neighbor is anyone we might encounter from the entire human race.

This parable has many applications. The point to be made here is that a neighbor isn’t just our fellow citizen who, like the priest, the Levite, and the man from Jerusalem, is in good standing in our particular polity. Our neighbor is anyone we might encounter from the entire human race. The Samaritan, despised by the citizens of Israel, is the one who demonstrated what it is to be a good neighbor, for he took care of even someone who may have, in other circumstances, hated him.

In the Christian tradition, then, there’s room for service to one’s nation as a citizen fulfilling various obligations—both political and domestic—and there’s the impetus for a moral cosmopolitanism of a sort where the individual is active as the opportunity presents itself to extend care and service to one’s fellow humans irrespective of citizenship and nationality.


An excerpt from Adam Fransisco’s chapter in “Who Am I?” edited by Scott Ashmon (1517 Publishing, 2020), pgs 72-76. Used by Permission.