On this election day, the question naturally arises about the relationship between Christianity and politics. It is without doubt a very complex issue, but it is helpful to think of the grand sweep of redemptive history and understand where we fit in that story.
Where do we as New Testament believers fit in? Much of the discussion about America being a “Christian nation” assumes that Old Testament Israel serves as an example for us today. However this fundamentally misunderstands the role of Israel in redemptive history. The story of Israel looks back to Eden and looks forward to New Creation. First, Israel looks back to the garden. Israel is a kind of corporate Adam, ushered back into the garden (a land flowing with milk and honey), tasked to obey God and expel Satan (the Canaanites as his proxies), re-dramatizing the story of Adam. The point of the story is so that Israel would re-experience the failure of Adam and so realize the necessity of a savior (“the law was a tutor to bring us to Christ,” Galatians 3:24). Second, Israel looks forward to the Kingdom of God at the end of history. All along, the kings of Israel were only a foreshadowing of the true Davidic king who will make “his enemies his footstool” (Psalm 110 is entirely future-oriented). And so to see Israel as a perpetual model for contemporary politics is to miss the point entirely. Israel as a geo-political state was always an object lesson in the gospel, not a permanent reality.
How then shall we live? The Apostle Peter addresses this very issue in 1 Peter 2:11-12, where he urges Christians to keep their conduct among Gentiles honorable, remembering they are “sojourners and exiles.” These two terms have profound significance in redemptive history. First, he is evoking the experience of the sojourner, Abraham, who lived among the Canaanites in peace and entered into covenants with them. And second, he is evoking the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon, where the prophet Jeremiah instructs the Jews to “seek the shalom of the city.” (Jeremiah 29:7) In both these cases, the people of God lived as dual citizens of two overlapping cities: the city of man (the realm of politics, economics, war) and the city of God (the church). The city of man does not acknowledge God, yet nevertheless, it has its own legitimacy and God instructs his people not to overthrow it, but to participate in it and seek its prosperity. But ultimately, the city of man is passing away, and the city of God will last forever. Therein lies our ultimate allegiance. One day, the city of God will be geo-political – and will indeed fill the whole earth. But not now. That is to mistake our place in redemptive history.
In the meantime, we are called to be good citizens of the city of man, to work and bless our neighbors, all the while knowing that our ultimate hope is not there. We must live in the tension of dual citizenship and not seek to merge the two cities (i.e., to make America a “Christian nation”). We are like Daniel, who at the same time was prime minister of the Babylonian Empire and yet was thrown into the lion’s den for his unwavering faith in the God of the Bible. It is not an easy call, but it is the commission of King Jesus, who defined our dual citizenship as, “rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17)
If you would like to read more about this paradigm of dual citizenship, Michael Horton has written an excellent article on this. You can also hear a much fuller explanation in our Sunday school lesson, "Christ as King II."