The Bible and Multiple Citizenships
In the modern world, then, each Christian is a citizen of two nations: An earthly nation like France, England, or the U.S.A., and the heavenly nation (Eph 2:6; not of this world, John 18:36), the church. Though we belong entirely to Christ, we do not on that account renounce our citizenship in the earthly nations, any more than we leave our earthly families. Indeed, we seek to be good citizens, for those earthly nations themselves, and their rulers, received their authority from God (Rom 13:1-7).1
There is a strong belief among many Christians that belief in an exclusively heavenly citizenship has no effect on the Christian in relation to his civil citizenship since he is simply a pilgrim and a stranger on his way to heaven. What’s the result of such thinking? “In no country except with the exception of Czarist Russia did the clergy become by tradition so completely servile to the political authority of the State.”2 Adolf Hitler took advantage of this belief. Martin Niemöller taught otherwise: “‘We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of the authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.'”3 A Christian’s heavenly citizenship, Niemöller concluded, must have an impact in the world in which he lives.
By the thinking of many, the Christian’s heavenly citizenship automatically nullifies any earthly citizenship. The Apostle Paul saw no contradiction in claiming his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37-39; 22:22-29) and maintaining that he was also a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20). There is no contradiction in Peter’s words when he commands us to submit ourselves “to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13–14) and his words to the officers of the temple when he and the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
The Christian is a citizen of several locales ‑‑ a city, county, state, and nation. For example, the Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27‑29) of the city of Tarsus in the region of Cilicia (21:39) and a resident of Jerusalem in the district of Judea (22:3). Had Israel not been subject to the sovereignty of Rome, Paul could have exercised his tribal citizenship as a resident of the “tribe of Benjamin” (Phil. 3:5). Paul had multiple civil citizenships. The concept of a single citizenship has more in common with pagan Greece than with biblical Christianity.
No one could become a citizen at Athens if he was a citizen in another city; for it was a religious impossibility to be at the same time a member of two cities, as it also was to be a member of two families.4
In the United States, an individual has a national, state, county, and city citizenship. In some states, borough governments (e.g., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota) and parish governments (e.g., Louisiana) operate. Each of the many civil authorities holds real but limited delegated power and sovereignty in these locales. Their real authority and sovereignty can be used to curtail the power of another legitimate government that might abuse its authority, or an illegitimate governing power assuming rule through coercion.
Through multiple civil citizenships, citizens have access to the seats of power where influence can be exerted on a local level. Abolition of these many civil distinctions leads to despotism and tyranny. Adolph Hitler was able to consolidate his power by eliminating the many civil distinctions within the nation:
[H]e had abolished the separate powers of the historic states and made them subject to the central authority of the Reich, which was in his hands. . . . “Popular assemblies” of the states were abolished, the sovereign powers of the states were transferred to the Reich, all state governments were placed under the Reich government and the state governors put under the administration of the Reich Minister of the Interior.5
One of the tenets of Marxism is the “gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.”6 Our American constitutional founders designed a decentralized civil government that also decentralized power and authority.
Ultimately, the Christian is a citizen of God’s kingdom. In Philippians 3:20, Paul mentions this aspect of citizenship: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly await for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” This idea corresponds to Jesus informing Nicodemus that he must be “born again” [Lit., born from above] (John 3:5; cf. 14:1‑3). In effect, he must become a citizen of heaven. An individual’s Christian “citizenship” does not cancel his earthly citizenships and corresponding civil obligations, however.
In another sense, the Christian’s heavenly citizenship makes him an alien, stranger, and exile on earth (Heb. 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). The Christian does not repudiate his earthly citizenships while acting as a pilgrim. Rather, his earthly citizenships are not to be considered primary. Earthly citizenships are temporary and have meaning only within the context of a biblical moral order — the kingdom of God that encompasses all citizenships. The Christian is told to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness… (Matt. 6:33).
The Christian has an obligation to follow the law of God as it applies to all locales. God’s law is the standard whereby all the above-mentioned citizenships must operate. Our heavenly citizenship involves comprehensive law-keeping. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus does not restrict the locale of law-keeping; therefore, we can conclude that the keeping of His commandments includes every citizenship without exception.
The church is spoken of as a citizenship: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow‑citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19). The Christian’s heavenly citizenship automatically places him in an ecclesiastical body where a law-order should operate (Matt. 16:13‑19; 18:15‑20; 1 Cor. 6:1‑11).
The Apostle Paul saw no inconsistency in taking advantage of his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37-39; 22:22-29) while maintaining that he was also a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Paul did not deny his Roman citizenship and claim heavenly citizenship when he was taken to be “examined by scourging” (Acts 22:24). “And when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?'” (22:25). Why didn’t Paul just “take it,” content in the fact that he was a citizen of heaven? Instead, he used the privileges of Roman citizenship to his advantage. While some had purchased their citizenship with large sums of money, Paul “was actually born a [Roman] citizen” (22:28).
Nowhere do we find Paul repudiating the privileges that came with being a Roman citizen. We should keep in mind that the Caesars considered themselves to be gods. To be actively involved in the realm of politics does not mean that politics must be free of all pagan thought. Paul proclaimed an unadulterated message to these pagan rulers hoping to persuade them of their religious folly. After hearing Paul’s defense of the gospel, King Agrippa replied to him, either has a question or statement of fact, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28).
On numerous occasions the apostle used all of the privileges of Roman citizenship to his advantage by appealing, not to heaven before the Romans (certainly Paul did appeal to heaven, since he tells us to “pray without ceasing” [1 Thess. 5:17]) but to “Caesar,” the seat of Roman civil authority (Acts 25:11). Of course, he was using Caesar to advance the gospel to bring others into heavenly citizenship.
- John M. Frame, “Toward a Theology of the State,” Westminster Theological Journal 51:2 (Fall 1989), 221. [↩]
- William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 236. [↩]
- Quoted in Shirer, The Nightmare Years, 154. [↩]
- Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor  1955), 196. Quoted in Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 62. [↩]
- Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 200. [↩]
- The Communist Manifesto, written with Friedrich Engels, 1848. [↩]