Christians, citizenship and pledging allegiance


  • Question 176, from Johanna, United Kingdom

    I am considering becoming a naturalised citizen of the UK, and there are two options: swearing an oath of allegiance to the queen (“I swear by Almighty God”), or making an affirmation of allegiance to the queen (“I do solemnly, truly, declare and affirm”). Should Christians swear an oath of allegiance to a head of state? Does it make a difference if the head of state you are swearing allegiance to is Queen Elizabeth II rather than Nebuchadnezzar or Nero?

    Historically the relationship between Christians and the states they live in has varied widely. Even today, there are certain political systems that forbid open expression of Christianity, so the question of allegiance, patriotism and loyalty to a particular country is more than academic.

    Jesus discouraged his followers from swearing oaths in Matthew chapter 5, verses 33-35, mainly as an outworking of the third commandment about not misusing the name of God. Jesus extends this by telling his followers not to swear by ‘heaven’ or anything else, because to swear by anything created by God is effectively the same thing as swearing by God’s name and thus misusing it.

    However, when Jesus was asked about the question of paying taxes he told the crowds to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ (Matthew chapter 22, verse 21), which seems to imply that his followers should obey earthly authorities in issues like taxation.

    Paying tax was a controversial subject in Jesus’ time because the taxes levied by the Romans from the lands they subjugated funded the political machine that kept those lands and peoples conquered while helping to fund the armies that enabled the empire to expand through conquest. However, Jesus does make the distinction between ‘Caesar’ and ‘God’, which was a subversive political comment because it implies that God outranks Caesar in some aspects of life.

    The apostle Paul similarly offers a mixed message, on the one hand encouraging obedience to the ruling authorities (Romans chapter 1, verses 1-8), while on the other he peppers his letters with subversive digs at the Empire, for example by referring to the Philippian Christians, who would have been very proud Roman citizens, as ‘citizens of Heaven’ instead (Philippians chapter 3, verse 20).

    Some Christian groups reject pledges of allegiance to any earthly authority. Notably, the Mennonite communities hold that “The only Christian nation is the church of Jesus Christ, made up of people from every tribe and nation, called to witness to God’s glory.” [1] Mennonites therefore quite clearly commit their allegiance to God. As a result they have often been persecuted, particularly when their pacifist beliefs have resulted in their refusal to join the armed forces of the country they live in.

    The Mennonite position would be regarded as extremely radical by many Christian groups, especially in previous centuries where church and state have often been very closely linked, in Europe in particular. In the latter half of the twentieth century there has been a divergence between churches and governments, with even established churches often more critical of government than would have been expected in the past. However, generally, there has been a tendency to follow Paul’s instruction to ‘submit to the authorities’, often resulting in damage to the Christian faith’s reputation when churches have failed to stand up to malign and dangerous governments.

    A convincing case has been made that Paul’s comments in Romans about submitting to the governing authorities could be read ironically, and in fact may be a direct challenge to the authorities who were clearly not ‘God’s servants’. [2] Paul qualifies what Christians ‘owe’ the government, saying if the government is owed respect and honour, Christians should give it respect and honour. But that is a big ‘if’, and Paul does seem to be allowing Christians the freedom to use discernment and decide for themselves how they should relate to the authorities.

    It seems, therefore, that the character and beliefs of the head of state does make a difference when it comes to Christians pledging allegiance. In the UK, the monarch is also the head of the established church and this may have a bearing on a Christian’s decision to take an oath of allegiance to them.

    On a wider level, the tension between being a ‘citizen of heaven’ and a citizen of an earth-bound country is always going to be felt by discerning Christians, as will any pledge or promise that invokes the name of God. A pledge or oath of allegiance does contain a moral duty to keep the promises made. Whether a Christian can make such a pledge in good conscience will be a matter of personal choice.

    References

    1. Article 23. The Church’s Relation to Government and Society, The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
    2. Timothy Carter, The Irony of Romans 13.1-8, Third Way, May 2005, p.21

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