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A Very Insignificant City

The third-century church father, Origen, in response to the pagan criticism that Christians don’t do enough to help the emperor, claimed that, on the contrary, Christians do more good for their respective countries than do the rest of mankind.  Because of the prayers that they offer and the lives that they live, Christians “render to the emperors divine help….  Indeed, the more pious a man is, the more effective he is in helping the emperors—more so than the soldiers who go out into the lines and kill all the enemy troops that they can” (Contra Celsum VIII.73).  It is Christians, Origen says, who “educate the citizens and teach them to be devoted to God, the guardian of their city; and they take those who have lived good lives in the most insignificant cities up to a divine and heavenly city.  To them it could be said: You were faithful in a very insignificant city; come also to the great city where ‘God stands in the congregation of the gods and he judges between gods in the midst’ [Ps. 82:1]” (Contra Celsum VIII.74, emphasis mine).

Origen provides insight into the Christian’s duty in the empire.  He distinguishes between two “cities,” the one city “very insignificant” (literally, “least”) and the other city “great,” “divine and heavenly.”  In this, he is simply following the New Testament and early church fathers.  Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).  Hebrews says that Abraham was looking for a “city” built and prepared by God (Heb. 11:10, 16).  Peter emphasizes that Christians, though resident on earth, are aliens and strangers here (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).  In these passages, at first glance, the Christian situation doesn’t seem to be dual citizenship at all.  Christians have one citizenship only. 

In subsequent centuries, however, it became clear that the church might be in this earthly city for a while, and the language, or at least the idea, of dual citizenship became more prominent.  And this is consistent with the responsibilities that we all have to earthly rulers, as the New Testament notes elsewhere (most prominently in Romans 13).  Even while making peace with the state, Christians have always understood that allegiance to the heavenly city is primary, and all other allegiances are relativized, insignificant in comparison.

The insignificance of the earthly city doesn’t relieve its Christian inhabitants from the responsibility to seek its welfare (shalom) (Jer. 29:7).  But it does mean that the best way to serve the earthly city is to relativize it, that is, to be good citizens of the heavenly city.  As Origen said, we help our society most by being good Christians.  This is the best way to practice love of country.

This necessary distinction between the two cities is most famously taken up by Augustine in his City of God against the Pagans.  As a type, the earthly city is ultimately ruled by the lust for power and the love of self above all else.  That description should sound familiar to those who keep up with the news, political and otherwise.  By contrast, citizens of the city of God are motivated by love for God above all else.

As for the United States, the two cities should never have been confused in the first place.  But for those who may have failed to maintain this important distinction in the past—when much of American culture was shaped by or at least paid lip service to Christianity—a valuable service has been rendered by our presidential candidates and national politicians over the last few years.  The line between the two cities has never been plainer, as the insignificance of this earthly city is clearly reflected by the intellectual and moral insignificance of its would-be leaders.

Minding this distinction does not provide an easy resolution to the complex question of how Christians should respond in this brave new world, but it does establish an essential context for proceeding.  My guess is that, in general, the wise course for the church is usually somewhere between the extremes of total non-involvement on the one hand and political alignment and activism on the other.  That is, going into hiding and being silenced by the state and intimidated by its agents cannot be an option, but neither can quid pro quo relationships of concession with the state.  The best way to involve ourselves, as Origen reminds us, is to be Christ in our neighborhood.  It requires divine wisdom that must be applied in each situation.

With regard to the upcoming presidential election in particular—as with those of the recent past—some Christians will abstain, which is a faithful and venerable option within some free churches.  Others will vote, and, as Christian voters have for a long time, seek the greater good (or lesser evil), not unlike other choices we make in a fallen world.  At any rate, the rise and fall of the city of the world cannot be of ultimate concern or of much surprise to the citizens of heaven.  The God of heaven stands in the midst of these gods and will be the final Judge.

1 comentário

Very well written, Keith.  We lived for a time in Virginia and learned much more about American history there in colonial times than what is taught in Texas schools.  We learned that while Thomas Jefferson was spending the hot summer of 1776 writing the Declaration, he included the famous phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...”, we today cherish that statement.  But we learned that during that same summer, Baptist street preachers were being arrested and jailed in Virginia, Jefferson’s home colony, because they were not licensed or sanctioned by the official church of the Virginia Commonwealth – the Church of England. …

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