For most of my Christian life, I never questioned it. Even in the last 5 years, I did it without reservation. As I reflect on why I used to do it, my reasons were always social, political, and cultural. They were never theological or ethical.
So as of a year ago, I stopped doing it. I no longer pledge my allegiance to the nation that I’m living in. And, to be consistent, I no longer look down upon my African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ who also find it hard to pledge their allegiance to the nation they are living in.
We’re all citizens of another kingdom which is fundamentally at odds with other kingdoms seeking to rule the world, or part of it. We are outposts of heaven living as strangers and foreigners among the nations. And we need to be reminded of that identity every single day.
Christians too often ignore questions related to national allegiance, or they get mad when people raise them. Try blowing up your next Bible study by asking the question: Should Christians stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? You might just start a brawl.
The first Christians, however, would have gladly wrestled with these questions—and they did. The early church’s relationship to Rome was a pressing issue, and Scripture speaks to it with profound clarity. Paul says that Christians should submit to the State (Rom 13:1-4), obey its laws (Titus 3:1), and pray for its leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2). Peter says the same thing (1 Pet 2:13-14), and Jeremiah encouraged Jewish exiles to “seek the welfare of Babylon” where they were living in exile (Jer 29:7). Christians are to be good citizens.
Christians are also to be subversive citizens, political prophets who boldly live out a narrative of weakness, suffering, sacrifice, and death. And this narrative subtlety dismantles all other narratives of citizenship and allegiance.
The apostles publicly refused to submit to all other laws when they conflicted with the way of Christ (Acts 4:19; 5:29), and Israel’s wild-eyed prophets denounced the nations—including their own—for violence, oppression, and mistreating the marginalized (Amos 1-2). The fulcrum of the biblical story hinges on a revolutionary peasant-King who received the death penalty for treason.
It’s no wonder the Roman authorities felt threatened by the rise of the Christian movement, which “turned the world upside down” by “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). The Christian proclamation that Jesus is King is an inherent political protest. It’s a declaration that all other rulers are unworthy of our allegiance.
There’s another king, a different ruler. And His name is Jesus.
No one said it as clearly as John in his political tract called “The Apocalypse of Christ,” otherwise known as the Book of Revelation. It’s unfortunate that this subversive piece of literature has been hijacked by contemporary newspaper theologians who use it to predict the end of the world in bewildering detail.
The book of Revelation is an aggressive critique of the government, written by a pastor imprisoned for his lack of patriotism. John boldly lambasts Rome for its immorality, greed, pride, excessive luxury, and an addiction to military might that stained the world with blood to secure its interests (Rev 17-18).
Rome believed it was the hope of the world, the founder of peace (the pax Romana), and the savior of those who pledge their allegiance. All of these, of course, are religious statements—an affront on God’s reign over the earth. “Come out of her, my people!” cries the angels of heaven, “lest you take part in her sins!” (Rev 18:4).
Even one of Rome’s own senators exposed their charade: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desert and they call it peace” (Tacitus, AD 56 – ca. 117).
The Christian identity has always been a quiet threat to the way of Rome. Submit to the State? Yes. But submission must come with a confident grin that a better way, a superior narrative, a crucified empire is peacefully crashing in on the empires of the world.
When governments pitch themselves as the hope and savior of the world, Christians must expose the fraudulent claim, not celebrate it. Our hope is not in making America great again. It’s in making the name of Jesus great, regardless of whether we prosper or suffer, live or die.
No Christian in the first 300 years after Jesus would have pledged allegiance to Rome during a church gathering. Roman flags didn’t stand next to Christian flags in first-century house churches, and followers of Jesus viewed themselves as citizens of One: One Lord, One baptism, One kingdom of sojourners scattered across the earth as colonies of heaven. Christians in America are more like Israelite exiles living in Babylon than Jewish kings reigning in Israel.
While Christians should submit to the State, pray for its leaders, and render qualified obedience to its laws, to pledge allegiance is a profoundly religious act. No Christian should simply assume that pledging allegiance is a good Christian thing to do. Quite the opposite. Pledging allegiance to anything or one other than Jesus is a religious statement infused with divided loyalties and borders on syncretism.
I think the burden of proof rests on those followers of the crucified Lamb to show that citizens of heaven can truly pledge allegiance to anyone other than Christ.