Discipleship as citizenship

The legacy of the Apostle Paul

December 11, 2013 | Feature | Number 24
By Gordon Zerbe | Special to Canadian Mennonite

In the first 300 years of the Christian church, before church and state became fused, preachers and leaders regularly used the language of “citizenship” to describe the Christian community and its way of life. Where did this come from, and why was this linguistic practice forgotten?

The most explicit example of this imagery comes from an anonymous piece of writing now known as the “Letter to Diognetus,” one of numerous writings of the second century designed to provide a reasoned defence of the Christian faith and its practice in a suspicious and often hostile environment:

“For the distinction between Christians and the rest of humanity is neither in land [geography] nor language nor customs. For Christians do not dwell in cities in some place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect, nor practise an unusual livelihood. . . . Yet while living in both Greek and barbarian cities [Greek: poleis], according as each obtained his lot, and following the local customs, both in clothing and food and in the rest of life, they show forth the admirable and confessedly paradoxical condition of their own distinctive citizenship [politeia, political formation]. They dwell in their own nations, but as resident aliens; they share all things as citizens, but endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign country is their nation, and every nation [in which they dwell] is a foreign state. . . . They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship [politeuontai] in heaven. . . . To put it shortly, what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all members of the body, and Christians throughout the citizen-states [poleis] of the world.”

Other writers of the post-apostolic church similarly highlight Christians as “those determined to practise citizenship (politeuesthai) according to the gospel itself,” and explain their corporate life as a “citizen-polity [politeia] lived according to the gospel,” as documented numerous times in Eusebius’s The History of the Church, completed soon after AD 325.

One of the earlier examples of this use is in the letter of Clement of Rome to the church in Corinth, written in the 90s, advising readers as a community “to practise [their Christian] citizenship worthily of Christ” (I Clement 2:8; 3:4; 21:1).

And in the middle of the second century, Polycarp, leader of the church of Smyrna, promises his persecuted community the blessings of the age to come, “if we practise citizenship worthily of Christ,” and “remain loyal” as citizens of Christ (Letter to the Philippians 5:2). Shortly thereafter, Polycarp suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman empire.

Paul’s citizenship language

In each of these cases, the inspiration comes directly from the Apostle Paul, especially his letter to the Philippians, where Christians are encouraged to be a kind of counter-citizen-society with an alternative loyalty and manner of life. The thesis statement of the letter comes in the first chapter: “Just one thing matters: politeuesthe [politicize] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Messiah” (Philippians 1:27).

Drawing on the imagery of a Greek citizen-state (polis), Paul uses the Greek verb politeusthe here in way that cannot be easily rendered into English: It involves the call both to “be a citizen community,” and to “practise the citizenship identity” that members of that community have been “graciously granted” (1:30), a meaning covered up in standard English translations until very recently (see TNIV, NLT).

Paul stresses the alternative foundation, formation, being and practice of this alternative citizen-community (polis), whose foundational “constitution,” or point of reference, is specifically “the gospel of Messiah.” For Paul, citizenship is not so much what Jesus-loyalists do in the world in relation to politics as usual, but who they are as God’s newly reconciled and always reconciling community.

Later in the letter, Paul emphasizes again the matter of a Christian citizen identity: “For our politeuma [polity] exists in heaven, and from there we await a Deliverer, Lord Jesus Messiah, who will transform the body of our lowliness to be conformed to the body of his splendour, in accordance with the power with which he is able to subject the universe to himself” (3:20-21).

Here, Paul draws on the imagery of a government in exile—in exile because a hostile, unjust and illegitimate power is now supreme in the divine regime’s rightful dominion, the whole earth. It is for this reason that the loyal believers must wait expectantly and faithfully until the sphere of God’s claim throughout the cosmos is fully liberated (2:9-11). The word politeuma in this text refers to the “ruling structures of a polis” (“citizen-state”), that is, its “government,” and by extension to the “political identity” and “citizenship” of those who place their hope in that regime.

Paul is not referring to heaven as the homeland, nor as the destination for the faithful; rather, heaven is the place where God’s rule still remains supreme, in a kind of exile, the location from which the global reclamation will finally and imminently emerge. In the interim, citizenship includes, among other things, a commitment to the practice of forbearing reconciliation (4:5), in the context of a security “guarded” only through the “peace of God” (4:7), ulti-mately established under the rule of the “God of peace” (4:9).

The final global victory of that regime (politeuma) will mean a dramatic change in the fortunes of its loyal adherents, specifically pertaining to bodily life, but will also embrace the whole cosmos (3:20-21). Paul’s words, in effect, are the declarative counterpart to the prayer of Jesus, that “God’s regime be established on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The case of Philippians reveals that Paul uses politically loaded imagery especially in situations where the gospel was coming into conflict with Roman imperial power, with its claim for universal and ultimate allegiance.

To the congregation in Thessalonica, another community facing pressures and demands of ultimate loyalty from the Roman empire, Paul similarly does not hold back: “We exhort you [all] . . . to walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his own kingdom”

(I Thessalonians 2:12).

Ultimately, this language of politics and citizenship for a Greek-speaking audience derives from Jesus’ equally bold proclamation of exclusive loyalty to the “kingdom of God.”

Not dual, but global citizenship

Although born in Japan as a foreigner—but not thereby receiving Japanese citizenship, since citizenship there was genealogically defined, as in the ancient world—and while receiving American citizenship as an accident of pedigree, in my adulthood I made an oath of allegiance to the “Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.” I “affirmed,” but it was an oath of loyalty just the same. And while some inductees were troubled by the monarchist imagery, I found it an apt symbol of the claims of state sovereignty. States do make sovereign claims on our being and loyalty, and even “demo-cracy” specifically invokes a form of “ruling power” (kratia). According to Canadian doctrine, it is exactly at the moment when one takes this oath (for those not born into it) that one becomes a Canadian citizen and is “welcomed into the Canadian family,” while accepting “the rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship.”

So I now hold dual earthly citizenship. Nevertheless, I do not subscribe to the notion that one can always be a good dual citizen of Christ’s regime now secured in heaven—which is techni-cally a global citizenship anyway—and a particular earthly regime. Just as the United States explicitly discourages dual citizenship, so as to avoid competing claims on our loyalty, I would argue that Paul, Messiah’s envoy (apostolos) of an alternative politics, would discourage trying to hold Christian and a national citizenship in some kind of equal balance. The former must always trump the latter when it comes to any competition over our loyalty, and notably when it comes to creating a new, truly international people under Christ’s sovereignty, one that is oriented to God’s universal dominion as Creator (Philippians 3:21). 

And so I was, and still am, troubled by my words to “be faithful” and “bear true allegiance” to a particular and particularizing human sovereignty, since there are no qualifications attached to those words of oath. My primary loyalty goes not to the great mother Queen of an earthly empire, but, to use Paul’s words, to our great “mother Jerusalem above,” who is truly “free,” that is, under no domination from any other power (Galatians 4:26).

Paul here uses the image of the “metropolis” (“mother-city”) in relation to its multiple, scattered outposts. My “truest allegiance” was declared in oath at the moment of my baptism into Christ, the Christian citizenship ceremony. And it is for this reason that balancing my two earthly citizenships is an insignificant matter because of my primary commitment to Christ’s world-reconciling regime. By contrast, no modern state sovereignty is interested in having its subjects or citizens making oaths to a global citizenship that trumps narrow state or national interests, whether that global perspective is construed theologi-cally, politically or ecologically. But the imperative for such a globally oriented citizenship, what the Stoics called “cosmo-politanism,” is becoming increasingly critical.

When speaking at my home congregation last year, I explained why regular church attendance has become a habit for me. Among other reasons, I explained that I simply enjoy international travel. Every week, when I cross the threshold into Christ’s sacred space, I leave Canada. I suggested that we should have a sign on the inside as we leave, “Entering Canada,” to remind us of our truest identity and loyalty.

There is a long history in the West of sacred spaces providing an exception (“sanctuary”) from the regular rules of citizen-states. For instance, being born in “embassy space” for Americans is as good as birth in the home country, making one eligible to become president. It is in this sense that, when we enter the space (anywhere) of Christ’s world-reconciling work, we are entering an international space, as explained in the Letter of Diognetus above: “Every foreign country is their nation, and every nation (in which they dwell) is a foreign state.”

Recovering the language of Christian citizenship

This biblical language of citizenship is in desperate need of recovery. While the language of “discipleship” has served as the core watchword for a few generations, there are significant limitations to it. For instance, “discipleship” is easily susceptible to an individualist interpretation or practice, limited to a particular religious sphere of life. Moreover, it has become a church or Bible word, otherwise out of currency in the regular world. It is not even a very good translation of the original words that it translates, which would more closely mean something like “menteeship,” nor does it express very well the more original imagery of “following.”  

The notion of “citizenship,” however, not only conjures up the crucial element of personal loyalty and practice, but also that of a spiritual-social and global-ecological vision in Christ, along with a communal formation, mission and identity—even if an identity that confounds prior identities, or undermines the very notion of identity—that is, altogether, a different kind of “politics.”

Moreover, were we to keep talking about our “Christian citizenship,” both as an identity and as a practice, we would immediately and always be reminded that our Christian faith and practice as a citizen always cuts across other citizenship identities and responsibilities, sometimes in harmony with them, sometimes in conflict with them. And at the same time we may begin to regard our faith in Christ primarily as a dynamic “loyalty” that applies to all arenas of life, not as a dogmatic “belief” pertaining to the limited sphere of the spiritual or religious. 

Gordon Zerbe is professor of New Testament at Canadian Mennonite University and a member of Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship, Winnipeg. He is the author of Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2012). He is nearing completion of a commentary on Philippians for the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.

For reflection and group discussion, go to the discussion questions related to this article.

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