Tag Archives: citizenship

When to subject ourselves to the authorities, and when not to – Titus 3:1-8, Part 1

5 Aug
Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

I recently heard what is reported to be a true story from a Sunday school teacher in Dublin, Ireland.  She writes, “I was testing the children in my Sunday school class to see if they understood the concept of getting into Heaven. I asked them, ‘If I sold my house and my car and had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?’ ‘No’, the children answered.

‘If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the lawn and kept everything tidy, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again the answer was ‘NO!’

‘If I gave candy to all the children and loved my husband, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again they all answered, ‘NO!’

I was just bursting with pride for them. I continued, ‘Then how can I get into Heaven?’ A little boy shouted out, ‘You’ve got to be DEAD!’ **

It’s funny to hear things from a youthful perspective, isn’t it?  Yet when we tell the Gospel story, we can make it seem like what God really wants is for us to be dead.  You might think, “What?  How can you say that, Joel?”  What I mean is that we often start telling the good news of Jesus with, “When you die,” or “After you die.”   Have you ever heard the method of sharing the story of Jesus that starts like this: “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?” 

Is God only concerned with what happens when we die?  As we continue studying the letter Paul wrote to Titus, Paul will speak about this. Turn to Titus 3:1-8, which we’ll be studying in this series of posts.

In verse 1 Paul says to Titus, “Remind the people.”  Why do they need to be reminded?   Remember that Paul and Titus had been on Crete previous to Titus’ current trip.  They had seen people become believers in and followers of Jesus, and thus Paul and Titus had grouped these new Christians into house churches in various towns on the island.  During that initial trip, Paul and Titus had already taught the people what it means to know and follow Jesus.  Now Paul senses that the people need to be reminded.  So Paul is saying Titus, you need to remind the people in Crete of some stuff, and by extension you and I in 2019 need to be reminded of it as well. As we’ll see throughout this series of posts, God is definitely interested in what happens to humans after we die, but he is also very concerned with how we live in the here and now.

What do we need to be reminded of?  Paul has a list of six things in verses 1-2, and they all relate to how Christians live now.  In this post we’ll look at the first one in which he reminds them to be subject to rulers and authorities.  Paul was talking to a very different cultural and political context than our own.  Crete was a part of the Roman Empire in the first century.  Roman emperors would claim that they, the emperors, had become gods.  Thus the people should worship the emperor as their savior.  So in the Roman Empire there was a religion of emperor worship. 

Into that culture, Paul has been clear in teaching that Jesus is God, the true savior of the world. Just glance back at chapter 2, verse 13, where Paul says, “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  From there you can keep going back and see it in 2:10, and even at the very beginning of the letter in 1:4.  Jesus is God and he is the savior.  Not an emperor in Rome. 

One potential result of this teaching is that the new Christians on Crete could get the idea that they are free from having to obey Caesar or any ruler.  Caesar is no longer their lord.  Jesus is their Lord.  But that freedom in Christ could have disastrous consequences if not handled well.  Christians could believe they were above the law of the land, which could bring them into conflict with rulers, and that could be disastrous.  So Paul says the people need to be subject to rulers and authorities.  

I think it is best to see Paul as teaching that in the vast majority of situations it is right and good to follow the law.  Pay your taxes.  Obey traffic laws.  In a society that is attempting to base its legal system on justice, we can and should be subject to and obey rulers and authorities. 

But what about societies that are unjust?  Or what if one particular law is unjust?  That happens, right? It has happened many times in the history of the USA, and still happens today on the federal, state and local levels.  Thankfully we have a justice system to address this.  But justice doesn’t happen automatically.  It usually starts with individuals speaking up, and often practicing what is called civil disobedience to unjust laws.

The civil rights movement for example broke a ton of laws, but those laws were unjust.  Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  What a wonderful Christian example of practicing civil disobedience to unjust laws.  In her case, the law of segregation, was unjust, based on racism and prejudice, and she was right to break it. 

We must remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven first, and if human government creates unjust laws, we practice civil disobedience seeking to move our government and laws in the direction of justice.  In some places around the world, Christians have an exceptionally difficult time with this because in their countries it is illegal to practice Christianity!  We need to pray for the persecuted church.  Here in America, while our nation is far from perfect, there is still, enshrined in our Constitution, the pursuit of justice for all. So, Christians, let us be subject to authorities when they pursue justice, and let us practice civil disobedience when the authorities promote injustice.

**Thanks to Jim Ohlson for sharing this story with me.

What my sons’ mugshots taught me about citizenship

13 Jun

How about those two cute little mugshots?  They are my two oldest sons in September 2000, when they were 3 and 2 years old.  Our family of four had just moved to Kingston, Jamaica, and we had to apply for immigration status as legal aliens.  That meant we had to get photos taken and use those photos for immigration cards which we carried with us.  Even the boys at 3 and 2 years old had to have legal alien status.

Something curious happened, though, when the photographer took our photos.  What you see above is round 2.  In the first round of photos, he took the photos, developed them, and surprise, they showed nothing by eyeballs and hair.  Two eyeballs on a plain background with no body!  What?  The photographer had not adjusted the camera settings to account for our light skin tone!  That was one of the first times we felt a tinge of what strangers and aliens feel.  After a good laugh and a few setting changes to the camera, the photographer retook the photos and all was well.

We often felt like strangers in Kingston, and we were official aliens in Jamaica.

All week long we’ve been talking about strangers and aliens.  (You can review the previous posts here and here.)  That might sound odd, depending on how you are thinking about the word “aliens.”  Creatures from outer space?  No.  Peter is using the word “aliens” like we do when we use the phrase, “illegal aliens.”  In our society, an alien is a person from one country that is trying to set up a new life in another country, just like we did in Jamaica.

So why would Peter use that concept to describe Christians?  In our study of 1st Peter 1:17-21 and 2:11-12, Peter tells the Christians in the Roman Empire around 65 AD that they are aliens and strangers in the world.

It’s like the words of the old spiritual: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”  All Christians, Peter says, are living in a foreign land.  We have another true home country.  We are from another place.

But what other country is he talking about? First of all, many of the Christians Peter was writing to were actual strangers and aliens.  Some had fled for their lives, leaving their home country, and became refugees in another country, in order to escape persecution.  They could easily have felt like strangers in their new country.  Second, as Christians, followers of Jesus were a unique, tiny minority in the Roman Empire.  Christianity was relatively new, only about 30 years old, and very few people understood it or accepted it.  So Christians were perceived as strange in regard to their beliefs.  In both areas the physical and the spiritual realms, those Christians were strangers and aliens.

Likewise, though we Christians today might not be strangers and aliens in our earthly country of citizenship, we are strangers and aliens in a very real spiritual sense.  We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We believe that, we claim it, but if we are honest it can be very hard for many of us to grasp how our citizenship in God’s Kingdom should impact our lives.

Why?  Because we get so entranced by what we see, touch, and feel.  It is super easy to get focused on what affects us.  It is all too easy to think, “I am an American.”  We were born here, we live here, we are comfortable here.  It is all we know.  Alien?  Stranger?  It sure doesn’t feel like it.  It is hard to see ourselves as citizens of the Kingdom of God, because it is invisible.  It is much easier to identify as an American.  So what Peter has to say is difficult and radical: you’re actually an alien, from another place.   That American birth certificate, passport, voting card, social security number, ID card, and driver’s license?  None of it depicts your true identity, or your true home.

Remember that concept of new birth in Christ, being born again, that Peter talked about in verse 3?  When you choose to believe and follow Jesus, you are born again into his country.

I didn’t choose to be a citizen of the USA.  I was born here, in Virginia.  My birth certificate proves I am a citizen of the USA.  When I travel abroad, I carry my US passport, and when I return to an airport in the USA, at the immigration checkpoint the officer glances at my passport and says, “Welcome home!”

What I need to dwell on more is that I did choose to be a citizen on the Kingdom of Heaven, through new birth.  Christians, disciples of Jesus, have been born into a new place, and thus we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and that citizenship is the true one.

How do citizens of an earthly country see themselves also as citizens of the Kingdom of God?  Can we hold dual citizenship?

What Peter is saying is that we Christians do have a dual citizenship.  But our citizenship in an earthly nation is temporary.  That whole nation is temporary.

Tom Hanks’ movie, The Terminal, illustrates this well.  Hanks plays a man who is from a small country.  The man is traveling outside his country, and on the way home, while in a foreign airport, he is shocked to learn about a revolution in his country.  In a very short time, that country is dissolved and a new one forms.  The airline will not let him back without proper identification.  What country did he belong to?

Some of us might have a change of citizenship like that while we are on this earth.  And for all of us, no matter if they drape an American flag on our casket, when we die, our citizenship in the USA is over.

Citizenship in heaven, however, is forever.

So Peter is saying that we Christians must choose to live now during our earthly lives, by the principles of the Kingdom of God, which is forever. How do we do that?  Check in tomorrow and we’ll begin to look at what Peter says Christians should do to live as strangers and aliens in the world.