Which Side Are You On?

How should followers of Jesus think about politics and the election? This week we kicked off a brand-new teaching series in which we are going to talk about that very thing. From now to the Sunday before the election, we are going to dig into the Scriptures to understand better just what it means to be not just good citizens, but good kingdom citizens. Let’s start by understanding what that even means.

Which Side Are You On?

In the year 2,000, just before I graduated from high school, a new show premiered on CBS that has since become a cultural phenomenon. It doesn’t still carry quite the weight that it used to, but with season 41 waiting for COVID restrictions to finish filming and hit the airwaves, I think it’s safe to say that it’s still holding its own. The show really marked the beginning of a new era of television whose critics tend to be just as passionate as its fans. The genre is reality TV and the show is Survivor. Any Survivor fans in the room?

Admittedly, I haven’t watched it in years, but I did catch most of a couple of the early seasons when my college roommate was hooked on it, so I at least know how the show works. If you are not a Survivor fan, the show involves a group of people put in some remote location where they have to work together to do just what the title of the show suggests…survive. Along the way, because it is essentially a gameshow, there are various contests in which they compete for tactical and strategic advantages. The other element of the show is that the producers group the contestants into two or three different tribes. These tribes compete with one another for various prizes, but eventually, as the number of contestants gradually shrinks, they are all thrown back into the same pool to compete against everybody. When this happens, the smart players have worked throughout the season to build alliances with other players that function as mini-tribes until there are only two or three contestants remaining at which point the free-for-all ensues.

From an audience standpoint, thanks to the kind of good producing that has maintained a loyal audience for more than 20 years, you never really know for sure which side a particular player is on in these alliances. It may be that a player formed an alliance the producers didn’t show you for the sake of suspense and intrigue. The question of allegiance hangs over the contest until the last possible moment. Sometimes one player will seem to be on one side only to have planned a devastating double crossing at a certain point that helps keep them in the game just a little bit longer. It all leaves the audience wondering about each character throughout the season: Whose side are you on? Where our allegiance lies may seem trivial for something like Survivor (don’t tell that to the superfans), but there are other areas of life when it becomes a whole lot more important.

Well, in case you haven’t heard, there’s an election coming. Did you know that? I’m not sure what may have given you the idea, though. Surely it wasn’t the ad thrust in your face on tv or the radio or a magazine or the newspaper or social media or direct mailer or text or billboard or yard sign or perhaps even by having it beamed directly into your brain. But for one of those methods, you may not have even known about it. It’s a good thing you came today so I could fill you in on the fact.

I kid, of course. Not only is there an election coming, but I don’t know about you, this one just feels more divisive than any previous election has felt before. I know it’s a cliché to say that any particular election is “the most important election of our time,” but as our culture continues to polarize, and the division between the two major parties continues to sharpen, the claim feels like less and less of a stretch to make. There are many different factors that all come together to make this election and the choice we as voters make in it incredibly significant. What all of this means for we who would count ourselves followers of Jesus, is that it is something we need to talk about. The fact is the Christian worldview is not neutral on issues like those at stake in this election. How we vote matters. There is both a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. But which is which and what that even means may not be what you think they are. That’s why we need to talk about it.

Thus, this morning, we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series with all of this firmly in mind. We always hear a bit about being good citizens during an election season—especially when that election comes during a census year. We are reminded that voting is the duty of all good and conscientious citizens. And most of us genuinely want to be good citizens. So, let’s talk about it. What does it mean to be good citizens?

But, as you read some of what the various New Testament authors had to say, it becomes clear that as followers of Jesus, we are not first citizens of whatever earthly kingdom we happen to inhabit. We are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God. That means we don’t want to simply be good citizens generally, we want to be good kingdom citizens. What does it mean to be good kingdom citizens in a season like we are in now? That’s what we are going to be talking about each week between now and the election. Along the way, we’re really not going to pull any punches. We’re going to talk about the challenges of our dual citizenship, we are going to talk about some of the biggest issues dominating the national conversation right now, and on the Sunday before the election—I’ll just tell you right now—I’m going to tell you how to vote. You won’t want to miss that one.

So then, what does it mean to be a good kingdom citizen? Well, it starts with our understanding what that idea even means. And one of the best places in the Scriptures to turn to for that is the first letter Peter wrote to believers scattered across modern-day Turkey. Peter was writing to believers who were living in a midst of a culture that didn’t understand them and, really, didn’t like them. Their culture demanded their allegiance and threatened to “cancel” them if they didn’t give it. Peter’s concern was to help them stand firm in their faith, boldly advance the Gospel, but not give any unnecessary ammunition to their opponents. You see, the reason they were receiving the pushback they faced was that they weren’t first citizens of the Roman Empire. They were dual citizens in the context of a culture that demanded absolute allegiance. Now, we’ll come back in a couple of weeks to talk about the challenges of living with dual citizenship. For the rest of this morning, I want to help you understand just what it means that we have this dual citizenship.

Peter writes about this in 1 Peter 2:9. Listen to what he says and then we’ll fill out the context a bit: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Sounds pretty good, right? What does it mean? Well, let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of the chapter to see if the context doesn’t help inform us a little more on what Peter is doing here. Back in 1 Peter 2:1, the apostle writes this: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander.” Now, that is pretty good advice, sure, but it starts with a “therefore.” And what are we supposed to do when we see a “therefore”? We go back and see what it is there for. Let’s do that.

Peter opens his whole letter by describing the living hope that followers of Jesus have in Him. This living hope itself calls us to clear thinking and faithful obedience. More than that, we are to strive to be formed in the image of the One who gives us this hope. Drawing from a command God had long ago given the people of Israel, Peter calls these believers living in a hostile environment to be holy because the God we serve is holy. Well, holy carries the sense of both moral perfection and total distinction from the world around us. A holy person is different from and morally superior to the people around her. Indeed, the moral perfection is what causes the differentiation. The point is this: God is different and He’s calling us to be different. Therefore…we need to be different.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many things that will make us stand out from the culture around us right now better than ridding ourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander. If we just did that and forgot about the rest of what Peter says here, we’d be doing something pretty big. Getting rid of that garbage is an entry point for us. That’s foundational. From there, verse 2, “like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word…” Now, that’s a cute image, yes, unless you happen to have a hungry baby on your hands. Then it’s a loud and insistent image. It’s an image that will absolutely not be satisfied until it’s been fed. Are you with Peter? That’s how we are to be in our desire for the word of God: absolutely insistent on having it and draining it dry…every two hours…all night long. Amen? And why? “So that you may grow up into your salvation.” Come on, if you aren’t feeding yourself from the Word every single day, you aren’t growing in Christ like you need to be. That’s something you have the power to fix. You’ve just got to do it. Christians who read their Bibles daily are actually statistically more faithful than those who don’t. If you’re going to be a good kingdom citizen, this is how you get started.

The question is, though, why do we do this? Why put all this energy into looking so different? Because God is building something. It’s not a physical structure that will one day stand for all to see. It is a spiritual one that will span the globe, bringing Him glory at every point. If you have professed to be His follower, you are a part of that building. And this building is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Look at what comes next here: “As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Now, some of his language there is in terms his original audience would have understood better than we do, but Peter’s point is that God is creating with His church something that is in this world, but at the same time external to it. It is something that will stand in the gap between Him and the world—that’s the priesthood element—interceding on the world’s behalf, making the world better because of its presence than it was without it. Peter goes on to cite some Scripture to show that God has always been moving in this direction. This same Scriptural record makes clear that folks who haven’t bought into this yet aren’t going to understand it. They’ll get all tripped up over it and not like it very much at all. At last, Peter lands once again back where we started: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

So, what’s going on here? Peter is framing the church in the minds of his audience in terms that once would have been thought of as applying only to Israel. He is saying that God is continuing the work He started with Israel, through the church. There are differences, to be sure, but there are some really critical similarities that should guide how we think about ourselves as followers of Jesus. And if you are not a follower of Jesus, this is going to be one of those Gospel points that sounds really weird, and which won’t make a lot of sense until you’re on the inside. I’m going to say some things here that a critic of the church could take out of context—or even in context—and make me sound like a lunatic. But for followers of Jesus, this is critical stuff. We’re going beyond Bible 101 here so stay with me.

One of the chief differences between Israel and the church is that the former was a physical nation and the church is not. It never will be. It was never intended to be. Indeed, it shouldn’t be. Every attempt to try and make it into something like a physical nation has gone disastrously wrong. What Israel was physically, though, God designed the church to be spiritually. God designed the church to be a people who stand apart from the rest of the world as different. More specifically, we are to stand apart from the world in such a way that we represent and proclaim Christ to the world. And, in being this spiritual nation that is to be set apart from the world, even though we are still members of whatever nations we happen to inhabit physically, our citizenship is first and foremost in this spiritual nation that God has created us to be. Are you with me?

In light of this, as followers of Jesus, the world comes to us and asks a question: Whose side are you on? What is your primary allegiance? That’s the same question the world has always asked the church. It’s the question Peter’s audience was getting asked. How we answer that question matters. It matters a lot. It will carry with it consequences. When the world comes to us and asks, “Whose side are you on,” and we answer honestly, “not yours first,” well, it’s going to treat us like the foreigners we are. That won’t be easy. But if we’re going to be good kingdom citizens, we’ve got to start by being willing to acknowledge our citizenship. As followers of Jesus, our first allegiance is to God, not the world. The church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world.

And we’ve got to get this right. It matters more even than perhaps you can imagine. When we don’t get it right, one of a couple of things happens, neither of which are good. First, when we give our primary allegiance to the world, we become willing to support and advocate for policy ends that are not consistent with the Scriptures. Folks will try and twist the meaning of Scriptures around in all kinds of wild ways to try and make them consistent, but if you have to do interpretive gymnastics to justice some political or cultural position, that should be a pretty clear indicator that you don’t really have the Scriptures on your side, you just wish you did so that you don’t have to feel guilty about supporting whatever position is currently popular and for which you will pay a social—or even legal—price for opposing. Professed followers of Jesus on the political left have for years tried to justify their support for certain lifestyles and reproductive options that just aren’t Scripturally sound. The net effect, though, has been to convince many folks that they don’t really need Jesus since following Him doesn’t actually look much different from doing whatever it is they were going to do anyway. And yet, the church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world. If we don’t give that, then the world thinks God doesn’t really matter.

There’s another potential consequence for getting this wrong, though. If we give our primary allegiance to the world, we become willing to overlook character issues when supporting one person or another helps to advance our favored political goals. When Bill Clinton was in office, survey data suggested that evangelical Christians—that’s the group into which we fit—overwhelming thought his obvious character issues rendered him unfit for public office. Fast forward a generation. When Trump was running for President, churchgoing evangelical Christians still overwhelming thought that character counted, and Trump’s character rendered him unfit for public office. Just two years later, though, those survey data had completely reversed themselves. Now churchgoing evangelical Christians overwhelmingly say, “Well, while character counts, there are other factors you have to consider.” Whatever your political persuasion may be, the hypocrisy of that kind of a shift should be glaring. And even if you aren’t so sure, a whole lot of folks who aren’t followers of Jesus are, and they’re really not all that interested in the church anymore because of it. The church’s first allegiance must be to God, not the world in any form or fashion.

Have I stepped on everybody’s toes yet? Listen: We don’t usually think in these terms in this country because, frankly, we haven’t had to…really ever in our history. Maybe in the earliest days before we were a nation and you could be arrested for things like being a Baptist in some places, but not since we became a nation, because we were founded so explicitly on ideals that only come out of the Christian worldview. We’re not there anymore and so we are living in a day when the question of our allegiance matters more than it ever has in our lifetimes. Getting it right is going to bring us trouble. If we don’t get this right, though, there’s a whole lot we’re going to get wrong including our ability to stand firmly together as a unified body and “proclaim the praises of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” And yet, the church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world.

Okay, well, what does that look like when we leave these walls? Come back next week and we’ll talk about it.

2 thoughts on “Which Side Are You On?

  1. Debbie Boyd

    Hello Jonathan,
    I read this article quite carefully. Even reading points a couple times. Though I am not sure where your last article will land I am somewhat torn by the next to last paragraph. While agreeing that Trump has a past record of infidelity we do not know his heart/confessions today. Just as David was an adulterer and murder, God used him to fulfill His purpose. Biden has flaws in international indiscretions. Neither candidate has a sterling character. But God tends to use the unusual. With that in mind, don’t we need to look at issues? I would dare say there are not many if any in congress who if voted by character would cut the mustard.
    Your input is valued. Feel free to email me.

    Like

    • pastorjwaits

      Hi Debbie. Thanks for your thoughts and questions. While we don’t know Trump’s heart, that I am aware of, he has never indicated any kind of a repentant spirit for past transgressions. In fact, he’s asserted the opposite.

      That being said, God can use anybody. We’ll touch on this some next week, but God puts in place every authority. If Biden wins come November, God will have allowed that to happen. Romans 13 is clear on that. And, He can use un- or even anti-Christian leaders just as well as He can and has Christian ones.

      And, you’re right. We absolutely need to look at the issues. Those matter greatly. And sometimes, we can vote in good conscience for one candidate or another on the basis of issues, not character.

      My point in both the next to last paragraph and the one before that as well as the whole sermon is that we cannot stake our loyalty to one particular party. When we do, we hurt our witness. Like Trump or hate him, the hypocrisy of many professed believers changing position on how much character matters and what kinds of flaws disqualify someone from serving was glaring. For not a few folks, it gave them another reason they shouldn’t follow Jesus. There may be reasons for it and we can debate how good those are, but the fact remains. The reversal reveals a devotion to party that surpasses previously stated principles. That’s a problem.

      We are followers of Jesus first. Politics must be filtered through that lens. Period. There is a pro-life Democrat in Georgia who spoke at the Republican Convention this year. I’d probably vote for him if given the chance. His character and stance on issues that matter greatly are in line with what I think the Scriptures proclaim to be right and true. Reflect again on the big idea: The church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world. When we think about who to vote for, we can largely ignore the R or D in front of a name and instead can focus on character and positions on issues.

      What other thoughts do you have? You know I love having these conversations!

      Like

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