Here’s a truth of Christian cultural and political engagement you can take to the bank: If we don’t get our allegiance right, we’ll get everything else wrong.
I should define what I mean by the word allegiance. Here’s a common definition from Google:
Allegiance: loyalty or commitment of a subordinate to a superior or of an individual to a group or cause.
synonyms: loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity, obedience, fealty, adherence, homage, devotion
It is possible to have loyalty to someone or something without that loyalty being ultimate. We are to be faithful to our spouses, our friends and our jobs, for example. That is a certain sort of allegiance. Historically, allegiance to one’s country has been seen as falling into this category for most people. I would argue, however, that the vast majority of Americans, including American Christians, haven’t put much thought into the matter. I want to talk about it. I want you to think about it. Before we dive into that, though, let’s start with what Jesus had to say about allegiances.
As I read the way Jesus interacted with people who had mixed or disordered allegiances I get very uncomfortable. His words for the religious elite are some of his harshest. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus challenging their motives and their allegiances. They’re always playing gotcha, trying to trap Jesus in some clever moral quandary or expose him as a fraud. They cling to power and abuse their authority. They mislead their people and impose heavy burdens on their hearts, minds and souls because of it.
In response, Jesus says things like:
“Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. (Mt. 15:3, 9)”
He was constantly exposing their true allegiances. They were not ultimately following the most important commandments to love God and love their neighbor. They were more loyal to tradition, to a system of power and order and morality, than to the Living God. This was true of many Pharisees and Sadducees.
Let me bring it to life for our modern ears:
These pastors and Christian leaders are more concerned with traditions, money, politics and power dynamics than with leading communities who express the beauty and truth of the gospel. They are more loyal to their political ideologies and tribes than the greatest commandments. Some of them are urban Democrats, folding on historic Christian principles and handing over their votes and loyalty to a party largely opposed to those values. Some of them are suburban and rural Republicans, forfeiting the compassionate and loving witness of the Church and a belief in integrity in leadership for proximity to power, perceived policy wins and conservative judges.
Before you send me hate mail in disgust, consider this: the very core of our faith contains one of the most political declarations ever made: Jesus is Lord. This means that whomever is in charge wherever we live does not actually get the final say in our life and actions. They don’t get our ultimate allegiance. Put in more modern terms, the authority of Jesus trumps that of the President of any nation, the governor of any state, the mayor of any city. And if they are in conflict, Jesus wins every time. I don’t know what could more succinctly define allegiance than that.
I cannot reflect on recent years in America without hearing the words of Jesus spoken to the Pharisees whose divided loyalties had them loving money and power and privilege at least as much as God. To them he said:
“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts.” (Luke 16:15)
You may identify with some of the compromises I’ve just described. You most certainly know pastors and church leaders who have done this on both sides of the political spectrum. I’m an equal opportunity offender here. Depending on your current political leanings, your upbringing and the specific geographic and cultural influences you are under, all this will make you uncomfortable in different ways. But we cannot run from the discomfort that the words of Jesus produce. No, we must lean into that discomfort if we want to grow from it.
My heart is not to condemn you or other leaders who have compromised. That’s not my job. I receive these words as much as warnings to myself as to you. But we must fiercely and honestly root out where our allegiances are until none compete with Jesus. This is an ongoing, daily task of submission to Him.
Against this backdrop, let’s think a little more deeply about how allegiance is framed in our country. We live in a nation where it is not just tradition but a cultural expectation that, when called upon, we will stand and join in pledging our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic, for which it stands. I didn’t used to struggle with this. On its face, it is generally accepted as a good declaration of our love and loyalty for the nation to which we belong. I never really thought much about it, honestly.
Then one day in 2017 I was sitting on a wide, beautiful front porch of a southern plantation style home in South Carolina with my African-American friend, the incredible artist and activist Sho Baraka. The irony of the setting was not lost on us. He said, “Joel, I gotta be honest, I don’t think we should pledge allegiance to the flag or to the country.” The conversation that ensued was lively. I had never heard someone question it. My first reaction was raw and negative. Sho passionately but calmly presented what I found to be a very strong case.
He talked not only about the core issue of our singular allegiance to Jesus but also the many instances in our nation’s history where we have been so terribly out of step with God’s heart for humanity — slavery, deadly racism, sexism and so much more. He talked about the corrupt nature of so many leaders. He rightly asserted that there is nothing biblical about the United States deserving our allegiance over Jesus or, for that matter, over any other nation. He talked about the need for Jesus-followers to be a prophetic witness, not an assimilated army. All this brought him to the conclusion that allegiance is too strong a word, too important a concept for Christ-followers to pledge our allegiance to any flag or nation.
I have not stopped saying the pledge of allegiance when prompted to do so in public. Yet. But I have wrestled with it quite a bit. And I have begun to intentionally, regularly and publicly declare my allegiance to Jesus above my nation and perhaps most relevant to our topic here, any political party.
I want to challenge you, as you establish a Jesus-centered, biblically-faithful framework for political engagement as a Christian, to ask yourself these questions:
Am I more allied to a political party or ideology than I am to Jesus?
Are there any areas of my life and practice where I have chosen power, tradition or politics over the truth of God and the love of my neighbors?
I will add to this a tangible action that could accompany your re-declaration of first allegiance, especially in the American political environment: consider becoming politically independent for the sake of the Gospel, especially if you’re a leader.
Some, like my friend Michael Wear (a Democrat and faithful Jesus-follower who served in President Obama’s office of Faith Based Initiatives and on his campaign doing faith outreach) believe that Christians should remain within their parties and work to reform them from within, largely because of the realities of the dominance of the parties in our modern system. I have Republican friends who are Jesus-followers who feel the same way and are trying to live that out.
I don’t argue with this as a matter of basic political strategy and I think it’s probably true for a lot of folks. I have tried as much as anyone to help catalyze a new independent movement without much success. The realities of our system are deeply entrenched and the best chances for reform and impact are probably, for now, within the two parties.
However, right now we’re in an era where America’s two major parties are often demanding our allegiance to them above all else. In many cases, this has become too much for a Christian to bear. Especially a leader in the church. Christian leaders need to make it abundantly clear that our allegiances are not mixed in the least. Our allegiance is to Christ first and foremost. Imagine the freedom of being able to step into a tough political conversation and say, “I’m not aligned with either major party. I want to faithfully engage each question and election through the lens of my commitment to Jesus.”
I want to give you some practical ways to reflect on this. There’s some questions below and I suggest you use them as a journaling prompt and let them start you down a path that looks something like this:
- Start in prayer and submission — asking God what He would have you learn as you reflect.
- Then go to His word — what does the Bible have to say about this?
- Then get personal — explore your opinions, feelings and reflections.
Let’s dive in together. I believe there’s nothing less than the witness of the Church on the line.
- Am I more allied to a political party or ideology than I am to Jesus?
- In what areas is this a challenge for me?
- Do I need to repent of placing anything above Him?
2. Do I need to consider becoming politically independent for the sake of the Gospel?
- What would this cost me?
- How could this help me be more impactful in my leadership and witness?