Gospel Citizens (overture)

Issues of citizenship seem to be in the news a lot in Australia. A number of prominent politicians have lost their place in parliament in the last few months when it was discovered that – in addition to being Australian – they were technically also citizens of “foreign” nations. Because our constitution doesn’t allow for divided loyalties, this is something forbidden for all federal parliamentarians. It’s been described as a “citizenship crisis.”

Whenever the government modifies requirements for the national citizenship test, which migrants are required to take if they wish to formally become Australians, there is public debate about whether the questions are too hard or too easy. And not long ago there was significant debate over whether Australians who fight with Australia’s enemies overseas should be stripped of their citizenship status (in the end, due to international law against making people ‘stateless,’ this only applies to dual citizens).

citizenship doc

I personally find issues around citizenship interesting, as they make us ask fundamental questions about belonging, loyalty and identity. Who am I? How do I describe myself? What bigger group or community am I a member of? Where do my allegiances lie?

As someone who is an Australian citizen by birth, a New Zealand citizen by descent, formerly a British subject (this status being subsequently abolished by the federal government) and the husband of a naturalised Australian and former Chinese citizen – I am well aware that for some people the answers to these questions are straight-forward, while for others they are more complex and interesting.

Have you ever wondered how Christians are supposed to think about citizenship?

There’s a fascinating little reference in Philippians that sets us up to consider the New Testament perspective on citizenship: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (1:27a, ESV). The Greek for “manner of life” is πολιτεύεσθε which more specifically means something like “be a citizen” or “live out your citizenship.” So the phrase effectively tells Christians to be citizens in a way that’s worthy of the gospel.

So what does it actually mean to be a “Gospel Citizen” – someone whose identity, allegiance and sense of belonging ultimately comes from the gospel?

Paul has more to say about this topic in Philippians, declaring in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Ephesians he emphasises the common identity in Christ between Jewish and Gentile disciples – describing them as fellow-citizens together in God’s Kingdom.

Other New Testament authors draw out other aspects of our Christian identity using citizenship language. The author of Hebrews sees our citizenship in the heavenly city as something that makes us sojourning pilgrims, foreigners and temporary residents on earth. We live in earthly cities, but wait for a city that is to come. One with eternal foundations, which cannot be shaken. In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter makes it clear that Christians have a special dignity and place of belonging in God’s Kingdom. But he also emphasises the sense of Christians being aliens or exiles in this world. Peter highlights an additional aspect – that of living well in earthly society and being subject to the governing authorities for the sake of Christ.

Paul revisits this theme in his famous discourse on civil behaviour in Romans 13. He urges Christians to perform their civic duties: paying taxes, honouring leaders and obeying the law. Finally, Luke also shows us an interesting episode (in Acts) where Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to temporarily get out of trouble – a tactical move he hoped would gain him further opportunities to spread the gospel.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to explore these different aspects in a series of posts titled “Gospel Citizens.” We’ll explore the tension between being a citizen of heaven and a stranger in the world; the importance of our common Christian identity across the boundaries of human identity; and how we’re actually supposed to interact with non-Christian society as people who belong to another world while residing in this one.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, including writing a Master’s project on the subject and delivering two preaching series that looked at the passages mentioned above. It’s something I think is of great value for Christians in Australia to be thinking about amidst all the chatter in our society about issues surrounding citizenship.

So if you don’t know what Paul means when he talks about our Heavenly Citizenship in Philippians 3:20, join us next time as we dig into this rich biblical metaphor together!


[1] Adapted from Michael Coghlan “Australian Citizenship” flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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