America totters on the edge of collapse. Or so it seems, anyway. The nation which was self proclaimed a “light on a hill” now seems to give no more light than a glow-in-the-dark sticker. The manifest destiny which once was defined by greatness, now leans toward destruction. In this dark hour in American history, Christians are faced with an uncomfortable reality: we have lost an important part of our faith. The faith, in the American experience, has been narrowed our faith down to an individualistic, personal religion. And in the focus on the individual, we have lost what it means to be God’s own nation.
I’m not here to prophesy doom for America. It may well be that there will be several hundred more years for America. Instead, I intend to explore what it will take for us Christian’s to reclaim our identity as the Nation of God. To do this, I will cover in three posts a short history of how we got where we are (part 1), some Bible passages that indicate our Nationality (part 2), and some pointed applications for Evangelical politics (part 3).
How We Lost Our Identity
I’m not exactly sure how the church moved from a national focus to an individual focus. But I have several thoughts as to how this happened. To me, much of it starts with Neo-Platonism. This philosophy wrapped its cold fingers around the early church. The foremost way in which it gripped the church was the development of the Medieval idea of Heaven and Hell. Heaven became identified as the eternal state. Believers will “live” there, according to this philosophy, as disembodied spirits, floating around and contemplating God forever. What this idea meant for daily life was that believers were to escape this present world. This shifted the focus of Christianity from a literal earthly nation of Christ to a spiritual kingdom that had little connection to material objects.
The Protestant Reformation also had something to do with the shift to an individual focus. The emphasis on justification as a forensic declaration of righteousness shifted salvation from a National ideal to an individual reality. I am not saying that this focus on individual justification is wrong. But it quickly overshadowed the idea that God called a nation and that he has chosen a people. It took salvation from an “us” to an “I” and thereby we lost another piece in our national identity. In this case, it is not as if the nationhood of the church was jettisoned like moldy fruit. So much attention was placed on the individual, that the Nationhood simply was neglected and all but forgotten.
This is not to say I believe in group conversions apart from individual confessions. Paul clearly states that “if you (singular) confess with your (singular) mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you (singular)will be saved” (Rm 10:9). This clearly points to the individual. But it must be kept in balance with Peter’s statement, “But you (plural) are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you (plural) may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you (plural) out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you (plural) once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you (plural) are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you (plural) had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you (plural) have RECEIVED MERCY” (1 Pt 2:9-10).
Another key to the shift away from the identity of the church as a nation came with the rise of Pietism. We would all like to think our practices of personal piety go back to the founding of the church. The truth is, many of our notions of personal piety came from the 17th century. What Pietism encouraged individuals to pursue God for themselves. This took the forms of spending extra time studying the Bible with committed believers, personal prayer, fasting, and personal Bible reading. It again was a shift from a communal focus to an individual focus. This Piestic emphasis started with the Lutherans, but found its way to the Puritans and then through the Methodists to the holiness churches and Evangelical churches in America.
Yet again, there was another shift away from the idea of the church as a nation: the founding of America. The founding fathers embraced the enlightenment and incorporated two key ideals into the founding of the USA: individual liberties and separation of church and state. The first of individual rights became the backbone of Evangelical politics. For many Evangelicals, individual rights transcend the needs of the group or society as a whole. The second, about separation of church and state, meant that churches were no longer considered a legitimate influence over the state. This has led to the erection of a wall that blocks churches from considering themselves a national entity.
Finally, there is the rise of classic Dispensational theology and classic Covenant theology. Covenant theology, in my understanding, emphasizes that the church is a spiritual kingdom which replaced Israel. In this view, there was no physical fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Instead, they are all spiritually fulfilled in Christ. While the idea of kingdom or nationhood is here, it does not have much bearing on physical reality. This is what I understand, anyway. Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.
Dispensational theology, with which I am much more familiar, separated between Israel and the church. This separation was so much that the church becomes a parenthetical in an otherwise unbroken history of God’s dealing with Israel. The church only inherits the spiritual blessings of Israel, but in no way partakes of the physical blessings or nationality of Israel. Whatever the church is, it is merely accidental to God’s greater plan. This again takes away the national identity of the church. There isn’t a Christian identity in Dispensationalism other than a simple, personal, pietistic religion that we spread through the earth.
Results of Individualism
While none of these things are necessarily wrong in and of themselves, they have shifted the attention of the church away from the national aspect of our identity to the individual. In fact, you are hard pressed to find any preachers who will talk about the church in national terms. The result of this focus is that we have lost our national identity as Christians.
But as human beings, we cannot help but live as a part of a nation. So, while we have forgotten our Christian national identity, we have substituted secular nationalism in its stead. In America, we Evangelicals have substituted enlightenment thinking on politics for Christian nationalism, that is, small government, individualism, and capitalism. In many aspects, these items fit within the Biblical scheme. But in many other aspects, they are against principles in Scripture. Take racism, for example. A generation ago, segregation and racism were part and parcel of the conservative agenda. Now, we realize that those things are utterly sinful. But racism is not the only issue we have in conservatism.
It is time for us to realize that we have drunk too much at the Locke’s tavern. And now we sit, inebriated from the Lager of Freedom, as those who have paid for our drinks tear down the tavern around us. We must replace our enlightenment nationality with a Christian nationality. We must stop arguing for conservative politics, and start arguing for Biblical ethics. We must stop thinking in terms of the individual and start thinking in terms of the national. We need to understand how God wants us to function as a Christian nation, and then we can interact with secular nations such as America.
How do we start this project? How do we start thinking as a nation again? It’s a complicated and hard to answer question. The previous paragraph was easy enough to write, but harder to apply. I plan to work through a couple of the key issues in the next post. There are a few others who talk about this idea too. The best discussion of this concept is found in the New Perspective on Paul (which is no longer new). This theology needs to be hammered out some more, but it is definitely going in the right direction.