Recently, I became acquainted with the striking story of a 22 year old Singaporean while visiting a friend in San Francisco. At the age of 3, he relocated with his Singaporean parents to the United States. Being immersed in American life and culture, he grew up like any American would.
Life would have continued along the American path, if not for the letter he received from the Ministry of Defence fifteen years later, summoning him to enlist for national service.
What seemed striking to me was his subsequent response to the enlistment letter. Instead of perceiving national service as an inconvenient disruption to pursuits in “the land of opportunity” as some call America, he embraced it as an opportunity to deepen his roots. Taking his citizenship seriously, he discharged his responsibilities in the military with distinction and became an air warfare officer.
Cynics may interpret the above story as an expression of youthful idealism that so happens to be in line with national interest. Having personally met the young man and lived abroad for some years myself, I do not doubt his motivation for national service. There is something about citizenship that resonates deeply with our human desire for a sense of belonging and identity.
Recognising the theological and didactic potential of the citizenship imagery, writers of the New Testament employed it freely to convey their message to early believers living in the Graeco-Roman world.
The status of these believers as citizens or resident aliens were earthly realities that helped to elucidate teachings concerning Christian identity, its standard of behaviour and future hope. These teachings often juxtaposed the realities surrounding the earthly, political status of Christians with that of their heavenly citizenship. Indeed, priority is consistently accorded to the latter.
One of the clearest instances in which the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is given priority is found in Paul’s declaration to the believers in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20). Paul’s declaration has a twofold implication for his recipients. Firstly, they are not to pursue “earthly things” as the “enemies of the cross of Christ” do (Phil 3:18, 19), but live lives which are in keeping with their heavenly citizenship. Secondly, they are to place their hope in no one else but “the Lord Jesus Christ” who has the power to “subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).
When situated within the political climate of Paul’s day, his declaration above is both radical and risky. The imperial cult worshipped the Roman emperor as saviour and Lord. Thus, calling Christians to confess Jesus of Nazareth not simply as “Christ” but also as “Saviour” and “Lord” is to pit the authority of Jesus with that of Caesar’s.
For Paul, the issue at stake in the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is allegiance to Jesus Christ. Working out what this allegiance means while living under Roman rule was a crucial aspect of early Christian discipleship.
Carrying out such a task responsibly would require us to take seriously the tension between Christ’s insistence that his kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), and the equally clear assertion that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” (Rev 20:15).
Holding on to this tension is important so that we do not fall into one of two errors: (1) failure to acknowledge the authority of Christ over the world, including civil institutions like governments; (2) failure to distinguish the authority of civil institutions from the authority of Christ over his church.
The first error leads to disengagement with society or nonchalance about our civil responsibilities. The second legitimises a politicised view of Christianity that treats our civil and political life as spheres in which the church has authority to govern.
As we celebrate 52 years of Singapore’s independence this year, it is appropriate to consider afresh what it means to live as citizens of heaven on earth. This task is especially critical in a time where the social fabric of our multi-racial and multi-religious society is being tested by the threat of religious extremism.
Often, there is no simple answer to the way our allegiance to Christ should look like in the specific details of our earthly citizenship. However, the Biblical portrait of such a citizen is clear.
According to the anonymous, second century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, “Christians…inhabit the lands of their birth, but as temporary residents thereof; they take their share of responsibilities as citizens, and endure all disabilities as aliens. Every foreign land is native to them, and every native land, foreign territory…They pass their days upon earth, but they hold citizenship in heaven.” 1
Like the saints of old, we long for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16) and point others to its glory by the way we live.
Rev Dr Edwin Tay is the Vice-Principal of Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Singapore. He holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (BA), the University of London (MA), and the University of Edinburgh (PhD).