The most dangerous lies are the ones that are most believable, and to be believable they should be mostly true. Casual fact checking will give them a pass, and once past the gates of our mental defenses they are free to unpack their deadly payload. Then they will affect our thinking, and ultimately compromise our behavior. Consider today’s title: Ultimate Allegiance of Christians—A Most Unique Error.
It contains two significant errors. If you paid attention in middle school English class you should have caught at least one. Unique means one of a kind—you cannot legitimately attach a comparative to it. If something is truly unique, one of a kind, it cannot be more, less, or most unique. It is either one of a kind or it is not.
The second error is far more insidious, and scarcely a day goes by that I do not see this subtle but potent error wreaking its havoc on the church. An excellent example is found in both the title and contents of a book I just finished reading: Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer, by Robert D. Cornwall. This post is not intended as a review of the book. You can read that on my goodreads page. I will however say that if you keep in mind the caveats that follow, it is well worth reading.
But Wait—Isn’t God supposed to have the ultimate Allegiance of Christians?
So what is the problem with the phrase “ultimate allegiance of Christians?” It is that it evidences a profound lack of understanding of what allegiance is. Allegiance, in the way it is commonly used can no more be ultimate than unique can be “most.” Consider the primary definition given by most dictionaries and exemplified here by dictionary.com. It is, “loyalty of a citizen to his or her government, or of a subject to his or her sovereign.” It is immediately apparent that this type of allegiance cannot be divided. A sovereign is one’s highest authority. You can have many authorities, but only one can be highest.
That Robert Cornwall is referring to this sense of allegiance is apparent throughout the book in his consistent use of “ultimate allegiance” in relation to a Christian’s stance towards the State. He uses it in relation to issues where Christianity and government might find themselves in opposition. Consider this statement from the afterword of his book;
“As I consider the nature of this prayer and its call to give allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ, I can’t help but think of other statements of allegiance that I’ve made in life. I may not live in the midst of the Roman Empire, an empire that demanded the worship and veneration of the Emperor, but I do live in a country that requires my allegiance.”
While there is a second definition of allegiance (loyalty or devotion to some person, group, cause, or the like), this is clearly not the intention in this context. The issue at hand in this discussion is, who is sovereign—who is the highest authority in my life? To use the word ultimate as a modifier to allegiance in this context introduces a serious error when we consider Christian allegiance.
It suddenly demotes the word from the primary definition to the second sense. It holds out the possibility that a Christian can have allegiance to more than one entity. It makes Christianity a mere club—one of many entities with demands on my multiple loyalties. Unfortunately, neither the words of our King Jesus, nor of temporal governments allow for such a demotion.
No Man Can Serve Two Masters
Many Christians are aware of our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:24, “no man can serve two masters…” Unfortunately, few seem aware of how our modern Caesars view the topic. Consider the basis of U.S. citizenship—the U.S. Oath of Allegiance:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;…”
The issue here is clearly not akin to whether your “allegiance” to your family or your job should take precedence. Allegiance here is about sovereignty—there can be no ultimate or subordinate when used in this sense. To think otherwise is to deceive ourselves. (Other nations have their own equivalent oath.)
To accept that our ultimate allegiance is to our king and His kingdom, deceives us into accepting that we can also give a lesser allegiance to the Caesars of this world. If we do not mean to recognize a worldly government as our sovereign we must be careful to recognize what they mean by the word and not to give them the allegiance they covet.
Black’ Law Dictionary states:
The citizen or subject owes an absolute and permanent allegiance to his government or sovereign, or at least until, by some open and distinct act, he renounces it and becomes a citizen or subject of another government or another sovereign. The alien, while domiciled in the country, owes a local and temporary allegiance, which continues during the period of his residence. Carlisle v. U. S
It should be noted that for the primitive church of the first three centuries, baptism was considered just such an “open and distinct act” of renouncement. They equated it not only with their identification with their king in His justifying death burial and resurrection, but with Israel’s release from the sovereignty of pharaoh (1 Cor. 10:2). It was also because of the fact that at infant baptism, people were conferred their citizenship that re-baptism was considered a treasonous act by both Protestants and Catholics.
I have spoken about the U.S. Oath of Allegiance in other posts, and have been accused of not understanding it. I am told it only speaks to our “physical” allegiance and that our allegiance to Jesus is “spiritual.” That sounds like sophistry to me. Almost everyone who disagrees with me says “of course when push comes to shove we will obey Jesus, but I will give the government my allegiance until then.
The U.S. Oath concludes with the words “I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” Dare you lie under such circumstances, or will you stand boldly with your Lord and king, refusing the privileges Caesar offers to those who accept his offer to be their father? (Patriot—from pater “father.”)
One of those privileges of course, is the ability to participate it the political process. I suspect that this is the primary reason Christians have been so susceptible to this deception. To consider Jesus and His kingdom as the object of our ultimate allegiance allows us to maintain the myth that worldly governments can posses our lesser allegiance. Clearly Cornwall has yielded to this temptation when he says regarding the current debt crisis, “We might even ask whether this prayer is calling us to push our government to enact legislation that would free our neighbors—whether individuals or even nations—from unwieldy burdens?”
Had our examples in the primitive church been able in good concession to distinguish between ultimate and subordinate allegiance, the way so many of us seem to, they would have avoided much suffering. A fact acknowledged by Cornwall when he says:
“This proved to be a problem for Christians, because they had only one Lord, and that was Christ… Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, and Perpetua stand as examples of those who understood the nature of their allegiance, and gave their lives for their faith.”
May we receive our king’s grace to also understand the nature of our allegiance to Him. May we stand, and possibly fall in this life, like our early Christian brothers and sisters. Knowing that like our father Abraham we too dwell as aliens in the land, and with him are… “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Heb. 11:10)
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