Distinctive Christian Citizenship?

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

Is there such a thing as distinctive Christian citizenship? While I believe this question is best answered “Yes!”, there are different reasons we might say so. Depending on which word in the question is emphasized, it is possible to lose the very distinctiveness of our Christian citizenship to which we are called, on the one hand reducing our engagement to self-focused interest group politics or on the other, overemphasizing activities of citizens, rather than the office citizens bear. 

While this is a key question all Christians must answer, responding “Yes” is only the beginning of the discussion. What does distinctive Christian citizenship look like? What does it look like for me to live it out, to start right where I am in helping line up the political community where I live with God’s good purpose?

This question has its roots in an ongoing dialog about a thesis I developed some time ago. I’ve used the phrase “citizenship is our common calling” to help Christians understand the implications of our role as citizens in political communities that we share with other people who do not share our worldview. And I’ve been asked, “What do you mean by common?”

To explain this, I have drawn heavily on the meaning of “common” as “belonging to, or affecting the whole of a community or the public.” The principle is that God calls us all as Christians to orient our citizenship towards securing justice for the whole of the political community of which we are a part, not only for individuals, but also for the robust diversity of institutions that comprise the world. This directional orientation – for others, towards justice - is a key distinctive of Christian citizenship. Christian citizens are to help shape and develop political communities, focusing not on securing narrow interests, be they their own or others, but on shaping the political community to conform to the demands of justice.

Being citizens under God’s authority means that we can know what justice looks like.

Distinct too is God’s call on Christians to be citizens who do far more than merely fulfill our civic duties like paying taxes, participating in elections, abiding by laws, and enjoying the benefits of law-abiding behavior. All of these are important responsibilities under the rubric of what it means to be a citizen and we must fulfill them. But God’s distinctive call to Christians is to bear office as citizens who recognize that this office and its attendant responsibilities are under God’s authority. 

God’s authority over the office of citizens means we must reject political expediency. As David Koyzis puts it so beautifully, “We answer to another.” Being citizens under God’s authority means that we can know what justice looks like. We must seek justice for the political community as a whole, over lifetimes of faithfulness in the political realm.

We bear this office because God created humans with such capacity, and continues to sustain our ability to do so, in spite of the fall and in the midst of a world where we hold nonpolitical callings as well. As articulated in CPJ’s Guideline on Political Community, “We therefore have the responsibility to create the organized institutional means of upholding and enforcing justice for all, even as we develop and pursue a wide variety of other, nonpolitical callings for which we were also created.”

Is there such a thing as distinctive Christian citizenship?  We say yes.

-Stephanie Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice.  She is a co-author with Michael J. Gerson and Katie Thompson of Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice (Falls City Press, 2015). She is a frequent speaker and moderator and has written for publications including Comment and Q Ideas.