DISCIPLESHIP:
THE DISCIPLE OF CHRIST IN THE WORLD

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. (John 17:14-16)

These words are spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ, and they are profoundly disturbing. Jesus envisions an entirely different relationship for his disciples to the world in which they live than is commonly understood. He states that those who follow him are not a part of this world, just as he is not of this world. His vision is not the integration of his disciples into the world around them; rather he is acknowledging their separateness. Jesus’ statement is altogether more remarkable when one realizes that the world of his disciples was the Jewish world, a world tutored by some of the most ethical and moral laws known to man: the Law of Moses. Why should his disciples see themselves as separate from this world?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17. Compare also James 3:4.)

This later statement by John helps us towards an understanding of Jesus’ view. The natural inclinations and philosophies of living developed by the world of our birth are in conflict with God’s thoughts on these matters. This is fully understandable given that many have no knowledge or concern for God’s views. The reason Jesus does not envision his disciples being a part of the world is that the things the world loves and works for are not the same as what God wants us to love and work for. God tells us why he does not want believers to see themselves as part of the world in which they live. He says,

Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and wages for what does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me… Hear, and your soul shall live. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts… For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:2-9)

This is the basis, then, on which Jesus asks his disciples to desist from the ways of the world around him or her. It is a conscious, deliberate response to the call of God to receive in a humble heart what God reveals to be the right ways of living and thinking. Jesus does not ask his disciples to be hermits isolated from the world of their birth; he simply asks that they not be “of” it. He does not ask for his disciples to be taken “out of the world” but rather asks that they are protected from the ungodly thinking of their surroundings and taught to follow God’s ways of thinking instead.

These are difficult words for anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Christ: What exactly does this mean in our lives? How is it that we live within the world but not as part of it? Does this new way of living influence our relationship to the country or community in which we now live? Does it affect our political, social, or religious associations? It is to these questions we now turn and seek the guidance of scripture.

The Disciple’s Relationship to Political and Governmental Systems
Apart from the system of laws and governing structures specifically instituted by God through Moses for the Jewish people, all other systems have been derived from human philosophies. Sometimes these philosophies borrowed ideas from the Mosaic system, sometimes from Greek or Roman philosophy, but essentially the finally compilation was a product of man’s thoughts about governance and human life. It is because of this that a disciple of Christ finds himself conflicted by God’s directives and the directives from the state in which he lives. The principles by which the state is governed do not necessarily have their basis in the laws of God.

The successful functioning of any “State” or country depends on four things – some kind of governance structure, a system to administer and enforce the laws, provision for protection and defense and a system to support and maintain the State.

In a democracy, duties within each of these areas must be undertaken by the citizens; they are, in the ideal democratic function, extensions of the State.

Consider for a moment just what obligations are placed on citizens in a democratic institution:

  1. Governance of the State (governing & law-making structures to create order and purpose)
    • voting
    • political action/political involvement
    • public service/government work
  2. Enforcement of the Laws of the State (administration of justice, maintenance of order)
    • law enforcement work (e.g. police)
    • judicial work (e.g. magistrates, judges, lawyers)
    • jury service
  3. Protection & Defense of the State
    • military service
    • non-combatant service
  4. Support and Maintenance of the State
    • taxes

There can be no argument about the obligation of all citizens in a democracy to participate in the support and maintenance of their State. The question that confronts one wishing to follow Christ really comes to this: should a disciple consider himself obligated to the country in which he was born as a citizen? Or should he consider himself to be separate, a citizen of an altogether different State?

Critical Principles
In the Bible there appear to be two sets of principles laid down to guide the disciples of Jesus in working out their relationship to the world of their birth:

  1. Principles regarding one’s relationship to God and His Kingdom (or “State”)
  2. Principles underlying the life of Christ

Principles Concerning God and His Kingdom
There are many places where the Bible explains the way in which a man of God relates to his surrounding community. One of the most instructive is the example of Abraham. Abraham, one of the earliest men of faith in the Bible, is given to us as a prototype of true discipleship (Galatians 3:6-9). The writer to the Hebrews explains to us how Abraham related to the governments under which he lived:

(Abraham) sojourned in the land of promise as a foreigner, dwelling in tents...for he looked forward to the city having foundations of which God is the craftsman and maker. ...having seen (the promises) from afar and having been persuaded of them and embraced them, they confessed they were strangers and sojourners on the earth (or land). For those who say such things make manifest that they seek a homeland...they desire a better homeland, that is a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:9-14)

When God called Abraham to come away from the place of his birth, He led him to a land He promised to make Abraham’s own. Yet Abraham never received that Promised Land. All his life he lived as a “stranger and sojourner,” not as a citizen in the land. Having embraced God’s promise of a better country, one set up by God on His principles, Abraham understood that he could not lay claim to that future State and to the present world at the same time. He therefore never made himself a “citizen” of the countries in which he lived. He remained a stranger and alien despite living with these people his entire life.

Why should a disciple of Jesus be concerned with Abraham?

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. …And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. …So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (Galatians 3:26-29,9)

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the city which is coming. (Hebrews 13:14)

Those who become part of Christ are counted as the seed of Abraham, heirs with him of the promise made to him. Like Abraham, they await the setting up of the Divine city (i.e. the governmental system established by God) to be established on land promised by God. Then they will have their own homeland and State. But for now they too confess they have no country of their own; they are but strangers and sojourners in this present world till God fulfills what He has promised.

In another passage, the apostle Paul affirms this trait of the man of God. He tells the Ephesian believers:

You were at that time without Christ, alienated from the commonwealth (or citizenship) of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once afar off have been brought near by the blood of Christ... So then you are no more strangers or sojourners, but fellow-citizens of the saints and members of the family of God. (Ephesians 2:12,13,19)

One who is a stranger, foreigner or sojourner in relation to an organized government or state cannot at the same time be a citizen of that state. By natural birth Gentiles have no relationship to God (“without God”), His State (“estranged from citizenship”), or His Promises (“no hope”). The only rights and privileges of citizenship we can claim are those belonging to this present world and to whatever state into which we are born. And the same is true for those who have been “born into” Christ Jesus in baptism! We become fellow-citizens of God’s government, members of His family, and heirs of His promises (see Galatians 3:29), and now strangers and foreigners to the present world, its lands and its organized governments (as per Hebrews 11:13).

This principle explains the somewhat enigmatic words Jesus spoke to Pilate, the Roman governor that seemingly held the power of Jesus’ life in his hands:

Pilate...said to him, Are you the King of the Jews? ... Jesus answered, My kingship is not of this world, if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingship is not hence. (John 18:36)

Jesus answered him (Pilate), You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above. (John 19:10)

Christ’s kingship and kingdom are different and separate from the ruling systems of this present world. Christ’s disciples, described here as “servants/attendants of the king,” cannot therefore be extensions of two conflicting systems. We either serve the rulers of this world or our Lord Jesus Christ; we cannot be “attendants” in both kingdoms.

How do we live in the world if we are not “of” it?
Though a disciple belongs to Christ’s kingdom now, he or she must still live within this world’s systems. The Lord Jesus set the example of what our attitude (and therefore, actions) should be towards the present world’s systems: one of respect and submission to their power, knowing that to resist their authority, is to resist the One who has given them their power.

A disciple’s attitude towards the governments and ruling authorities of the country of their residence is completely defined by this principle of living as a stranger and sojourner. But rather than using this separation as an excuse for insubordination and rebellion, the Bible counsels believers to live peaceably with their neighbors:

Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, maintaining good (praiseworthy) conduct among the nations, so that, while they speak against you as evil-doers, they may, by your good (praiseworthy) works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as being supreme, or to governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do good. For it is God’s will that by doing good you put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free, yet without using your freedom as a cloak for evil; live as servants of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:11-17)

Let every person be subject to the superior authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist have been appointed by God. Therefore he who resists the authority has opposed the arrangement of God; and those who have opposed will receive condemnation on themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for (the authority) is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are servants9 of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7)

These passages provide a powerful introduction to the second principle that governs the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the world of their birth.

Principles Concerning the Life of Jesus

You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one wants to take you to law and to take your tunic, allow him the outer garment as well; and if any one impresses you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for the ones treating you abusively and persecuting you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust... You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)

“Do not resist evil,” Jesus taught his disciples: do not oppose evil by responding to personal insult with personal insult; by responding to legal vengeance with legal defense; by responding to State enforced servitude with civil disobedience; by responding to the one in need (even your enemy) with contempt and disdain. And, “love” even your “enemy”: Always seeking what is best for them; returning good for evil; being willing to risk a second insult in an attempt to heal the relationship; being willing to give more if taken to court; overcoming one’s natural anger by going beyond State-imposed hardships and giving even more than required; giving to those who cannot or will not give to you in return.

Such is the powerful challenge issued to all disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Does such teaching affect how our relationship to the governments and military systems in the states in which we live? The answer to this is found in the application of this teaching to Christian living found in the writings of Jesus’ Apostles. We are told,

Servants, submit yourselves in all fear to your masters, not only to the good and forbearing, but also to the perverse. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what glory is it if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:18-23. Consider also 1 Peter 3:13-22, Colossians 3:22-25, Ephesians 6:5-10)

Summary
The Bible makes very clear that human institutions are founded on principles and ways different, and often contrary, to God’s. The disciples of Christ, through baptism, become the “sons and daughters” of God. So their participation in worldly institutions, in their support and maintenance, will inevitably create a conflict. One’s loyalty to one will oppose loyalty to the other.

This is why God called Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” when he became a stranger and sojourner in his world. We are called to live our lives on the same principle. As Gentiles outside of Christ we have no relationship to God, His family, or His world. We are born citizens of this present world and age: our citizenship is here and now. But in Christ this whole relationship is changed. We now become citizens in God’s world; our citizenship belongs to God’s city, our allegiance to His government and laws. And our relationship to this present world becomes just like Abraham’s, strangers and sojourners.

Likewise, because the principles on which this present world is established are in conflict with the principles of God’s world, our behavior will differ markedly from our neighbors. Where anger, hatred and revenge prevail in the one system, compassion, love and good prevail in the other. Where human rights prevail in the world of our birth, human needs—that is, the needs of others—command attention and effort in the other.

Given these marked differences, how can one wanting to be a disciple of Jesus participate in the administration, enforcement or defense of the country or state in which they now live? And, given the status of being a stranger and sojourner in this present world, would not participation in the political systems by means of voting or political action raise the question as to which citizen you really claimed citizenship in?

God is calling us to a better citizenship, one in His Kingdom. He is calling us to participate in His government by submitting to the rules and laws He has established for living. But while we are waiting for the complete fulfillment of this Kingdom at the return of His son, God has told us we must live as strangers in this world. We are to submit to the authority of those He has allowed to rule in the present day by living peaceably as “sojourners” within their jurisdiction. But it is always to our heavenly citizenship that we lay claim. We should strive to be like Jesus, who even though he was a king, submitted to the rule of this world’s authorities for a time, allowing himself to be unjustly crucified even though he had to power to stop it from happening. He did not seek to impose his authority now, but rather suffered being taken advantage of in the present because he knew there was a different Kingdom to come. It is in this coming Kingdom that he will claim to his rights as a full citizen and be established king. And it is in this hope that we, like the faithful man Abraham, place our faith, allegiance and hope.


SOME RESPONSES YOU MAY HAVE TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE

What are these “works of love” that we are supposed to perform?
 

Is my relationship with God purely personal or is it important that I actively belong to a church?

So is the Kingdom of God experienced fully now, or is there some future aspect?

What is this suggestion that only through baptism we are disciples of Jesus Christ?

I agree entirely, where can I find a church group with whom I can worship this way?