My adult life began in the midst of a crisis that brought about a time of solidarity and harmony among the American people and politicians alike. I was a college freshman leaving my Tuesday morning class on the four Gospels when I was told to find a television, and quickly. In the lounge of our dorm, we watched the events of September 11, 2001, unfold before our eyes. We were in shock, our young eyes too fresh, to anticipate the patriotic unity that was about to unfold all over the country.
Long gone are the days of American flags hanging from every house, as well as bipartisan renditions of “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol. Now, the national debate revolves around just how tightly we should cling to our American heritage and history, and the extent to which we should seek to separate ourselves from them. We, as believers of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be setting the example of how to view our national identity and how much stock we should place in it.
To what extent are we, as the Church, supposed to be patriotic? In light of the Word of God, what should our attitude and posture be towards patriotism?
Patriotism can manifest itself differently depending upon a person’s view of the role of society. It is defined as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Regardless of how we feel that should look on a spectrum, with steadfast obedience on one end and civil disobedience on the other, the definition holds. So how are we as disciples of Jesus supposed to love our country, and be devoted to it? Could our Brethren ancestors help inform and shape the way we view our relationship to our country?
The Early Brethren
While we will share some thoughts from the Word of God in a moment, first consider the view of the Brethren Church in early American society. After forming in Germany in 1708, the early Brethren quickly moved to the American colonies in 1719 to escape religious persecution. They flourished in southeastern Pennsylvania with unbridled freedom to pursue what they felt were lives in line with the commands of the Word of God.
It was only when the American Revolution broke out decades later that the lives of the Brethren were disrupted and they were forced to pick a side. Would they be devoted to England or would they pledge their allegiance to the Colonies attempting to start their nation? Homer Kent, Sr. writes:
“The Revolutionary War brought great trial to the Brethren people. One of their beliefs was that it is wrong for the Christian to engage in carnal conflict. The colonial government had passed a law which was aimed directly at these people and the Quakers, who also opposed war. This law required every citizen of the colony to subscribe to an oath renouncing allegiance to the British government and pledging allegiance to the colony of Pennsylvania.”
Some Brethren chose to take the oath and pledge themselves to Pennsylvania. By 1779, the Brethren Annual Meeting condemned such an action:
“On account of taking the attest, it has been concluded in union as follows: Inasmuch as it is the Lord our God who establishes kings and removes kings, and ordains rulers according to his own good pleasure, and we cannot know whether God has rejected the king and chosen the state, while the king had the government; therefore we could not, with a good conscience, repudiate the king and give allegiance to the state.”
Amid their disdain for war, and because many of them had already signed an oath to England years before in order to enter Pennsylvania, the early Brethren weren’t eager to devote themselves to any additional human institutions. They sought a land where they were free to exercise their beliefs apart from becoming wrapped up in the secular affairs of nations. It seems as though their primary interest was adherence, love, and devotion to the Word, not any one particular country, as the definition of patriotism demands.
Hold to a Biblical Standard
Regardless of how our Brethren ancestors lived and responded to the world around them, we’re held to the standard of the Word of God. Where should our allegiance lie, and what implication does that have for our view of our country? Are there any passages in the Bible that speak to this issue of patriotism, and to what extent are we, as believers, to love and be devoted to our country? Several come to mind that help us shape a theology of patriotism.
First, our primary devotion is to Jesus; our allegiance is to His Kingdom. Paul writes in Philippians 3:20: “For our citizenship is in heaven” (NKJV). This truth would have been all the more poignant to the church at Philippi, given the city’s status as a Roman colony in Greek territory (Acts 16:12). The Philippians took great pride in their Roman citizenship; it afforded them a level of protection, rights, and comfort, probably not unlike American citizenship today.
Paul highlights even greater citizenship for the Philippian believers: heaven. The benefits of Roman citizenship couldn’t compare to the benefits of their heavenly citizenship. Neither do ours as American citizens. Therefore, our devotion and allegiance to our secular country should never exceed that to our heavenly home. Would that the Holy Spirit grant us the grace to be as passionate about the Kingdom of God as we are prone to be about the state and future of America!
Second, we can consider the case study of the Israelite exile to Babylon. Keeping true to His promises, God ultimately sent the nations of Israel and Judah into exile due to their disobedience to the Mosaic Law. The prophet Jeremiah ministered to the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of their deportations to Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. In Jeremiah 29, they’re told that they will be in Babylon for seventy years and, during their time in exile, God instructs them to do the following:
“Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (vv. 5-7, NKJV).
I believe these instructions to the exiles can serve as guiding principles for how we’re to relate to our worldly homes. They provide for us a proper perspective on how we’re to live as citizens of heaven in our temporary home in a foreign land. While we won’t be on this earth forever, we will be here long enough that we should build and dwell and plant and eat.
The Israelites weren’t to despise Babylon and wish for its destruction, either. God commands them to seek its peace, because in Babylon, as a whole, it meant peace for them while they lived there. Another example of performing this duty in a God-honoring way is found in the prophet Daniel. He not only lived in Babylon during the exile, but he became a high-ranking official in its government, all while being used by God for His purposes and His glory. Certainly, Daniel sought what was best for Babylon, but we’re never given any indication that it was ever given a higher priority than the Kingdom of God itself.
In light of the Word of God and, secondarily, our Brethren roots, what should be our view of patriotism? Should we love, or be devoted to, our country? I think we can certainly appreciate the freedoms we have in America without making an idol out of her or approving of all her shortcomings.
If we were to evaluate our own lives honestly, we’d be able to gauge what’s important. Consider how proud we’re to be of a particular nationality, or the time we spend dissecting and discussing the national news, compared with how pleased we’re to be children of God, and the amount of time we spend talking about the Word and fulfilling its mission.
Let us not lose sight of these things as we move forward, no matter the political climate, the evening news stories, or where we’re at in a given election cycle. May we stand apart from the secular world in prioritizing the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May our love and devotion to God, our patriotism for the Kingdom of God, have a place of prominence above all else. – by Davey Ermold
Davey Ermold, Th.M., is pastor of Blue Ridge Grace Brethren Church, Winchester, Va.
 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patriotism, accessed 5/2/2019.
 Homer A. Kent, Sr., 250 Years… Conquering Frontiers (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1958) 58.
 As noted in Todd Scoles, Restoring the Household (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 2008) 140-141.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of GraceConnect magazine. Click here for more information.