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Our Heavenly Citizenship: "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil 3.20, JND note)

Andrew Borland, The late

Nothing can be clearer to the discerning reader of the Bible than this: whereas in the Old Testament God's dealings centre in and were concerned with the affairs of a nation located in Palestine, in the New Testament the revelation of His purpose is associated with a community which has its boundaries in eternity and its members in all lands. Israel was chosen from among the people to have a national existence apart and different, but maintained by providence for the benefit of others so long as she walked in obedience to the commandments of Jehovah. The church, on the other hand is the distinctive community of the present dispensation of grace, owning no territorial limitations and dependent upon no earthly blessings. Failure to understand this difference has led to numerous misconceptions. It has resulted in complications which could not have arisen if there had been from the beginning a strict adherence to the teachings of the New Testament. The church is not a continuation of Israel; it is an entirely new conception.

The quotation at the head of this article indicates certain distinctive features of this new community whose boundaries are unrestricted by locations and whose loyalties are other than earthly. Hers is a citizenship in heaven; her real and permanent interests are "other-worldy", notwithstanding the fact that her physical responsibilities commit her members to inevitable duties in the terrestrial sphere. Her ambitions are not realised in any human organisation; the city of her desires is elsewhere. Decay and impermanence mark men's structure; incorruptibility and security are qualities of the home towards which she travels. Amongst men those who have caught the vision are accounted by God as "strangers and pilgrims" (Heb 11.13; 1 Pet 2.11) and pass the time of their sojourning like Bunyan's wayfarers who were clothed with such kind of raiment as was distinct from the raiment of any that traded in that fair, Vanity Fair. The people, therefore, of the fair made a great gazing on them. And as they wondered at their apparel, so they did likewise at their speech, for few could understand what they said. They naturally spoke the language of Canaan, but they that kept the fair were men of this world, so that from one end of the fair to the other, they seemed barbarians each to the other.

The church then is heavenly in character, and not earthly. As a consequence of its very constitution New Testament writers consistently and consciously declare that it is non-national in its outlook. Every such barrier as nationality ceases to exist within its frontiers. A favourite designation of the Apostle Paul's is "one body" (1 Cor 12.20) while there is a volume of meaning in the early statement of Peter that it is God's intention to visit the nations to gather out from them a people for His name (Acts 15.14). In so doing it was necessary that every disintegrating factor should be nullified and that every prejudice should be eliminated.

The distinction maintained for so long in the Old Testament was completely abandoned, and the middle wall of partition separating the Jews from the nations was broken down. In Christ, in relation with him as Head of the new conception, believers became associated in a divine creation defined as "one new man" (Eph 2.15). In this new body there is not both Jew and Gentile, circumcision and uncircumcision, Barbarian and Scythian, bond and free (see Col 3.11). Distinctions that perpetrate antagonisms have been forbidden, be they national, ceremonial, intellectual or social. The one important matter is "Christ is all, and in all" (Col 3.11). To use other words of Paul regarding the new creation, now "know we no man after the flesh" (2 Cor 5.16) for the only person who counts in the estimation is the one who lives "in Christ" (2 Cor 5.17).

National and social prejudices are hard to renounce, and no human philosophy has ever proved revolutionary enough to provide mankind with a cure for the malady of patriotism which sets nation against nation and class against class. Therein lies the distinctive quality of the gospel message, for it enables men and woman everywhere (when they believe) to acknowledge a spiritual bond which unites them in one Body irrespective of those designations which are cherished. The gospel can accomplish that because its appeal is universal and because its message is based upon the recognition of a fundamental need of the human heart - fellowship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Because of that characteristic of the word of the gospel which calls men and women out into association with Christ apart from national considerations, the use of sectarian labels is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. The assumption of territorial names for sections of that spiritual community leads to animosities which Scripture flatly forbids. Developments in these directions are always away from the divine plan.

Moreover, the church is spiritual in nature and constitution. It is not an organisation whose unity is enforced by an external power such as a visible leader of by common adherence to an imposed code of laws. The Head of the Church is invisible, for He is in heaven, and since each member derives spiritual life from the glorified Saviour, the unity within her borders is that of an organism which lives and moves and has its being in God. Of that life it is asserted that it is "hid with Christ in God" (Col 3.3) and consequently "the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not" (1 Jn 3.1); that is the world in its unregenerate opposition to the will of God cannot and does not understand the nature of the claims made by members of the body of Christ to a loyalty that is different and to a life that is distinctive. This hidden life has its origin in, and is maintained by, the Holy Spirit whom the world cannot receive because it neither knows nor sees Him, and it is the function of the Holy Spirit to control the life of the believer and to foster unity amongst all the saints. That such unity is not always clearly seen is due to the lack of regard paid to the injunctions of the Scriptures and to the human introduction of ideas foreign to the nature of the Church. Because the Church is a spiritual community, its foes are spiritual and its weapons of warfare are not carnal. The contest it wages is against spirits of wickedness in heavenly places, the antagonists being energised by the prince of the power of the air. When the church lowers its spiritual vitality by engaging in pursuits contradictory to its constitution, its enemies prevail and defeat ensues. On the other hand, when the members of the Church are invigorated by accessions of spiritual strength through obedience to divine laws relating to its government, progress is markedly visible and opposing forces incompetent to stem the tide of advancement. History corroborates that statement.

Yet it must constantly be borne in mind that the members of the Church as human beings have inevitable commitments on the earth. Their lives are spent in a physical environment, and while they are in spirit "not of the world" (Jn 17.16), in body they are in the world. It is in this fact that clashes of ideals occur. During certain phases of world history attempts have been made to make the state subservient to the Church as a national organisation while at other times men have propounded political creeds which enforce the submission of the Church to the state, or which instigate persecution of the Church by the state because the spiritual ideals of the one are at variance with the temporal ambitions of the other. Such oppositions have arisen from the desires of men to organise this into a territorial unity who profess Christianity, forgetting that there is no warrant in Scripture for such a procedure. That mistake has led to many troubles.

The laws governing the members of the Body of Christ must be consistent with its spiritual character, and must be applicable universally, if the semblance to New Testament ideals is to be maintained. Nothing in Scripture suggests that Christians anywhere should be organised for state purposes. The exhortations given are mainly of a moral character or for the internal government of the church. Nor do the apostolic writings encourage Christians to participate in national or local politics of men, because these change with passing needs, whereas the policy of the Church is unchanging.



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