“Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly . . . . ‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly.”
‘Tis the season again—the season when “wars” break out over Christmas.
These wars are fought on several fronts. Private businesses and retail stores decide what greetings to use, and pro-Christmas forces counter attack with boycotts and lists of naughty and nice businesses. In public institutional settings, such as public schools and courthouse squares, officials select music pieces for programs and symbols for public displays, and pro-Christmas forces campaign in opposition, sending threatening letters, drafting legal memoranda, and filing lawsuits. In these engagements, the law and the courts can become instruments of force strategically employed in the combat.
Without a doubt, many within our society actively oppose Christianity and expressions of Christian faith in public settings. Some certainly seek to secularize the Christmas holiday season, remove Christian symbols from public places and institutions, and chill Christian witness. The mayor of the city of Houston, Texas, recently demonstrated with unmistakably clarity the eagerness of some public officials to use the coercive powers of government and law to intimidate and silence Christian speakers. Furthermore, the forces of secularism are especially busy during the Christmas holiday season, which is the second most important holiday season in the Christian calendar. In some cases, however, decisions and actions may be motivated by more benign factors, such as a heightened sensitivity to the religious pluralism found throughout American society.
The Christmas wars stir us to think about important legal, constitutional, and social issues raised by these battles over greetings at cash registers, Christmas carols in public schools, and religious symbols in public squares. But, before we resume our engagement in the Christmas wars, let us pause to reflect on a larger issue that remains a perpetual concern for Christians—how do we relate to the world around us? Our answer to this question will shed light on the aims we seek to achieve through our participation in the Christmas wars and the tactics we employ, and the greatest insights into our answer were provided by Jesus in words he spoke in the days just before his crucifixion.
“Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne and Thy Kingly Crown, When Thou Camest to Earth for Me.”
We can begin to answer this question by placing Christmas in a broader context. In the Western Christian calendar, Advent is the first season of the liturgical year, and the first Sunday of Advent (November 30th this year) is the first day of the liturgical new year. The Christmas season follows the Advent season, and it begins on December 25 (Christmas day) and lasts for 12 days into January. Christians have set aside Advent as a season of preparation and hope for the first and second comings of Christ and Christmas as a season of celebration of the incarnation of the Lord and the kingdom of God.
We see thus that the Advent and Christmas holiday seasons focus our attention on the coming of our Lord and the coming of the kingdom of God. In coming as a man and being born a defenseless child, the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7, NIV) He left his throne in heaven to live among us in a world in rebellion against him, but he did not come simply to be born and live among us. He came to make the kingdom of God present among us, to suffer and die at our hands, and to rise from the dead for our salvation. As Matthew wrote, he came “to serve” and “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, NIV) Consequently, the seasons of Advent and Christmas direct our attention to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday and to the seasons of Lent and Easter, which are set aside in the Christian calendar as seasons of repentance, preparation for Jesus’s death and resurrection, and celebration of salvation in Christ and his victory over sin and death.
During the days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus provided some clear teaching regarding the kingdom of God and the place of his followers in the world. When he appeared before Pilate, Jesus was asked whether he was the king of the Jews. He answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) In response to Pilate’s observation that Jesus was a king, he responded: “You say I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into this world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37, NIV)
One day earlier, in his high priestly prayer for his disciples, Jesus prayed:
I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 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. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
(John 17:13-19, NIV) In his statement regarding his kingdom and his prayer for his disciples, Jesus revealed a paradox: his followers remain in the world, but they are not of the world. They do not belong to the world, and they are not citizens of this world. Rather, their citizenship is in the heavenly kingdom. The Apostle Peter amplified this point when he wrote of Christians as “exiles” and “foreigners” in the world. (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11, NIV) The writer of Hebrews also observed that the people of faith honored in Hebrews 11 understood that they were “foreigners and strangers on earth” and that they “long[ed] for a better country—a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13, 16, NIV) For them, God “has prepared a city.” (Hebrews 11:16, NIV)
Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom immediately before his death built upon his earlier instruction regarding the heavenly kingdom. He taught that, with his coming, the kingdom of God broke into history, becoming present in the here and now. (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) He taught that this kingdom will, as the gospel is preached, grow throughout the world until completion. (Matthew 13:31-33, 24:14) Jesus thus revealed that the kingdom of God is already here and that it is still to come. (Luke 16:16, 17:21, 22:16, 18, 29-30)
Jesus’s teaching regarding the two kingdoms that are present in this age gives us critical insight into how we answer the question of our relationship to the world. Jesus drew a sharp distinction between the earthly or worldly kingdom, which includes civil rulers and social institutions, and the heavenly or spiritual kingdom, which includes the redeemed who in faith receive God’s grace and submit to his rule. Although those who follow him may live in the world, their citizenship is in his spiritual kingdom, and thus they are not truly at home in the world.
“Truly He Taught Us to Love One Another; His Law Is Love and His Gospel Is Peace.”
Our recognition of this fundamental distinction gives us insight into our work and our engagement with others in the world. Over two centuries ago, during the American revolutionary period, the prominent Baptist minister Isaac Backus discussed the two kingdoms and some broader implications. In his Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773), he wrote:
[Our Lord] declares, that the cause of his coming into the world, was to bear witness unto the truth; and says he, Every one that is of the Truth heareth my voice. This is the nature of his kingdom, which he says, is not of this world: and gives that as the reason why his servants should not fight, or defend him with the sword. John. 18.36,37. And it appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings.
Reprinted in Daniel L Dreisbach & Mark David Hall, eds., The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding 209 (2009).
The weapons used to advance the kingdom of this world—aggression and violence, striving for, seizing, and exercising power, and obtaining and extending dominance—do not advance the heavenly kingdom. Rather, Christ’s kingdom is built and extended through the preaching of the good news of God’s love that was revealed in Christ. The “weapons” used to advance Christ’s redemptive kingdom are prayer, truth, and righteousness, faith and salvation, the gospel of peace and the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-18) Through the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives, Christians are equipped with such qualities as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) The contrast between the weapons used by citizens of the world and those used by citizens of the heavenly kingdom should be stark—so stark in fact that Jesus’s disciples are identifiable in the world by their love. (John 13:35)
Christians do, nevertheless, live their lives in this fallen world, and they engage in social and cultural activities. They work to order relationships and societies justly and to promote peace among all people. The lives Christians live and their good deeds in the world are meaningful and important. As the salt of the earth, they have a flavoring and preserving influence. (Matthew 5:13) As the light of the world, they illuminate those around them, and their good deeds point to God. (Matthew 5:14-16) In their cultural and social activities, they collaborate with other bearers of God’s image in creating and ordering, and these activities reflect the truth, goodness, and beauty that are deeply imprinted on their being by their creator.
But, their lives and their good deeds in this fallen world are not, in themselves, redemptive, kingdom-establishing, or kingdom-building. Rather, in such efforts, Christians faithfully serve according to their callings and participate in God’s providential governance of his creation, doing all for the Lord and his glory. (Colossians 3:17, 23-24) Although such efforts in the world may not come within the realm of God’s redemptive rule, God may use some of their good deeds for redemptive purposes in building his kingdom.
It is thus important that we not conflate the two kingdoms or confuse the nature of our work in the world. We need to refine our understanding of our lives and our work in the world based upon the two distinct realms of God’s rule—his spiritual, redemptive rule of his people and his providential rule of the temporal world he created.
“Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ Proclaim, Till All the World Adore His Sacred Name.”
Yes, ‘tis the season again. But, before we reengage in the Christmas wars and become engrossed in the range of important legal, constitutional, and social issues that come with them, let us pause and reflect more broadly on our participation in these wars.
We can keep the Christmas wars in perspective by viewing Christmas in the light of Easter and recalling Jesus’s teachings regarding his kingdom and the place of his followers in the world. Jesus, the Incarnate Lord, came to suffer and die in this world and to rise for our salvation. He was clear that his kingdom is not of this world. Additionally, he taught that we, his followers, are not of this world. We need to remember that this world is not our home; rather, we are citizens of his redemptive kingdom. We have been left in the world to be his witnesses, telling the good news of God’s loving and redemptive work in Christ, and it is through the preaching of this gospel that Christ builds his kingdom.
Another key to having a proper perspective is to acknowledge that the two kingdoms use fundamentally different weapons and are advanced by different means and to understand that many of our efforts in the world are not within the realm of redemption, but rather within the realm of God’s providential rule of his creation. It is also important to remember that this world is hostile to God’s rule, that this world is temporary, and that life here is quickly passing. Consequently, civil government and social institutions have temporal ends, and our work in this world and our efforts to promote justice and peace through social institutions (while important) are provisional.