Strangers, Exiles, and Civil Religion

Since most of us have grown up with the Thanksgiving Holiday it is easy for us to assume that this is the way things are and should be but it has not always been so nor is it necessarily so. The American Thanksgiving holiday is the result of a series of presidential proclamations. It became a federal holiday in mid-20th century. The apostolic churches in the first century, however, experienced no such national or official affirmation of their faith. The Apostle Peter called the Christians of Asia Minor “strangers and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). Indeed they were. They had much for which to be thankful. Peter reminded them that they had been redeemed (1 Pet 1:18-19) by the blood of God the Son incarnate.

The modern American national civil religion, which many seek to defend and which many assume as a given, is largely the result of Cold War reactions to Soviet communism and rising and justifiable fears of aggressive secularism at home and abroad. It would be a grave error, however, to mistake that bland mid-20th century, civil piety for Christianity.

The Apostolic church did not face this temptation. The civil religion of their day was not a weak, watered-down version of Christianity. It was obviously pagan. Whether it was acknowledging the deity of Caesar or putting a pinch of incense of a fire or giving pro forma honor to the Roman gods (essentially the same as the Greek pantheon) there was no confusing it with the trinitarian faith of the Christians who worshipped, in the power of the Spirit, a crucified Messiah, whom they confessed to be God the Son incarnate raised on the third day and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Even though they hadn’t moved an inch geographically, the Christians of Asia Minor became strangers and exiles the moment they trusted Christ and repented of their unbelief and idolatry. Their alien status was ratified when the minister baptized them in the triune name of God and it was sealed by the low-level persecution they suffered at the hands of family, former friends, and employers.

In a few decades, however, that unofficial, low-level persecution would become more official. A dull bureaucrat, Pliny the Younger, would gain literary immortality for describing in a single letter to the emperor how he had arrested Christian servant girls and had tortured them to gain information about this “dangerous” new sect.  Why were the Christians deemed “dangerous” in the early 2nd century? Because they refused to give formal religious honors to Caesar and to the gods. They refused to go along with the national civil religion. They refused to confuse “cult” (religion) with “culture (civil, common life).

Mind you, no one expected them to believe the cultural religion. They only had to conform but some of the Christians of Asia Minor refused and it cost them dearly. They only had to deny that they were Christians. Those without Roman citizenship who refused to submit were murdered on the spot. Those citizens who refused were sent to Rome for trial. Christianity was regarded as sedition and treason; aliens and exiles indeed. How easy it would have been to say the words, “I renounce Christ” or to say the words, “Caesar is lord” or to put a pinch of incense on the altar. Some Christians did. The rationale is easy to imagine: “We all know that Caesar isn’t a god. It’s just a formality. It’s harmless. It’s just words. I love Jesus in my heart.”  Some of the Christians, however, understood that Christ is Lord of our hearts and our mouths and that, though it’s true that Caesar is no god, nevertheless we cannot say that he is. Many early Christians understood that civil religion is idolatry and that it’s not an option.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat and enjoy your meal today nor am I saying that you should not give thanks. You should. I am encouraging, however, to be very careful to distinguish your transient civil citizenship from the permanent citizenship you have in heaven. Be careful not to confuse the Christian faith with “Christian America.” The Apostle Paul did not advocate for a “Christian Empire.” He advocated for the Kingdom of God (Rom 4:17) that is a heavenly (eschatological) kingdom (1 Cor 15:50) that has broken into history, in Christ, in the gospel, and that is manifested every sabbath in the Word, sacraments, and discipline.

In light of those transcendent realities he reminded another congregation is Asia Minor that they had once been “strangers and aliens” (Eph 2:11-19), not to the powers of this age, but to the covenant of Yahweh. Now, however, as he wrote to the Philippians (3:20), we are citizens of the city of God and sons of God and members of the covenant of grace and those relationships far transcend all civil religion, even that civil religion which today may seem friendly and harmless.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Do you see any similarities between the Romans expecting certain things that confused “cult” with “culture” from Christians to demonstrate allegiance to Rome, and the politically conservative of today’s America. I’ve heard some conservatives criticize people for considering themselves members of their respective religions first and Americans second; I understand why that might make some uneasy, particularly in light of Islamic terrorism, but I can’t say that I am an an American first.

    And I hope you have a nice Thanksgiving.

    • Alberto,

      Getting right the relationship between “cult” (religious allegiance; worship) and “culture” (common, civil life) is always a challenge. It’s an intense challenge in small-town America where to exercise church discipline is also taken as a statement to and about the community. To excommunicate the local hardware shop owner is a big deal. It might mean having to drive 50 miles to the nearest hardware store. Refusing the play on the community softball team on the sabbath might be taken as disloyalty to the town. Refusing to “go along to get along” may breed suspicion of “elitism.” The same problem existed in the early 2nd century when Christians were accused of being “uncivil” and “inhuman’ for refusing to support the butcher by buying meat for sacrifice to idols.

  2. Over on the civilized side of the Pond, I am reading Bartholomew and Goheen’s ‘Living at the Crossroads’. It is Kuyperian in perspective. A book that you may wish to review some time.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for your piece on Thanksgiving and American civil religion. I did some reading on Pliny the Younger, specifically his letter to Trajan on how to handle Christians under his authority.

    I found interesting parallels to the Apostle Peter’s behavior when denying Christ, and also similarities between Pontius Pilate’s treatment of Jesus and Pliny’s finding of no real grounds to execute those who participated in this “extravagant superstition”.

    America today certainly isn’t Rome in the second or third century.

  4. Scott:

    I understand your point, distinction and calls to Churchly duties–Word, Sacrament, Prayer and Koinonia. I share it.

    Yet, in the OT, God judges nations outside the visible covenant community–frighteningly so.

    The Church needs to preach the Law and Gospel to outsiders including politicians, but not for political power, legislative agendas and certainly not for theocratic aims.

    I think I get your sense of it.


  5. On the other hand, although the official Thanksgiving Day is the child of political proclamations, it does have roots in the meal the Pilgrims shared with the Indians in which they openly (as a witness to those Indians) gave thanks to God for having survived their first winter in the New World. About 50% of the original band did not survive, yet those who lived used this meal to praise and thank God for their survival. As an extension of this, Christians today (along with the unbelievers – however they understand the holiday) give thanks to God for His provision in their lives.

    Yes, Thanksgiving Day is the closest thing we have to a nation-oriented holiday in the United States, a day that is almost uniquely identified with this country (Canada also celebrates it). However, as stated above, it does have roots in the explicit celebration of our Puritan and Pilgrim national ancestors.

    Unbelievers may consider Thanksgiving to be part of a civil relgion, but I don’t think, based on this history, that Christians are obligated to do so.

  6. Two further comments and a question
    1. GGillespie pretty much gives the classic reformed argument against an annual automatic day of thanksgiving in his Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies I:7-9 (see the Naptali rpt. ’93). Only God has the power to do that and he has already given us one day in seven to give thanks for his mercy in Christ.
    For that matter, the P&R already celebrate the resurrection of Christ once a week; a special observance once a year, i.e. Easter is unnecessary and uncommanded. Likewise Christmas, while the reason for Good Friday is subsumed in the Lord’s Supper.
    2. It is erastian – at the very least in ordinary times – for the civil magistrate to determine days of thanksgiving that the church is to observe.
    3. If the 2 kingdom paradigm over rules the Reformation POV on the separation of church and state, does the civil magistrate ever have reason to call for a day of thanksgiving/prayer and fasting? Does the church?

  7. Scott, our church, probably like a lot of other PCA churches, have a Thanksgiving service which is very God-centered. We read scripture, have a homily on a thanksgiving psalm and allow the congregants to stand and publicly give thanks. I think this is fine. It does not feel like civil religion even if done on Thanksgiving–the “government holiday.”

    Last week, in a mid-week service, a women played the role of Priscilla Mullins, a Pilgrim who told of God’s providence in saving the the Pilgrims prior to the first Thanksgiving.

    Her husband, at the Thanksgiving service I mentioned above, from a historical perspective told of how God providentially perserved William Bradford’s diary. It is quite a story. (It also was God-centered and did not replace scripture or the homily.)

    Would you have a problem with what I have described?

    I agree that we should be careful to keep our churches God-centered, that the church’s main task is to point its members to God through the preaching of the Word and through the administration of the sacraments.

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