Large Question Mark and a Questioning Man
The Church, The Home and The Nation

What is the Nation?

Author: Ray C. Stedman

The subject What is a Nation? is seldom preached upon and perhaps because seldom talked and studied together there is a great deal of confusion and muddled thinking in this realm. Yet it is one of the most important subjects to come before a Christian mind, as never before this world is experiencing a rise of nationalism. The rising nations of Africa are inflamed today with the spirit of nationalism and we’re seeing this spirit spread like wildfire across nations of the earth as a tremendous power, to emphasize the position of nations and to hold it up almost as a religion.

At the same time there is a very powerful counterforce that is rising in our world today that is thrusting toward internationalism. These two mighty forces are heading toward direct conflict; we can feel already something of the tension that is developing between those who would have a one-world government and those who emphasize again the supremacy of a nation.

In our own nation, as you well know, the vital issues of the day concern the relationships of the Church and the State. Even at this very moment the Supreme Court is engaged in studying the question as to whether or not it is proper to read the Bible in the public schools. And we find in our land today a great many people who have identified nationalism with Christianity as though somehow being American and being a Christian is the same thing. All of this requires that we have some clear thinking and some deep awareness of the true nature of nations. That’s why I have chosen this as a subject for this morning’s message.

In the scriptures, the first appearance of nations, as such, was at the Tower of Babel. You remember if you have read the book of Genesis lately, before the flood there is no account of human government existing or any government beyond the family. And if there was any division at all among the peoples of the world at that time it was probably on the basis of trade or profession, that is those of a similar trade got together in some degree. But there was no national government as we know of today and the result of this was that with no restraining force exercised upon the sin of man, evil practices began to spread rapidly around the earth. The scriptures very concisely report God’s reaction to this when it says that He looked down upon the earth and saw the wickedness of man was very great. Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was evil continually, and just before the flood God saw it was filled with violence and very corrupt. All of this was the result of the rapid spread of human evil and evil practices because of no control, no restraining power.

I’ve been prompted by this account to see there is more than a suggestion that the flood itself was caused by the evil of man. Just as in our world today when man in his self-centered pride governs the forces of nature and controls them intentionally, almost invariably he upsets some delicate balance in nature that creates catastrophe. We saw that in the western states in the days of the Dust Bowl, when the unlimited plowing of the land resulted in the loss of surface moisture and thousands and thousands of acres were spoiled and we were plunged into a terrible time of near famine in this country.

Something like that happened in the days before the flood, and I’m convinced personally from the scriptures that the evil of man, allowed to have free run of the earth in the weeks before the flood, somehow tripped the delicate balance of nature and brought on the flood itself. And as we know from the scripture records, the flood came in and swept all human civilization away and only one man and his family survived.

We read that after the flood all men had one language and with one purpose they gathered at the city called Babel and decided to build a tower that would make a name for themselves. This was the one purpose of the human race: one language, one united purpose. To achieve this end of exaltation of man, they decided to unite to build a tower. And we have a very significant statement on the part of God, a very revealing statement that God looked down on man and said, Now that they have united together to do this, there is nothing that will be impossible to them. All of which is a tremendous commentary on the awesome power of united action. As a result God decided He would take action, and He confused the language, the famous story of the Tower of Babel, and scattered men upon the face of the earth and they became nations for the first time. The story and the tracing of those nations are recorded for us in Chapter 13.

Now this confusion of the tongues of men at Babel was not an act of judgment on God’s part. It wasn’t some big vindictive act by which He was saying Well look at these men, they’re trying to exalt themselves, I’ll show them what I can do, and He came down and arbitrarily scattered them, out of a sense of jealousy. It wasn’t that. If we read the story right, the confusion of the tongues of men was an act of mercy on the part of God. He scattered men lest they should destroy themselves again, and thus prevented another catastrophe on the earth. We can see, therefore, that the setting of human government and origin of nations and national state is ordained of God as an act of consummate mercy on His part to restrain the evil inherent in all of mankind and keep man from destroying himself on the face of the earth. I think that every activity of government must be viewed against the background of that statement.

Government is God’s gift to men. It was given in order to keep us from fulfilling the evil of the human heart, which would most certainly result in the total elimination of man from off the face of the earth. And every time in human history when man is again at the place where he is on the verge of destroying himself, God has intervened, usually through governmental agencies to the raising up of some new nation or some new power on the earth to overturn and overthrow and warp the plans and ambitious programs of men, and return the world to some semblance again of order and of peace. This has been God’s recurrent program throughout human history. And thus we can see that the existence of nations can be viewed as God’s partial answer to the disintegrating force of sin in human life. If it weren’t for government, man would have ceased to exist long, long ago.

Now this view of human government is reflected by the apostle Paul in Romans 13, that famous passage which you all well know, I’m sure. We read that the powers that be, that is the governmental agencies, are instituted by God and every governmental agent is a servant of God, Paul says, for your good. He does not bear the sword in vain; he is acting on behalf of God. I find this a tremendously significant passage. Government is therefore the agent of the Almighty. And this helps to put into proper perspective these questions that arise from time to time on the rightness or the wrongness of matters such as capital punishment, and the bearing of arms in warfare, and so on. It isn’t the executioner who pushes the button that drops the gas capsule into the acid that is taking a life; it is God doing it. It isn’t even the State that executed legal murder, as some say. It is God doing it, who has the right to take human life. And therefore capital punishment is rooted and grounded in rightness and the justice of God acting through human government.

The same is true of bearing of arms in warfare; a Christian has the perfect right to become a soldier and serve in the armed forces of his country. If he has conscientious objections to this because of his background or his training he ought to observe his conscience, but if he is instructed in the scriptures I think that he can easily be shown him that Christians have a right to serve as soldiers, and the government in raising an army for the defense of a country is exercising its privilege as a minister of the Almighty, as an agent of God. Therefore they have the right to tax, and all these matters which are of such a practical nature are reflected in this passage in Romans 13.

Now all this is the nature of what government is, what a nation is. The function of it is therefore to preserve peace and order, and to promote the general welfare of the people, and to settle grievances on the basis of justice and equity. That’s what governments are for and if they don’t serve that purpose, they are totally wrong. And I think have eventually earned the right, with that kind of attitude, to be overthrown.

Now this is all reflected for us in the opening words of our constitution, it’s beautifully phrased there. I love the language of the constitution. We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish the common defense and promote the general welfare, ensure domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. That’s simply a statement in very factual and simple language of the divine function and purpose of government. You watch a family out in the park enjoying themselves, the father playing ball with his son, the mother out shopping with her daughters; this is the type of life that government exists to preserve. If it isn’t doing that it is failing in its divinely ordained function.

Now we recognize that though governments are ordained of God whether they recognize it or not, nevertheless a government, like an individual, can perform functions in rebellion against God. Therefore even a government that rejects God and has no recognition of God at all in any public way, isn’t any less a true government ordained of God. This again is reflected by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13 when he writes concerning the government. He says these powers are ordained of God, and at the time he wrote the Emperor on the throne of Rome was Nero, the most monstrous wretch that had ever sat upon the Imperial throne, yet Paul recognized him as an agent of God.

Now God rules among the nations whether they know it or not; that’s the point of this scripture. And if a nation, like an individual, refuses to recognize its utter dependence upon God and the need for His wisdom and power, then all the forces that operate in it operate to its destruction and it will ultimately destroy itself. History confirms and the Bible declares it. It says, The wicked shall be turned into hell and every nation that forgets God, and as we read in our passage of scripture this morning, the opposite is true. The nation that remembers God, the nation who knows God and is honored and blessed, is the nation whose God is Lord.

In the light of this, I think it is interesting to observe where we as a nation stand in the sight of God. The more we turn from the recognition of God in government affairs, the more we side with nations such as Russia, China and others which by their atheistic philosophy are destroying themselves, we will ultimately fall to pieces, as history has confirmed time and time again.

Now the power of government as you can see from this, is a physical force. Government achieves its end by controlling the action of its citizens, but it cannot control the attitude of its people. Physical force of course is directed against the body; it cannot be directed against the soul. We so aptly put it in the proverb, You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can control his physical life but you cannot control his mental life. The government is limited therefore in its ability; it can only control the body. This is why freedom of speech becomes such an important matter and freedom of religion as well. The will, the spirit of man must not be coerced, though the actions of man are rightly controlled by the government. This is why the framers of our constitution were right in insisting on the free exercise of religion apart from the control of law in any way because that cannot be coerced.

Now because this is true, because actions are inevitably the result of anarchy, government soon finds that it is impossible ultimately to control actions without some kind of moral force playing a part and shaping the attitudes of the people. And that very factor has given rise to much of the moral problems of our day. As you know we’re facing what amounts to a tremendous revolt against law and order in our nation. I read the other day that Chief Justice Warren in an address to lawyers back in the east in almost a desperate plea asked that somehow something be done to create a moral atmosphere in which the laws could be enforced. And he called for the setting up of a body he called ethical counselors, that is men that would make a profession out of morality and teaching morals like a psychiatrist would do, who could be available to instruct people in a moral outlook. Because apart from this he says the attempts to enforce the law are absolutely futile. We cannot make laws work unless people want to work them.

Now this is where the church comes in and makes a very vital point. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, You are the salt of the earth and everyone in that crowd that day knew that salt was the medium by which corruption was arrested in preserving, and it was widely used in that day to preserve the fish that were caught in the Sea of Galilee and sold in the markets of Jerusalem. How did they keep them from spoiling on that day or two day or three day journey? They immersed them in salt and thus they were kept fresh. And Jesus said to the disciples, You are the salt of the earth. That is, you are the thing that preserves the life of the nation from spoiling, from corruption. You are the means by which moral atmosphere is created in which the laws may be enforced; that’s what he meant.

The interesting thing is that this has always proved true through history. If the church does not do this in society; that is, if it doesn’t act as such a moral force permeating, influencing and creating a moral atmosphere then the government has but one other choice. It must somehow create a mental attitude that will make it possible to enforce the law. And if there is not any righteous morality being changed by the testimony of Christians and others, then the only other alternative is that the government must go into the propaganda business and brainwash people. Control if it can the very thought life so that they are continually subjected to one specific line of information and attitude and thus an artificial atmosphere is created in which the law can be enforced. That’s why in countries where Christian morality is rejected and the Christian faith is excluded, the government of that land has inevitably turned to totalitarianism.

In other words, if the truth is not being freely taught in a nation, the only other alternative is a totalitarian government. To the degree in which the truth is not permitted to be taught, to that degree authoritarianism comes into a government. This is what Jesus meant when He said, If the salt has lost its savor it’s good for nothing. What good is it? If Christians are not being Christians, if you cannot tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian in his attitude, his actions and his outlook then what good is it? And His pronouncement was it’s good for nothing but to be trodden under foot by men. It doesn’t do a thing for society or anyone else.

One of the most interesting statements in scripture I think is a verse that is only partially quoted; we hear it quoted all the time on the wonderful fruit of the Spirit. We’re told the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is that result of the indwelling life of the Lord Jesus that is administered to us through the Holy Spirit, showing itself in the Christian’s attitudes and outlooks and viewpoints which makes him a witness and salt in the earth. But there’s a part of that verse which is very seldom quoted. It goes on to say Against such there is no law. That is, for the true effectiveness of a Christian, a government can do nothing to hinder him. Against such it is impossible to make any law. No government ever makes a law against being honest, thoughtful, loving, gentle and kind and exercising self-control. This is why a Christian can always be a witness, no matter where he is or what situation he’s in. No hindrance of man can prevent that activity of salt, if it is genuinely born of the Spirit of God.

Now having said this we come to what may be the greatest question on this matter of the nation, and that is the thorny problem of the relationship of the Christian to government. Government is a god, but not everything government does is godly by any means. And where does the Christian stand in relationship to this? Notice that I did not say the relationship of the church and state, or the church and the government, because I am profoundly convinced that the church has no voice at all. No one speaks for the church. We are always hearing someone presuming to speak for the church but he only speaks for, at best, a very small segment of it. And his view is never a reflection of the total outlook and attitude of the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ around the world. No, the church has no voice today. It’s only an individual Christian who can speak, and therefore the problem is not between the church and the state but between the Christian and the state, and his relationship to the state.

Now let me say just three things in this connection and then I’m through this morning. A Christian’s attitude towards government: first of all a Christian must respect government and its representatives. You remember that story in the book of Acts when Paul was captured in Jerusalem and brought before the High Priest and Sanhedrin and the High Priest spoke to him very sarcastically. Paul replied in kind; he rebuked the man who spoke, and someone standing by slapped him and said Would you revile God’s high priest? The Apostle’s reaction was immediate; he said I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.

This I think indicates the true Christian attitude in regard to government. Christians must respect the government, pay the taxes that it demands, and he can certainly exercise his privilege to try to correct abuses but government has the right to demand these things. It is a power for good, it is a factor for righteousness even though it be an ungodly government, and the Christian must simply face the fact that any government is better than none, that anarchy is the worst possible condition, and to let human evil run rampant out of control is the most devastating thing that can happen for government.

Second, the Christian must not expect the government to propagate his faith. This is a very important part. Since government by its nature is limited to the control of actions and not attitude, therefore it is quite wrong for a Christian ever to expect the government to come to the aid of propagating the Christian faith. That’s the job of a believer as a witness in the Holy Spirit. And to make that very practical, that means that no Christian has the right to expect the government to pass what they call ‘Sunday Blue Law’ and try to control the activities of the Lord’s Day. This is not a subject of governmental control, or to demand tax exemptions or special privileges for the clergy or anything of this sort. Now we may gratefully receive the offer of privileges of this type if it seems to be legitimate, lawful. I think personally that tax exemption of church property is a very proper thing, in view of the tremendous contribution a church makes to the morality of the land and creating conditions under which the government can function. But the church must never demand this, must not fight for it, must not expect that as its right because there is no right in this regard.

The Christian cannot demand that the government give him special privileges; the Christian cannot require that the government order celebration of religious holiday in any function. This touches of course the matter of celebration of Christmas and other things in public schools. I think that from the scriptures no Christian has the right to demand that these be permitted or these be ordered. The most that a Christian can do is ask that the government permits such an activity, which is perfectly proper and right, if the rights of the majority and the minority are protected in this respect so that those who do not agree are free to not participate if they like and suffer no ill consequences for it. The majority has a right to plan and the government has a perfect right to permit these activities in the light of the word of God.

Then the third thing, a Christian must correct and if necessary resist the government when it intrudes in areas which it has no right to intrude, that is in the area of the conscience. Justice Douglas of our Supreme Court has said The institutions of our society are founded on the belief that there is an authority higher than the authority of the state. There is a moral law which the state is powerless to alter, that the individual has rights conferred by the Creator which government must respect. That simply is a reflection of the teachings of scripture, that there is a time when the Christian must say ‘no’ to what the government says.

You remember perhaps the story of the Christian who was put in jail because he resisted some governmental order that was contrary to the convictions of his conscience. And when a friend came to visit him, the friend said to him, Why are you here? The man looked at him and said, Why aren’t you here? There are times when Christians ought to be in jail and the best place for them to share their testimony or their faith is when they are in jail. Those times are not frequent, thank God, but they do come. And there is a long line of Christian martyrs to testify to this. Governments do become tyrannical, totalitarian, intruding into the basic inalienable rights of men. When they do, the Christian has not only the right but the duty to oppose this even at the risk of his own life and liberty.

Remember when Peter and the disciples stood before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest ordered that they do not preach any longer in the name of Jesus? Peter’s answer is very forthright, he says, Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you (that is, your religious people) rather than to God, you must judge. You know what is the higher authority; which is it? Should we obey God or man? We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. And they went right out and filled the streets of Jerusalem with the preaching of Jesus Christ, in contradiction to the order of the High Priest.

In the fifth century you have that sturdy dowdy old man, Athenasius, who stood almost alone against the Arian heresies, the idea that Jesus was nothing but a man, was not part of the Godhead. That idea had captured the imagination of even the Emperor himself, and Athenasius and a few other bishops of the church stood fast on the true teaching of the scriptures. Finally the old man was summoned to appear before the Emperor and to give an answer, and the Emperor ordered him to stop teaching the doctrine that Jesus was indeed God. The old man utterly refused, and we’re told the Emperor leaned over and shook his finger in his face and said, Pertinacious old man, don’t you know that the whole world is against you? The old man drew himself up and looked the Emperor right in the eye and said, Then sire, I am against the whole world!

Now that’s a Christian testimony in times when government intrudes in areas where it does not belong. Martin Luther had to stand, of course, before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and attest to his faith there, and Huss, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other more modern martyrs in this respect. There is a time when the Christian must resist the government, and at all times the Christian must remain in a sense, independent of government. That is he must not identify his subjection to the government with his subjection to Jesus Christ.

To identify any government with Christian faith is wrong and in that sense there is no Christian government on the face of the earth today, and never has been. There are Christians in government, there are Christian principles evident in government, there are Christian forces playing upon governmental agencies but there are no Christian governments. And to identify any one brand or philosophy or political persuasion as equal and identical with Christianity is treasonous against the cause of Jesus Christ. The Republican Party is no more Christian than the Democratic Party and vice versa. There is no political persuasion that is any more Christian than another, certain aspects of it maybe but not the total picture. I think these things need to be stated and said clearly today and adhered to faithfully by Christians. Christ alone is Lord of the conscience. This is the Christian commitment. Everything else must be subject to that.

I asked Dr. Martin Niemoller a question when he was in this area some time ago, a man who spent many years in a Nazi prison because of his resistance to the unjust activities of the German government. I said to him, Dr. Niemoller, where should a Christian draw the line between obedience to the government and obedience to the demands of his conscience before the Lord? His answer was this: Whenever the government invades the conscience then the Christian has no choice but to obey the Lord. Christ is the Lord of the conscience and whenever the government runs contrary to the word of Jesus Christ, then the Christian must obey Christ.

I hope this puts this whole subject into perspective this morning; we are called to be Christians in a country which has been greatly blessed and honored by God. We thank God for the tremendous heritage we have in national affairs, how much of our Christian convictions are interwoven into the basic patterns and manuscripts of our national life. We can be very grateful, thanks to God for this. But even our own nation is not a Christian nation in that that final sense. Our loyalty must ever be to the Lord Jesus Christ alone and we must stand with Him. May we bow in prayer.


Our Father we thank you for our beloved nation. We love it, we rejoice in the marvelous benefits accorded to us as citizens of this blessed land. We look beyond the nation to thee, our Father, and know the King is not saved by the might of his great army. The war horse cannot deliver us by his strength. The only force, the only power, the one supreme might that is able to keep us and safely take us through all the vicissitudes and troubles and trials that may oppress us, is the might of thy right arm, Lord. We pray that we may look to thee, give thanks to thee, the God of the Nations, as the one who holds all the nations in the palm of thy hand, who weighs one against another before whom all others are just a drop in the bucket. May we recognize that thou Lord are able to use them, turn them, change them, move them at will. And in that recognition we bow and give thanks this morning. In Jesus’ name, Amen.