Tag Archives: Activism

Civil Society for the Common Good

October 2015 Pulse

In their essay ‘Developing Civil Society in Singapore’, Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon offer a brief but helpful account of the genesis and metamorphosis of civil society from pre-independent period to the present. The authors also discuss some of the forces that are expected to drive and shape civil society in the nation in the future.

In their essay, Koh and Soon have elected the broadest possible approach to achieve a working definition of civil society. For them, civil society ‘includes all forms of voluntary organisations, whether formally constituted or not, that lies between and is independent of the state and family’. Each of these groups, they add, ‘is held together by shared values, interests and purposes, and seeks to mobilise resources and people to achieve those’.

This broad and inclusive descriptor notwithstanding, it is important to note that most civil society scholars have underscored just how notoriously difficult it is to arrive at a definition of civil society that would satisfy everyone. As a result, there appears to be no consensus among scholars on what civil society actually is and what it does. There is also no agreement among scholars on whether, in certain parts of the world, civil society exists.

(Incidentally, because consensus on the nature of civil society and what it looks like is so elusive, some scholars have concluded that there’s hardly any civil society in Singapore, while others maintain that it has always existed – even before independence.)

Yet, despite the fact that the idea remains ambiguous and opaque in many ways, civil society appears to be hailed by many as a panacea for the ills and fractures of modern society.

The Advocacy Institute in the USA lauds it as ‘the single most viable alternative to the authoritarian state and the tyrannical market’. Politicians in the UK aver that civil society will hold society together against the onslaught of globalising markets, while the United Nations and the World Bank maintain that it is one of the keys to ‘good governance’. The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin even calls it ‘our last, best hope’.

While the Christian would be instinctively wary of such extravagant optimism invested in any form of social advocacy, the advantages of civil society as an expression of associational life must be duly recognised.

Many would no doubt agree that a good society – again, what this entails is contentious – is in some significant way dependent on the health of the associational life of different groups in society. Civil society, as part of the public sphere, is therefore in some strong sense vital to a healthy associational ecosystem of society.

Philosophers and social theorists have noted how certain instantiations and embodiments of social, economic and political systems have destroyed the bonds between different individuals, different groups and between humans and their environment. In different and sometimes significant ways, civil society can not only alert us to the problem but also reconstitute these important relationships.

By institutionalising ‘civility’, civil society may arrest alienating and destructive social habits, and open up a new and different way of living in the world.

Koh and Soon are right to stress that the goal of civil society is the common good. ‘An effective response’, they write towards the end of their essay, ‘would allow civic activism to result in a more socially inclusive and compassionate Singapore where citizens renew their commitment to the good of the collective, but not the tyranny of the majority’.

Civil society must have as its ultimate goal the common good of society, which must transcend the specific concerns and agendas of particular groups. Put differently, the special projects that drive individual civil society groups must always be inspired and energised by a larger and more expansive vision of the flourishing of society as a whole.

As Koh and Soon have alluded, this means that civil society should never be governed by a superficial and dismissive majoritarianism. This is because the majority can be blind to the very real needs of the minority – the invisible poor or the unborn – whose welfare and wellbeing must never be excluded when we think about the common good.

But in order for civil society to be committed to the ‘good of the collective’, it also must not cower to the tyranny of the minority. It must not allow minority groups to question or overturn important social institutions in the name of group rights and inclusiveness.

This means that the presence of civil society alone is not enough to guarantee that the compassion and justice that are indispensable for human flourishing will prevail, and that the common good will be served.

In our fallen world, civil society is a morally ambiguous reality. As such it can promote virtue or vice, and it can be morally progressive or regressive. As Richard Miller points out: ‘Civil society is an arena for moral formation and deformation’.

For civil society to really serve the common good, we must ask whether the attitudes and practices it embodies are truly civil and civilising. For civil society to fulfil its true vocation, its aspirations and goals must never violate or detract from God’s purpose for the human race.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Inter-faith dialogue is part of Christians’ social responsibility

Should Christians engage in inter-faith dialogue?

FOR some Christians, inter-faith dialogue is to be discouraged and even scrupulously avoided because it smacks of compromise and syncretism.

In a recent survey entitled, “Negotiating Christianity with Other Religions: The Views of Christian Clergymen in Singapore”, Dr Matthew Matthews, a fellow of the National University of Singapore, reported this response from a pastor he interviewed: “Dialogue? What use do I have to dialogue with representatives of Satan?”

Thankfully, such responses are in the minority. Of the 167 Protestant pastors who participated in the survey, 72.5 per cent generally agree with the statement, “Inter-religious dialogue between religious leaders can be fruitful”. To the statement, “I would have dialogue with leaders of other faiths if I had the opportunity”, more than 75 per rent responded affirmatively. And over half of the clergy who responded to the survey have no difficulties with cooperating with a non-Christian religious leader in a charity drive for the community.

Dialogue or interaction with people from other faith communities must be seen as an aspect of social intercourse in a multi-religious society like Singapore. Therefore, dialogue must be understood as part of our social engagement with other members of our society, which includes fellow believers, adherents of non-Christian religions and people without religious commitments. Seen from this perspective dialogue with people from other faith communities is already part of the daily experience of Christians as they interact with their Muslim neighbours and their Buddhist colleagues. Understood in this way, dialogue is always inextricably bound to the larger matrix of social interactions between persons.

Scholars have described such interactions as the dialogue of life where people of different religions and those without a religion very naturally and openly share their lives with each other, their joys and sorrows, their problems and preoccupations. Christians should have no problems participating in the dialogue of life in the natural settings of their particular social environments.

What is the purpose of inter-faith dialogue? The fundamental goal of inter-faith dialogue, as I see it, is for people of different faiths to understand one another. In dialogue, as in all forms of human social exchange, we seek to discover one another by appreciating the many concerns that we share as well as the things that make us different. It is only by appreciating our differences – not by brushing them aside and ignoring them – that we truly get to know one another. Furthermore, it is also in acknowledging and recognising our differences – not just our common concerns – that we truly learn to respect one another.

But in the process of understanding one another, we will also be led to recognise and cherish our common aspirations and commitments, and this will surely go a long way towards establishing lasting friendships between members of different faith communities. This may in turn lead to a deeper form of social engagement that scholars call the dialogue of action where members of different faith communities collaborate to address a social or societal concern or to work towards the common good.

This brings me to the fear expressed by some Christians that inter-faith dialogue and collaboration may lead Christians to compromise their faith. To be sure, some forms of inter-faith dialogue, especially those that are built on the premise of a false and superficial irenics (an attempt to find agreement of and mutual assent to issues), may result in serious compromises. But I believe that inter-faith dialogue and even collaboration can be conducted with full theological integrity.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working together with the members of the Association of Muslim Professionals to organise a seminar on the theme, “Secular State, Moral Society” in the wake of the debates on homosexuality and the proposed Integrated Resorts. Such collaborations can be conducted with absolute integrity as the two faith communities spoke to common societal issues from their own traditions. There was no attempt by either party to resort to superficial irenics or to dilute their own theological doctrines in order to artificially establish “common ground” between them. The fear that all inter-faith dialogue would result in compromise is unfounded.

Equally unfounded is the claim that only when Christians surrender their exclusivist view regarding salvation in Jesus Christ is true dialogue possible. This assertion is often made – rather dogmatically – by liberal writers who maintain that dialogue is possible only within the framework of a pluralist philosophy of religions. Also baseless is their claim that in order for Christians to relate in an authentic way to people of other faiths they should give up their absolute truth-claims like “Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of humankind.”

In the first place, we should bear in mind that such truth-claims are not peculiar to the Christian religion. The Muslim would say that the Holy Qu’ran is the revelation of Allah and his predetermined purposes, while the Buddhist would say that the Buddha in one form or another is central to human existence. Furthermore, for dialogue to be truly authentic, the dialogue partners must engage each other with honesty and transparency. And this surely implies presenting the truth-claims that have been so integral to their own religious traditions.

The attempt by liberal scholars to relativise such truth-claims is actually a mark of profound disrespect to the religions. The relationship between people from different faith communities in Asia is too delicate and too important for it to be dictated by the Western liberal agenda.

Space does not allow the discussion of the relationship between dialogue and witness. Let me end by reiterating the fact that dialogue or interaction with people of other religions is part of our social responsibility as Christians. We must always conduct such exchanges with integrity and respect. Respect for the other requires that we be honest, transparent and truthful.

Like all relationships of nobility and substance, the Christian’s relationship with members of other faith communities must be characterised by a responsible love, shaped by God’s truth.


‘Unfounded is the claim that only when Christians surrender their exclusivist view regarding salvation in Jesus Christ is true dialogue possible. This assertion is often made – rather dogmatically – by liberal writers who maintain that dialogue is possible only within the framework of a pluralist philosophy of religions. Also baseless is their claim that in order for Christians to relate in an authentic way to people of other faiths they should give up their absolute truth-claims like “Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of humankind.” ’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Civil Obedience part of Christian discipleship

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

PERHAPS the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities”. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: “for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom 13:1).

The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: “it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up”.

Romans 13 tells us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human development and progress. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.” Romans 13 urges everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.” 

The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth, is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a “nevertheless”. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that “if the emperor orders one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed”. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: “when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey”. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, “My Country, Right or Wrong!”, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy.

The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.


‘Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace.’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

Christians engaged in the public square must be humble and civil

How should Christians engage in the public square?

AS SOCIETY BECOMES increasingly secular, religion is slowly edged towards the periphery of public life and reduced to a private experience without any social implications.

The Christian faith is intrinsically opposed to the privatisation of religion because of its claim that the God it worships and professes is the Creator and Lord of the world. The Gospel that Christianity preaches is public truth, which addresses all of reality and which has profound implications to both the private lives of individuals and the public arenas of society.

Christians are called to be light and salt of this darkening world (Matt 5:13-14). And although Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ are not of this world, that is, although they embrace a worldview and a set of values that are truly distinct, they are nonetheless in the world (John 15:19). In fact, Christians are sent into the world to be authentic and faithful witnesses of their risen Lord (Matt 28:19). Christians therefore stand in solidarity with this world, but at the same time they have been given a prophetic function as they speak and embody the truth of God’s word.

Social engagement is therefore not optional for the Christian. It has to do with the very heart of Christian witness.

As Christians get involved in public discourse they must realise that the public square is at once secular and pluralistic with people holding divergent and even contradictory views on a myriad of issues. Christians engaged in public discourse cannot expect their interlocutors to be sympathetic to their views, not to mention embrace them. In a pluralistic society, people shaped by different ideologies, traditions and rationalities approach the same issue with perspectives that are often inimical or antithetical (and sometimes even hostile) to the Christian perspective.

Christians who participate in public debates with unrealistically high expectations of what their robust witness can achieve will only be disappointed. This is especially true for those who expect to see results within a short time frame. It took decades for our late (or post) modern society to slide into relativism, and it will take just as long, if not longer, for us to dig ourselves out of it and its consequences. Christian engagement in politics and society therefore requires much patience.

Christians engaged in public discourse must also learn the language of such discourse. The language of the pulpit would not be very effective in the secular and religiously and ideologically plural public square. Theologians writing in the area of public theology have long acknowledged the need for Christians to use “natural law” arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all and that appeal to public reason. This does not mean that Christians should abandon their particularist standpoint that is informed and shaped by the Bible and by the tradition of the Church, and begin with common assumptions shared by the majority.

Christian responses to social issues must always be guided by Scripture and tradition. But Christians must present their theological perspectives on these issues in a way that is accessible to the wider and often unbelieving public. Thus, although Scripture must always be our guide, we must craft and present our arguments in a way that would resonate with those who do not recognise the authority of the Bible.

As Scott Rae and Paul Cox put it, “In this effort at persuasion it is essential that the position taken be identifiably Christian, but the means of persuasion need not and should not be limited to theological and biblical notions.”

Christians engaged in the public square must always be humble and civil. Christians must be humble in their engagement with society because even the most sincere often bring with them their own biases and prejudices. Richard Mouw issued this timely reminder in his essay, “The Spirituality for Public Life”: “The challenge, then, is to keep reminding ourselves that, at the heart of the Christian message lies the insistence that we are all sinners who are regularly tempted to the arrogance and self-centredness that lead to pretensions beyond the scope of our true grasp of reality.”

The exhortation to be humble alerts us to the fact that we sometimes enter into the conversation with a less than adequate understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand. And it also alerts us to the fact that although we may be certain of the teachings of Scripture, we are sometimes less certain of how these teachings ought to be applied in the concrete world of politics. Christian humility in this regard is based on a clear appreciation of our own finitude and sinfulness.

CHRISTIANS MUST ALSO engage in public discourse with civility. Christian civility is best described as convicted civility: it is a civility that is not the result of intellectual wooliness or moral laxity, but one which stems from profound and robust convictions.

According to the Christian understanding, therefore, civility should never be reduced to superficial irenics or political correctness. For the Christian, civility can never mean compromising our deepest convictions. But if Christian civility demands that we must always speak the truth, it also insists that we must also do so in love, respecting those who do not share our convictions.

Civility does not come easily; it requires much work on our part. Such civility is itself demanded by the Bible, which exhorts Christians to approach everyone with gentleness and reverence, and to strive to live at peace with everyone (1 Pet 3:15-16), even with those with whom we disagree.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

How Christians can contribute to society

Can politics be separated from religion, according to the Christian perspective?

THE SEPARATION OF RELIGION FROM POLITICS, resulting in the notion of “private religion”, is the outcome of the secularism associated with the 18thcentury European Enlightenment.

Before that time, religion was always a matter for the whole community, and never just for the individual. In addition, religion and culture were always inextricably intertwined with each other in such a way that their separation was inconceivable. If politics is broadly defined as the principles or policies by which a community orders its life, then religion obviously cannot be artificially excised from politics. This is true especially for multi-religious societies like Singapore.

Christians generally maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated. This is because, according to the Christian faith, there can be no place for any distinction between secular and sacred. The God who created the world must surely be Lord even of the political realm.

To maintain that there can be no separation between religion and politics is not to reject the concept of the secular state or to insist that the Church should not be separated from the state. The two issues are quite different and must not be confused with one another.

Although the concept of the secular state is in itself in many ways problematic, it is nonetheless useful in identifying the duties of the state. The secular state is one in which the government is limited to the seculum or temporal realm. It is a state that is free from the control of any institutional religion and therefore independent of the latter. The idea of the secular state therefore denies the government the right to use religion for the accomplishment of political ends, and it denies religion the right to use the government for religious ends. In this way, the secular state is arguably better able to ensure what some scholars have called “benevolent neutrality”, where the interests of the members of all the different communities represented in society are taken seriously.

As mentioned earlier, although this model raises a number of difficult and important issues and is far from perfect, for reasons I cannot discuss in this short article, Christians can broadly endorse it without fear of too much compromise. I believe that Singapore’s “Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act” of 1992 is broadly inspired by some such concept of the secular state.

A paradox immediately presents itself: How are we to understand the relationship between the secular state and a religious society? Are the two concepts not contradictory? Here we must further sharpen our understanding of the secular state. A secular state is one that is concerned with the seculum or temporal affairs. However, a secular state is not a state that is committed to secularism. That is to say, the secular state does not deny the reality of the non-physical world and it is not hostile to religious belief and practice. The secular state therefore will not attempt to expunge religious discourse from the public square. It recognises the importance of religion in public life, even as it prohibits religion from using the government for religious ends.

Although there is a growing minority in Singapore who are committed to excluding religion from public discourse, I believe that this is not the position of the Singapore Government. This is clearly evident in the fact that the latter has openly invited different faith communities to participate in debates on important societal issues.

CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that they can make significant contributions to public life, not least by participating in debates on social and political issues. As I have argued elsewhere, this is an aspect of the Christian’s responsibility in society. Christians and the Church, therefore, may serve a political purpose by playing a prophetic role in public life.

Although some Christians have argued that the separation of Church and state and the acceptance of the concept of the secular state require the privatisation of religion, I maintain that this is not the case at all. In fact, the contrary is true: the separation of Church and state has made possible the genuinely prophetic role of religion because the Church, freed from institutional dependence, is no longer subservient to the state in a way that would mute its prophetic voice. The Church is therefore able to be itself – a free and authentic witness for God in society. The separation of Church and state and the concept of the secular state therefore make possible an authentic public religion. They make genuine interaction between Christians and political society a living reality.

Christians contribute to the political life of society by advancing justice and promoting the common good. But in order to do so, Christians (and the Church) must sometimes question the established order and refuse to endorse or “sanctify” policies and traditions that are not in harmony with God’s will. These are all aspects of the prophetic role of Christians in society. Furthermore, prophetic religion must also reach out to the oppressed, the dispossessed, the disinherited and the discriminated. It must reject the temptation to show favour to any particular socio-economic class. It must be free from the fetters of any given culture and the prevailing norms and conventions of society.

By speaking rationally, truthfully and compassionately to many shared concerns and issues, and by participating respectfully, calmly and patiently in public discourse, Christians can contribute – in small but sometimes surprisingly significant ways – to society. In this way, the Christian community can fulfil its public vocation in the world on behalf of freedom, peace, and justice for all.


“Christians contribute to the political life of society by advancing justice and promoting the common good.”

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

Every Christian must submit himself to the governing authorities

How should Christians understand the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship?

THE WEBSTER DICTIONARY defines a citizen as “an inhabitant of a city or a town, a member of a country, native or naturalised, having rights and owing allegiance”. Broadly speaking, therefore, citizenship has to do with the relationship between an individual and a community.

In ancient Greece, when the community in question is the city-state, a citizen is a member of a particular city-state. In modern times, however, with the rise of the nation-states, citizenship is defined in terms of one’s membership with a particular nation.

In modern political theory, the concept of citizenship comprises three important elements. The first is legal: the citizen is a legal person with the freedom to observe the laws of the land, and who has the right to the latter’s protection. The second is political: the citizen is a political agent who actively participates in society’s political institutions. That such participation – in whatever form – is expected of citizens can be traced to Aristotle, who wrote, “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” And finally, identity: as a member of a political community, the citizen receives a distinct identity.

The socio-political climate of the Graeco-Roman world of the early Christians is radically different from that which prevails in modern democratic societies. Even then, the early Christians had always understood their role as citizens of the Roman Empire, and had sought, despite sporadic oppositions and persecutions, to fulfil it to the best of their abilities.

A Christian understanding of responsible citizenship is based on two important theological and ethical principles. Firstly, Christians maintain that civil authority is established by God for the ordering of human society, and that it is the duty of the Christian to submit to it. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in the capital city of the Empire (often described as the “eternal city”), issues this explicit injunction: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Romans 13:1).

Peter reiterated this injunction, urging Christians in Asia Minor to submit “for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men”. (1 Peter 2:13). Responsible citizenship requires also that Christians pray for those in authority, whether kings or governors, that they may fulfil their God-given roles. (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

The second principle governing responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, is tied to the command to love the neighbour. The Christian’s political engagement and involvement are motivated by his profound concern for the welfare of others and for the common good of society. Even the quest for peace finds its motivation in this command. As the great 5th century theologian Augustine put it, Christians seek the “peace of Babylon” because they are called to love their neighbours (even their enemies).

As citizens, Christians therefore must be actively involved in the affairs of the political community to which they belong. Christian prayer for the peace of society, polisor nation can never be made from a ghetto, a safe haven of un-involvement and detachment. As neither a beast nor a god (Aristotle), the Christian citizen must actively engage in the affairs of the nation. If Christians are called to love their neighbour, then it is also imperative that they make every attempt to improve the political lot of their fellow citizens (regardless of race, language or creed). As responsible citizens, Christians must therefore pay their taxes, obey the laws of the land, respect the property of others, vote, and even defend their country. In fact, Christians must strive to be model citizens. (1Peter 2:11-12).

However, Christians must recognise the fact that they hold a dual citizenship. The Apostle who exhorts the Christians in Rome to recognise and obey earthly authorities also wrote these remarkable words to the Christians in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20).

No theologian has reflected so rigorously or written so elegantly on this profound truth as Augustine. In his famous treatise, The City of God (which took the theologian 13 years to write), Augustine argues that Christians are members of the City of God whilst living with members of the earthly city. While it is their responsibility to seek the welfare of the earthly city, and to serve their fellow human beings, Christians have a distinctive citizenship from which they receive their distinctive identity. As citizens of heaven, they often find themselves in the invidious position of trying to live a Christian life while at the same time struggling to keep the “peace of Babylon”. The members of the City of God can therefore never be fully “at home” in the earthly city.

More importantly, Christians must understand that their citizenship with the earthly city must be defined and shaped by their heavenly citizenship. This simply means that while Christians must do their best to serve the nation, this service must always be part of their greater service to God. Christians are loyal to the nation only if such loyalty does not call them to be disloyal to God. Christians are pilgrims in the earthly city, but their eyes are set on the eschatological City of God. This means, for the Christian, all earthly powers, kingdoms and dominions – indeed all political life – must be relativised. The nation or country to which Christians belong and of which they are citizens can never be the ultimate concern of the Christian.

Responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, can never embrace an idolatrous form of nationalism. Responsible citizenship is not about elevating one’s nation or country to a status that does not belong to it, treating it as an absolute or as infallible. It is about enabling the state to achieve its true purpose, and to fulfil its God-given role: to serve God and the people.


  • Christians maintain that civil authority is established by God for the ordering of human society, and that it is the duty of the Christian to submit to it.
  • The second principle governing responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, is tied to the command to love the neighbour.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.