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The Indigenous Pilgrim Principle: A Theological Consideration of the Christian, the Church, and Politics

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It is common knowledge that in order not to unduly ruffle feathers or chaff relationships the two topics that ought to be avoided at all costs are politics and religion. However, as a Christian, is it really possible to keep these two hot button topics in two completely non-intersecting spheres? Such a question is especially germane to this season of the political cycle of America when in just a few days we will be asked to cast our votes not only to elect leaders in various spheres of local, state, and federal government, but also to weigh in on other ballot measures that will have significant impact on the socio-economic fabric of American society.

The question under consideration for us today is to what extent, if any, should the Christian be involved in politics and how does one properly orient themselves to the political process in light of biblical truth? Fortunately, the Bible offers us a thorough guide to help us answer these concerns.[1]

Romans 13.1-5

1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Perhaps no other biblical passage speaks as directly to politics and government like Romans 13.1-5. What is striking about this passage is the decidedly unequivocal and unilateral language invoked by Paul at this point. At first reading, it would seem that Paul is unnuanced in his instance that Christian submit, unquestionably, to the authorities and government over them for these have been in fact instituted by God Himself.

However, Paul’s statements in Romans 13, beg the question, “Are we always to submit to the government and its precepts in passive acquiescence and quiet surrender?” If this is indeed the case, the moral and practical implications are at the same time profound and confounding. Consider the following:

1. In Rom 13.1b Paul states baldly that there is no governmental authority except that which is from God.

a. But does this include evil rulers? Are we really to say that the likes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Hitler, Stalin, and the Taliban were instituted by God?

2. In saying in v.1a that, ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,’ is Paul saying that as Christians we ought to go along with whatever the governing authorities decide?

a. When Jews began to disappear from across Eastern and Western Europe is it Paul’s intention that Christians should have gone right along with the Nazi ‘Final Solution?’

b. Should churches and Christians have enforced and encouraged racial segregation in ‘60s America thinking it was right to have separate bathrooms and drinking fountains based upon the color of one’s skin?

3. Verse 3 states that, ‘rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.’ Are we then to think that governments are consistent in punishing bad behavior and lauding good behavior?

a. Does not China imprison Christians for assembling for church and persecute pastors who spread the Gospel?

b. Don’t Islamic regimes kill Christians for proselytizing?

To say that it is difficult to square some of Paul’s sentiments in Romans 13 with what we observe in the world today and throughout history is an egregious understatement. Not only does Romans 13 seem to fail to jibe with reality, but it also seems to conflict with Scripture itself.

In Acts 5.28 we hear the Sanhedrin confront the apostles for sharing the Gospel. They state,

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Now listen to the emphatic response of Peter and the other apostles in verse 29:

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!”

How about the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.15-17 when they were told by Pharaoh to kill every Hebrew male baby but instead let them live?

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

In Daniel 3.8-23 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobey King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to bow down before his gold image and it results in their being thrown in the furnace.

Later on in the book of Daniel (6.6-16), we see Daniel himself, when ordered not to pray to any God other than the Medo-Persian king, walks into his home, flings open the windows, and begins to pray to the Yahweh.

10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help.

What we see above are clear biblical examples of instances of those who both do what their governing authorities tell them not to do (Daniel, Peter & Apostles) as well as character who refuse to do what is asked of them by authority (the Hebrew midwives, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego).

So clearly we can see that the Bible simultaneously affirms the divine installation of earthly authorities, yet also plainly endorses what is termed in our age, civil disobedience.

Setting aside some of the issues raised by Romans 13.1-5,[2] we turn now to the issue of how one negotiates on the one hand the need to submit to governmental authority and yet on another to do what is right despite its political implications.

In attempting to find one’s place within any aspect of society as a Christian, especially in the political realm, we see that the Bible holds up two poles, the tension between which the Christian is left to balance upon.

On the one hand there are verses such as 1 Corinthians 9.22b-23 (see also, 10.32-33):

22b I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Yet on the other hand we find Romans 12.1-2 (see also, 1Th 4.11-12):

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

In these two verses of Paul, one finds two directional forces acting upon the Christian. In 1Cor 9.22ff Paul urges an adapting, conformation to the ‘world’ for the sake of the Gospel. In Romans 12.2 Paul underscores the other pull on the Christian, viz., the need to come out and be different from the world so as to know the will of God.

In a sermon on Romans 12.1-2, John Piper calls attention to the work of Princeton missiologist Andrew Walls who labels these two opposing rays in the life of the Christian what we might call here Indigenous Pilgrim Principle.[3]

One who is ‘indigenous’ to a people or place, originates or belongs to that certain place or culture, while a ‘pilgrim’ is one who leaves or comes out of a people or culture. So to put it another way, as a Christian, we are called to be both ‘coming out’ and ‘going in’ to our world and culture.

To put the ‘indigenizing’ and ‘pilgrim’ principles in theological terms, Piper suggests that we might think of these two pulls on the Christin in terms of adaptation to the world on the one hand and separation from the world on the other:

Indigenous Principle (Adaptation to the World)

  • The Gospel must incarnate, or be made manifest, in every culture and people of the world (the Great Commission).
  • The Gospel and Christians ought to be a complementary part of culture and society.

1Th 4.11-12 Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1Ti 2.2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

The Pilgrim Principle (Confrontation and Separation)

  • Christians pull away and out of culture.
  • Christians live in a manner contrary to culture.
  • We are aliens and exiles in our own cultures, societies, and families.

Luke 12.53 (cf., Matt 10.34-35) They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

2Cor 6.17 Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.

Eph 5.6-11 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. 8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

From these examples it is clear that the Bible speaks to instances where it is necessary to exhibit what Walls and Piper refer to as a ‘Pilgrim’ mentality, that is, coming out of culture and society, and an ‘Indigenous’ posture, viz., being adaptable to culture and the world.

Taking even an even broader view, Piper also says that we can see the indigenous pilgrim principle at work even in some of the grandest motifs of Scripture.

1. Creation (Ge 1-3, Rom 8.20-23, 1Cor 7.31)

a. Indigenous: God made everything so in one sense, we are at home in it.

b. Pilgrim: Creation is also fallen, passing away, temporary, and eagerly awaiting future redemption.

2. Christ

a. Indigenous: Jesus exhibits the indigenous principle in that He came to earth as fully man and experienced everything humanity does (Jn 1.14, Heb 2.14, 4.15).

b. Pilgrim: Jesus is also altogether separate from the world in that He is fully God (Jn 1.11).

3. Conversion

a. Indigenous: We are already saved/as good as saved when we accept Christ (Jn 3.16, Rm 3.28, Col 3.12).

b. Pilgrim: However, we are also awaiting ultimate and future complete restoration at the final judgment.

4. The Kingdom of God/Heaven

a. Indigenous: In one sense the kingdom is already here (Lk 11.20).

b. Pilgrim: We await the kingdom’s return with Christ as king (Lk 17.21, 22.18).

Thus, Piper has pointed out that the Bible, both in specific examples as well as its grand, overarching motifs, is rich in the Indigenous Pilgrim Principle. But how is the Christian to know when, where, and to what degree each out to be exhibited?

May I suggest some guidelines that may help us to know when to act upon each influence.

1. How do we know when to be Pilgrims (i.e., separate ourselves)?

a. Is there a sin issue involved?

i. There is never a good time to do something wrong. We are always Christians and that Christianity must work itself into every nook and cranny of our lives.

b. Does our separation or coming out make God look good or further the Gospel?

i. We ought to stand for biblical truth.

ii. Does the act of separation create opportunities to share the Gospel?

c. Is the Holy Spirit convicting our spirit?

i. Do you feel God’s leading about a certain situation or feel uncomfortable about something?

2. How do we know when to be Indigenous (i.e., be complementary w/culture)?

a. When it furthers the Gospel (1Cor 9.22).

b. We must ‘win’ the right to another conversation (1Cor 8.9, 2Cor 6.3).

i. This was a favorite saying of a missions professor of mine at Dallas Seminary. We must always be cognizant of how we ‘come off’ and must be sure that our actions do not close off opportunities for us to love our neighbor and have meaningful relationships.

c. Know your ‘cultural scripts’ (1Cor 10.23-30).

i. Linguists and anthropologists have developed this phrase to describe the social and cultural significance lying behind various cultural forms. Cultural scripts are those unspoken assumptions that are attached to many, many things.

Talk alcohol as an example. Alcohol carries very different cultural scripts in the UK versus the US. In America, there is a bit of a negative stigma associated with alcohol, and indeed some church communities are very against its use. However, in the UK alcohol does not carry such a cultural script. In England, alcoholic beverages are just that, beverages. It is not at all uncommon for alcohol to be served as elementary and college functions, and even my very conservative church in the UK would serve wine along with coffee and tea at the end of service.

At Ambassador church for instance, we would never dream of serving wine at the close of one of our services due to the very different cultural script associated with alcohol in the UK and the US.

The point of all of this is simply that many Christians mistake something that we really ought to be separated from (be a pilgrim about) for something that we could be participatory with (be indigenous) based upon the wrong cultural script.

For example, take Halloween. I know of many Christians who are opposed to doing anything on Halloween – they don’t allow their children to dress up, keep their house black and do not answer their door for Trick or Treaters. Their reasoning behind such a decision is that Halloween had its roots in pagan and occultist practices not fit for a Christian. My argument would be that the cultural script for Halloween changed from a pagan holiday to an American fun holiday centuries ago and in being a pilgrim on Halloween may communicate something we do not intend.


In the end, we have seen in the Bible both in the activities of its characters as well as in its grand motifs that there is both a time to be indigenous to culture and a time to be a pilgrim, separated from culture.

As a Christian living in America, we need to be sure we are not falling outside of the tension set by the two poles of the indigenous pilgrim principle. On the one hand, we must be sure to manifest our Christianity in every aspect of our lives, including the voting booth, and if this means standing for a biblical truth or doctrine that isn’t altogether popular, we should do so. We mustn’t be so considered with being complementary with culture that we cease acknowledging sin as such or cease doing the things our Lord commands despite how the government might react. We need to be pilgrims in the sense of ‘coming out’ of the political fray, being willing to make pronouncements of right and wrong based upon biblical truth and not any party affiliation.

On the other hand, for the times when we are to be pilgrims in society, we must be sure to do so with the proper attitude and posture of humility and love rather not pride, anger, snickering, or arrogance. In Romans 8.23 Paul says that all Creation groans waiting for redemption. We must be sure to remember that the reason why Creation is groaning is because it is saddened and grieved over its fallenness. We must remember that the sole reason for being a pilgrim is because sin is so pervasive right now. This fact should engender sorrow, love, and compassion, not frustration or anger that the world is not as it ought to be. The proper response of a Christian to those he has separated himself from is found in Matthew 5.44, viz., to love your neighbor as yourself and pray for your enemies.

On the other hand, to be an indigenous Christian requires us to rightly apportion those things which we are willing to fight for and those which are secondary issues to be put aside and ‘lived with.’ We must understand that it is impossible to legislate righteousness and if we truly desire change in our culture and society, we will be wholly given over to those activities which can bring this about – leading people to Christ and building them up in their faith toward maturity. With limited resources of time, people, and finances, we must ask ourselves tough questions about how to spend those resources and be willing to let certain things go in order to make a greater, and longer lasting impact for the kingdom in another sphere of society while resisting the other impulse to be so indigenous that we fail in our calling to be salt and light to our communities and culture.

In the end it is important to always maintain a Godly perspective. The tendency of every generation is to think that theirs is the most fallen and perverse to have come along. However, the words of Jesus in Mark 13.7-8 help us to have the right perspective regarding our situation in the world. We ought to expect a decline of culture and society and not let our circumstances rob the joy of our salvation. The fields are white for the Harvest and Jesus is coming soon!

7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. Mark 13.7-8

[1] This article began as a letter to many of my family, friends, and supporters who had asked for my opinion on the place of Christians in politics. Some of my response here is based upon the outstanding treatment of these issues in John Piper’s sermons on Rom 13.1-7, parts 1-4, as well as that on Romans 12.2, both of which can be found at

[2] Although Paul is requiring submission to government, he does not necessarily affirm universal obedience to government. Both Jesus and Paul are quick to say that obedience to God and simultaneous submission to the government may very well cost the Christian his life. Paul says as much in Romans 8.36 when he states, ‘As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” The point Paul is trying to drive home in his strong words regarding government is the proper hierarchy in which God has placed the Christian. In disobeying governments in certain situations even to the point of accepting death, one keeps the proper perspective of said hierarchy intact. Being willing to die at the hands of the government to do what God requires properly aligns the Christian within the hierarchy established by God.

[3] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith (T & T Clark, Edinburgh: 1996), 7-9.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), Spiritual Life

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