Over coffee one afternoon, my Muslim friend was expressing thanks for how my wife and I were obviously trying to raise our children to be ‘holy,’ as he put it. Then he said this: ‘That’s the problem with Christianity. You have no vision for the state, for society as a whole.’
Is he right?
They posed a difficult question to Jesus: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ This was a poll tax imposed on each adult male in Judea when the Romans conquered them.
Many Jews felt it was wrong to pay this tax, because they saw it as affirming the legitimacy of Roman rule. The Pharisees and Herodians were trying to expose Jesus as a revolutionary or a pretend Messiah with plans to deliver Judea from Roman domination.
It was a kind of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ question. It was a very clever question – they make Jesus choose between the Romans or the people, and whichever he picks, he would alienate the other. But more amazing than their question, was Jesus’ answer.
Christians are to be good citizens
We get this from the first half of Jesus’ answer, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’
This is more than a clever answer. Jesus takes a biblical theology of government applying it to the new phase in the history of God’s people he was starting. While it’s going too far to say that Jesus’ statement here established a wall of separation between church and state, or made the state secular, Jesus’ affirmation of paying taxes to the Roman government shows even a pagan state is legitimate.
The Roman government of Jesus’ day was despotic but kept order and some measure of justice. By maintaining civil peace, allowing us to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen. 1:28) and live ‘peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ (1 Tim. 2:2) government does good.
God is sovereign and the state is his servant in particular ways. That’s why we Christians can usually obey it. As Christians, government is one of a number of enterprises that we can be involved in that are not specifically Christian, but that are good and that can mediate the blessings of God’s own authority in this life.
Even when governments support immorality and sin we are normally to continue to support it, even as we work to correct and improve it. We should be very slow to conclude that a particular sin or immorality affirmed vacates the rightful authority of the government.
So Christians should be law-abiding and tax-paying. We should be honest and should thank God for the good there is in our government.
Christians are international
Jesus’ approval of paying taxes to Rome shows us that the legitimacy of a government is not determined by whether it worships God, or even allows for it. By not requiring his followers to only support states allied to the true God, as Israel had been, Jesus unhitches following him from any particular nation.
Until Jesus’ return and rule, his people would be under the reign of all sorts of kings and emperors. All would be temporary. But Christians could survive and, to varying degrees, support them, by ‘giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s’. This means God’s people will not be building one nation, which alone will have legitimacy before God, but that God’s people will be international!
Therefore, we call Christians from other ethnic backgrounds ‘brothers and sisters’. We pray for Christians under oppressive governments. We give our lives to get the gospel to all nations. We praise God for the way he’s made our congregations to reflect something of the international character of the church that we’ll enjoy in heaven.
Jesus could have just said, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ and left it at that. But Jesus goes on.
Christians are finally accountable to God
This is the convicting second half: ‘Give to God what is God’s.’
Jesus here contradicted what was said on the denarius. This coin proclaimed the emperor Tiberius as son of the divine Augustus. Jesus was clearly distinguishing between Caesar and God. Caesar is not God. Jesus’ followers would obey the state, but wouldn’t worship it.
Christians are to be good citizens. But, by teaching this, Jesus gives an important note, because Christians are finally accountable to God.
No earthly authority will perfectly reflect the character and authority of God. Whilst God is never wrong, human governments do err. This necessarily has to leave some space for civil disobedience when an authority commands something morally wrong. You should not obey such an order, because that would be obeying a lower authority (the state) rather than the highest authority (God).
There is one problem with referring to any country as a ‘Christian nation’. Here in America, Christian principles influenced our nation’s founders and there’s been a long history of Christian influence, but does not mean most Americans are Christians or that a Christian worldview dominates our culture or government today.
Even if we have presidents who are Christians, the authority of our government will never be used perfectly. We pray for our leaders, that God would help us to be good stewards of the blessings that he’s entrusted to our nation.
Questions of how and when we should disobey the State should be thought through carefully with Scripture study, prayer and counsel. But, in a fallen world, we can never rule such actions necessarily as wrong.
Our duty to God is comprehensive
Jesus talked about loving the Lord with all you are and have (Mark 12:30). He was not leading a revolt against Rome, but even more revolutionary, against the dominion of sin in all of us.
When Jesus points out that Caesar owns that which bears Caesar’s image, he implies that since we are made in the image of God, all we have and are is due to him. So we have an obligation to the state, and that is a part of our larger responsibility to God with our whole lives.
The fact that we should give to God what is God’s means that we should look to God to instruct us in all of life. Do you understand your whole life, every hour, as being offered to God as part of your worship to him? It’s all meant to be to God’s glory.
Our duty to God is comprehensive. Give to God what is God’s. And everything is God’s.
So, does Christianity have a vision for the state, or for the society as a whole?
There are Marxist, Muslim and secular utopian visions for our world, but none of these sufficiently take into account our sinfulness, or God’s love and justice. They lead to terrible distortions of God’s will in tyranny and corruption.
It is the truth of Christianity – about God being holy and loving, and our being made in God’s image but fallen, about God’s provision for us in Christ – that can lead us to sufficiently respect fallen governments and yet give us hope to endure them and to work and yearn for something infinitely better.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But make sure that you give to God what is God’s. And you belong to God. All of you.
This article is edited from a sermon in 2010 and used with kind permission.