And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17).
Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the Union and Confederacy’s conflict over slavery, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”
In his second inaugural address in 1865 he’d not changed his mind: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
A preacher once asked Lincoln if he knew God to be a Union man. Lincoln replied famously and summarily that whether or not God was on their side was hardly the question. The question was if they were on his.
So whose side is Jesus on anyway? Mine or yours? Ours or theirs? Would Jesus join the Tea Party? What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty? Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)? Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)? Does Jesus stand with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians? Fox News or CNN or The Blaze? Would he plug his car in, gas it up or ride a bike? NRA or ACLU?
The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)? Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who thinks himself a god? Or would he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?
Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, but he did provide enough for the apostles to consider.
1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect. Christians should be exemplary citizens and honest taxpayers. What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)? Caesar was no altar boy himself. He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods. Jesus still said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).
After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. He’d probably be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!
2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State. Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers. They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers. The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).
How we submit to the state can reflect how much faith we have in God to make good on his gospel promises. Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it? Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff. Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.
3) Jesus prioritized the two kingdoms. Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s. He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other. Or even that neither one has anything to do with the other. We often separate them into the secular and sacred. Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution. He prioritized the kingdoms. He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.
He prioritized the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s). Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom, this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads. God will hold Caesar accountable for what he does with those taxes and honor but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.
The church should never be despaired by any administration. Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God. God alone determines the affairs of the world.
If it’s the end of the world it won’t be because of President Obama, a nuclear Iran or Hamas but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.
Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.
4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God. You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due. Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God? Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”
We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.
Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics. While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel. I fear what God might do if we don’t! We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel. We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30). We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We fear God more than the state.
So, we pay our taxes on time. We do the speed limit. We buckle our seatbelts and pay our fines. We speak respectfully of the President to our children. We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with Christ’s law of love and righteousness.
And even more, we joyfully preach Christ. And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. On our way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).
For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end.
The amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse. The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus. Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re merely aliens and strangers here. We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.
Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s? We were stamped with the imago Dei long before anything was stamped with the emperor’s profile. I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that (even if I would appreciate paying him less!).
Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy? In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel? What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or salvation of the elect? Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?
How would Jesus answer those questions? Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?
Jesus did lead a protest once. He called out the religious establishment for co-opting God’s kingdom to advance their own. They exploited people and shilled for Rome (Mk 11.15-18). Jesus never turned over the tables in the capitol building. Only in the temple. Jesus isn’t so much fixing Babylon as he is perfecting Zion.
Thousands of professing Christians who gather for a National Day of Prayer rarely, if ever, gather with their local churches to pray. They pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched. All the while, they don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.
The church in prayer is far more powerful than the legislature in session. Revival will not hinge on how many churches get out the vote, but how many get out the gospel through Word, sacrament and discipline.
Would Jesus join the Tea Party? The real question is if we part of his party. He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died. He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction. He’s more concerned about holiness than political hubris.
So pay your taxes. Rally your base. But make sure you’re keeping Christ’s kingdom your primary allegiance. Get out the vote but get out the gospel more. Love Jesus and serve the church more than democracy and the State. Make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) you’re standing with Christ and his people.
And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God. Are they giving God what is God’s?