Obeying both God and Caesar
In France, new legislation was recently passed making the wearing of burka-style Islamic veils illegal.
Now, while there will be universal agreement on laws banning murder, for instance, it is likely that opinion will be divided on the validity of a law like this one. May or should a government pass legislation on something like this? And we could get even more complex. Not that long ago, one of our M.P.s was believed to smoke marijuana as a sacramental element of his Rastafarian faith; the equivalent of our Lord’s Supper. Should this be allowed? Some people refuse medical treatment for themselves or their children because of religious beliefs. May the government overrule these beliefs and order treatment? Should a government make smacking illegal? Are calling “the faithful” to wage “holy war” on the “infidel,” and calling homosexuality a sin both an exercising of free speech that should be protected by law? Or should both be banned?
Well, we raise these questions not as our chief concern, but to introduce the subject that we wish to address in this article: Government, law, and order. For if we are even to begin answering important and potentially thorny questions like these, an even more basic principle needs to be understood. This has to do with the nature of government. What does the Bible say about government? What is a government to do? Where does the government sit in relation to the church? And how ought we as Christians to view the government?
Since this topic is one worthy of a whole seminary or university course, we will restrict ourselves to a brief survey of the biblical, confessional, and historical data.
The Old Testament Order
The Bible reveals that as early as Genesis 14 and the time of Abraham, there were those who were recognised as kings. Abimelech is a common Old Testament name for rulers. Literally, it means, “My father is king,” and was likely to be as much a title as a name. Genesis 14:4 reveals that some kings were subject to others depending on regional supremacy. Around this time (c. 1750 B.C.), Hammurabi, a king of Babylon, composed a law code which was written on a stone tablet measuring about 2.4 m tall. It was discovered in 1901 and has provided us with some fascinating insights into the concepts of government and law at that time.
A little later on, in the time of Moses, Israel was constituted as a nation. And what distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations was that she had no king. Even though Deuteronomy 17 made provision for a king, Israel functioned initially as a theocracy with God as her government and the Torah (the first five books of the O.T.) as her law. People like Moses, Aaron, Joshua, the Judges, and the elders (Exod. 18) served God as those anointed by Him to administer the law, lead in battle, judge disputes, and guide civil life in Israel. And even when kings arrived, they too were to rule as undershepherds of Yahweh, as Deut. 17 spelled out.
Life under Foreign Powers
Eventually though, life in Israel changed with the arrival of King Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile. From then on, Israel lived with the daily tension of having God as her ruler and in addition a foreign king of one sort or another. Later came the Greeks, the Ptolomies, and the Seleucids. For a time, with the Maccabees, the Israelites threw off the yoke of foreign rule; but with the emergence of the Roman empire, any hint of Israel’s independence was ended. In law, in art, in education, in worship, and in entertainment, one thing was clear for the Jews: Rome rules!
It is in this climate of a daily reality that was almost universally despised by the Jews that we must consider a crucial encounter that Jesus had with the Pharisees (Mark 12:13-17). We must do so because this passage provides us with important words that guide our consideration of this subject. Politically, the situation was this: Every Jew had to pay an imperial tribute tax to Caesar. The Pharisees accepted Roman rule as God’s divine judgment on faithless Israel and paid the tribute, begrudgingly. The Herodians accepted Roman rule because it gave them political advantage, and paid the tribute, gladly. Against them both stood the Zealots (not mentioned in this Mark passage) who hated Roman rule and flat out refused to pay the tribute. Each party despised the other, but their hatred for Jesus united them in this diabolical ploy to catch Jesus out. Their question was, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” It was the perfect set-up. Surely, whatever answer He gave to this question would trap Him in one direction or the other?
Jesus, however, exposed the hearts of His questioners with His astonishing response. He asked them to furnish a denarius; a common Roman coin. We can imagine any of them digging into their pockets or money belts and proffering the requested coin. After all, they used them every day for purchasing. And that is precisely Jesus’ point. In handing over the coin, they answered their own question. If they used Caesar’s coins; if they enjoyed the benefits of the Roman Empire, then in so doing they tacitly acknowledged Caesar’s authority and should be prepared to pay for it. And we see this in that while they used a Greek word that suggested “a voluntary choice to give,” Jesus used a Greek word that suggested “repaying a debt owed.”
In establishing the legitimacy of Caesar’s claim, then, Jesus hinted at something that is more fully explained elsewhere in the NT, and to which we shall turn below. Essentially though, what He said is that because Caesar is an authority established by God, he has a legitimate claim, as does God. To each must be given what is demanded. However, the claims of each are not equal. And this Jesus made clear by pointing to the image on the coin. Mankind has been made in the image of God. He alone is to be worshipped. Caesar may not demand the worship of himself as his coin calls for. Instead,
Though the obligation to pay to Caesar some of his own coinage in return for the amenities his rule provided is affirmed, the idolatrous claims expressed on the coins are rejected. God’s rights are to be honoured. Here Jesus is not saying that there are two quite separate independent spheres, that of Caesar and that of God (for Caesar and all that is his belongs to God); but He is indicating that there are obligations to Caesar which do not infringe the rights of God but are indeed ordained by God.Cranfield, Gospel of Mark, p. 372
Nevertheless, in Jesus’ words, we are introduced to what would be the ongoing reality for NT Christians; life lived under a civil government.
And, as we mentioned a moment ago, what this means is more fully developed elsewhere in the NT. In Romans 13:1-7, for example, we read,
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. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves ... He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
And also, 1 Peter 2:13-17 says,
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 sent by Him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right ... Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king.
And what these words, together with Jesus’ words, reveal to us is that the new political reality that God’s people live under is as much by God’s design as was the OT theocracy.
Initially then, as far as the early NT church was concerned, civil government became the instigator of intense persecution of believers. The challenge, as Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2 reveal, was to submit to the government in the face of such persecution; to render to “Caesar” those things that were his. With the dramatic “conversion” to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine, however, and the legal establishment of Christianity as the religion of the state under Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 380, another challenge was introduced. Since it was now “fashionable” to be a Christian, a competing struggle was to render to God the things that were His. Would individuals be faithful in the things of God now that the threat of persecution was gone? How could the things of God be preserved and protected from government interference?
Church and State
Hence, from that point on, a key question of the day in “Western” society would be the relationship between the church and the state. Did the Pope, for example, as head of the church, rule civil society as well; or was the Emperor, or King, also to be considered the head of the church? Who should call synods? Who should appoint bishops? To whom was a pope or king accountable?
Well, seeking to answer these types of questions and recognising that the Bible does not prescribe a particular form of government (i.e. king vs dictator vs democratic republic), we are helped by the way in which our confessions address this subject.
Concerning the nature and function of civil government, we read, “God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil authorities to be, under Him, over the people for His own glory and the public good. For this purpose He has armed them with the power of the sword for the defense and encouragement of those who are good, and for the punishment of those who do evil” (Westminster Confession of Faith. Art. 23.1; Modern English Study Version). The Belgic Confession of Faith says similar, noting also that civil government is needed to restrain the sinfulness of man, and to ensure that everything is done with good order and decency (Art. 36). In addition, the Westminster also notes the right of the civil government to wage a just war (Art. 2).
In terms of the relationship between the church and the state, both confessions also make the following helpful comments:
The civil government is also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honoured and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word” (Belgic 36). And, “as caring fathers, it is the duty of civil authorities to protect the church of our common Lord without giving preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest – doing so in such a way that all church authorities shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of carrying out every part of their sacred functions without violence or danger.
What conclusions may we draw, then, from these statements as summaries of biblical truth?
Well, to begin with, the church and the civil government are addressed separately, recognising from God’s Word that they are both separate, God-ordained institutions. Those who hold office in the church are not called to set public policy and administer justice (unless they hold elected office or work in those areas, as individuals). But neither ought the civil government to involve itself in the affairs of the church.
Secondly, the function of civil government is the promotion of good, the punishment of evil, the maintenance of public order (which can also be seen to fit under the former two headings), and national defence.
And thirdly, because civil government is ordained by God, it is to do all it can to encourage the preaching of the Christian gospel and to protect the church.
It would seem, then, that we live in a society where each of these aspects is becoming more and more blurry and undefined, especially the last. It should come as no surprise that rather than encourage and protect the church, because God is not recognised as the author of civil government, civil governments are more and more likely to enact legislation that increasingly intrudes on and hinders the work of the church.
However, our responsibility towards the government is where we must end. It is our calling “to pray for those in authority, to honour them, to pay them taxes or other revenue, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for the sake of conscience” (Westminster 23.4). And in these things there is every likelihood that we will be increasingly and sorely tested. Nevertheless, we must also recognise that civil government is a gift of God’s gracious providence, and be thankful.
May our God give us a humble faithfulness in all that He calls us to with respect to civil government. May He also help us to work wisely, as individuals, within the civil realm as we are able. And may He give us continued trust in Jesus Christ, the King of the Church, who is “head over everything (including civil government) for the church” (Eph. 1:22).