Friday, August 03, 2012

Render but how much

The words of Jesus in response to the Pharisees attempting to trick Him are well known in the church. It is so common that we almost instinctively say them in the archaic King James language: “Render unto Caesar…”. It is pretty clear that while Jesus was addressing a specific issue, namely the payment of taxes to the occupying government of Rome, He based this in a broader doctrine of the relationship of believers to the secular government wherever God places us. How we should live in relationship to the world and the governing authorities and how much we should submit to them, and even participate or cooperate with, is a tricky one. It is also an important issue and one I want to take a look at in more detail.

What follows is the entire “render unto Caesar” conversation from Matthew 22…

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

You have to love it when Jesus turns things around on His accusers like that! This teaching on paying taxes to Caesar is not an isolated incident. When Pilate was questioning Christ and tried to play the authority card on Him, Jesus was having none of it and told Pilate that he had no authority at all except what God had given him, something that would be worthwhile for us to remember in the highly politicized church culture of America...

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11)

Pilate and all rulers before him and after him have no authority except what has been given them by God. Pilate didn’t have the ability to arrest Jesus or release Him because God gave Pilate the authority he wielded. I wonder if Pilate ever realized that he was addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? I suspect not.

This entire line of doctrine relating to worldly authority is brought to a bold crescendo in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, a church in the shadow of one of the most repressive empires to ever exist, where Paul calls on the church to do the unthinkable: submit to the governing authorities, i.e. Ceasar.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

Paul is not talking to people living in a democratic republic. He is talking to people that we would think would be justified in rising up and casting off their chains by any means necessary. In fact it seems that this is what more than a few people both expected and wanted and were quite disappointed when Jesus didn't agree. The context here matters so much. The first century Christians, the early followers of Christ and subsequent disciples, weren't battling over contraception mandates or fast food chicken sammiches, they were in a struggle for their very survival and clearly asking some hard questions. The answer they got was consistent and unambigious: submit to the authorities that are over you becuse they are over you by God's own sovereign decree.

So the Bible is quite clear on this topic. Christians are to render to Caesar what is his and to God what is His. How that looks, especially after 1700 years of  a perverse state-church marriage, is a little harder to discern. What do we render and how much? Rendering sounds kind of like something unpleasant done to animal parts left over after slaughter but that is the word we have to work with.

I have divided up "rendering" into three major levels. These of course are arbitrary but I think they work.

On the first level is simple submission. I obey the laws and little else. This would be the traditional Anabaptist position and is the source for conservative Anabaptist positions against voting. The rationale is largely based on active participation beign tantamount to approval. For example if I vote for candidate X and then candidate X become President and orders an air strike on a town where civilians are killed I am partially at fault for supporting this individual. Very few Christians outside of Anabaptist groups would fall into this camp.

The second level is where most Christians in the West find themselves, being active participants in civic life, chiefly by voting and otherwise being politically and civically active. Taxes are paid, votes are cast and perhaps doantions of time/money or the application of bumper stickers in support of a political candidate. Being an active citizen is seen as not only our civic duty but our duty as Christians, rendering through participation.

The third level is the most problematic and involves being active agents of the state. This can range from being a municipal official to a police officer to a soldier all the way to President of the United States. In any case being this involved actvely as an agent of the state carries some obvious issues, primarily that you find yourself in a position to use coercion or force to enforce the laws of the state. A President might be called upon to give the order to bomb a city. A soldier might be called upon to kill an enemy. A police officer must be willing to use force, including deadly force, to subdue criminals. Even being a municipal official requires things like the threat of arrest or fines to coerce behavior.

The third level is the one I am most interested in today. Being an agent of the governing authority in my mind leads to a blurring of the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man in a way that most jobs do not. Government, the kings and rulers and principalities of this world, are given special treatment in Scripture in a way that working at a regular "job". It has a particular role to play that makes active participation problematic.

Government, by and large, survives by means of coercion. If you don't pay your taxes, if you break a law, you are threatened with punishment. This is not a bad thing. The threat of punishment partly keeps those with a predisposition to crime at least partially in check and this is how God designed and intended it. This by nature seems to be contrary to how a disciple is to live. It is hard to be gentle as a lamb, peacemaking, cheek turning and meek while arresting a guy who is hitting his wife or ordering an air strike on a target knowing the risk of "collateral damage". I think that being an agent of the state raises some serious questions and concerns for the Christian and in fact might be seen as sufficient reason to shy away from those professions, just as being employed by a payday lender or a strip club should be professions we stay clear of. Obviously this is not a clear cut issue. Is being an air traffic controller or working as a garbage man for a municipal government or being a custodian at a local school the same thing? Clearly not. Lots of jobs are indirectly tied to the governning authority but not all of them require acting as an agent of the state.

I have been gradually moving down this scale, from being a enthusiatstic "wanna-be" third level Christian who saw no conflict and in fact something quite noble about active participation through the second level and teetering on the edge of the first level. For me it is not so much a matter of "can I be a soldier/policeman/politician" and more "is there a real and likely potential of a conflict of interest in this role"? I used to be a bank manager and while that was a nice job I was often in a position where I felt like what I was being asked to do in my job was contrary to how I should live and witness as a follower of Christ. In those circumstances I think it is best to stay clear rather than toe the line.

What are your thoughts? Is this reasonable when viewed in light of the commands of Christ and within the culture that He was in when He spoke these words?


Arlan said...

I agree with your three levels as a working description and agree that it raises interesting questions. After I thought about it long enough what struck me most was how little emphasis scripture puts directly on this question.

The issues are there, all right, but the New Testament simply does not directly confront centurions or magistrates or tax collectors or anyone with an ultimatum. It seems to be left to the believer to live up to their understanding--as they comprehend the nature of the gospel, their living will change. Even Levi's proclamation was not prompted by a direct command from Jesus. His heart was full of the gospel and he lived it.

Steve Scott said...


We only have to render to Caesar what is actually his, and not anything Caesar falsely claims is his. Which, in 21st century America, is quite a lot.

And Romans 13 has only to do with submitting to punisment for real evil that you actually commit. It has nothing whatsoever to do with obeying laws passed my whimsical madmen politicians. Romans 13 is likely the most unfortunate placement of an artificial chapter division in all of Scripture. It needs to be taken in its Romans 12 context, and most people simply start in 13:1.

Imagine if somebody had brought Jesus a temple shekel (that had no image on it) and asked if they needed to render it to Caesar. Jesus gave us a test to follow. Whose likeness is on it?

It is interesting that many early Christians refused to join the Roman army out of conscience. Anyway, just a few things to think about.

Arthur Sido said...

arlan, those are valid points. I would also say that the level of confusion between Caesar and the church is far higher now in this culture, many people don't know where one begins and the other ends. How many church going people wear "God bless our troops" t-shirts as if God is on our side because we are Americans?

Arthur Sido said...

Steve, I absolutely agree that Romans 13 must be read in tandem with Romans 12 (which should be a no brainer!).