Jesus v. Caesar

 

 

Rev. Dan Prout, Sierra Ministries International

One of Jesus’ most famous statements is recorded in Matthew 22:21, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

The Lord was responding to a Pharisee trap question regarding the legitimacy of paying taxes to the civil government. The verse often has been referenced when talking about separation of Church and State. On closer examination, we see Jesus was applying a very subtle but important concept of societal government. It is a concept and distinction largely lost in America today.

At a time when religious authority and civil authority were adversaries competing for power over everyday life and living, Jesus demonstrated in one sentence that there are two realms of authority simultaneously governing community life. In one statement, he affirmed the legitimate role of civil government while maintaining the religious, moral authority of God and godliness. These twin authorities are to govern in concert, their proper exercise providing a safe and blessed life experience, “that our lives may be quiet and peaceful” as the Apostle Paul put it in First Timothy 2:2.

Paul further affirms the role of civil government in Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Note the verse recognizes the existence of multiple authorities established by God. (History shows there are times when to obey God means to disobey civil authority.) 

All political issues are based in social issues. All social issues are based in values. All values come from religious precepts. It is, therefore, impossible to separate political matters from faith matters. The laws of a society are based inescapably in moral law. The first written law of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, demonstrates this point. Every one of the Ten – from Worship No Other Gods to Do Not Covet Your Neighbors Goods – establishes boundaries for one’s personal relationships both with God and with one’s neighbors. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness represent the biblical law for our behavior, all standards for our relationships. These qualities are so universally accepted that Paul says there is no law against such things, Galatians 5:12.

The purpose of Law, as Frederic Bastiat, the French philosopher, points out is not to guarantee justice but rather to prevent injustice. The Bible tells us the heart of human beings is selfish, self-serving, self-centered, sinful. Unchecked power, therefore, in the hands of any one person is a problem. “To expect bad men not to do wrong is madness.” said Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, and known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors”.

Understanding this reality, the Founders, in developing the U.S. Constitution, worked to bind the reach of  government misbehavior by decentralizing powers. They leaned heavily upon the principles of the Bible which call individuals to personally restrain themselves from wrong doing and they expected the generations to follow to do the same. The strength of a nation’s social fabric is directly dependent on the level of individual liberty. Individual liberty is directly dependent on virtuous morality. A nation with liberty unbridled from strong virtue will fail. Daniel Webster wrote in 1823,“If the power of the gospel is not felt throughout the length and breadth of this land, anarchy and misrule, degradation and misery, corruption and darkness will reign without mitigation or end.” His words spoken nearly 200 years ago have an inescapably prophetic accuracy for our present social and spiritual condition.

Civil authority must be informed and restrained by moral authority. It is the role of the Church to be bold enough to advise and even correct civil authority when it goes astray.  “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state. It must be the guide and critic of the state and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Strength of Love, 1963.

So it is that Christians must express themselves clearly and firmly with sound argument wrapped in seasoned speech to bring a culture gone astray back into line with the Word of God. The problem today is not that government and its leaders have lost their way; that is to be expected in the absence of vigorous moral argument.  Rather, it is the church, its leaders and its people, which has become complacent and ineffective in providing clear moral guidance in the society. To our discredit, we have abandoned the historic positions of civil service, vacating the seats of authority in school boards, city councils, and other elected positions. To our discredit, we have expected that civil authority can well function without the tangible presence of moral virtue. To our discredit, we have imagined the role of the church is only to save souls, evangelize the nations, and make disciples while failing to bring preserving, moral salt to society relegating the nation’s inhabitants to a hopeless life amidst moral and cultural decay.

Let us heed the admonition of Russian historian and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoken at Harvard University, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.” To reclaim the seats of local, regional, and even national authority it will take a surge of Christian commitment to political action. It will not be done overnight. It will take intentional, consistent effort. It will take faith fortified by fervor, conviction coupled with courage, strategy sustained by sacrifice. Are we up to it?

May God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done in the United States of America. 


The Rev. Dan H. Prout is president of Sierra Ministries, a Christian teaching and training organization. He is the founder of Pray Nevada County and one of the founding organizers of the state-wide coalition Pray California.  Dan serves with North State Pastors Regional Team, a trans-denominational fellowship promoting prayer and unity in the Body of Christ. Dan is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary.  http://www.sierraministries.org/

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.


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