In light of the recent events in Alaska, North Carolina (see this, too), and Houston, I thought it would be appropriate to put together yet another quick look at an often misunderstood verse. This one is no stranger to misrepresentation, so I want to be careful with it. The passage:
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)
The part in question is verse 22, when Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Now, the assumption that many people have with this verse (and others like it), is that these two things (people) have nothing to do with the other. The government is the government, and God is God. The government does its thing over there, while God does His thing over here. “Separation of Church and State,” they cry, citing this verse as a proof text. Psh. Hardly a prooftext–not when you have an abundance of Scripture that suggests that God owns everything! The verse says nothing about a complete separation of jurisdiction (meaning that it says nothing about civil government having nothing to do with God). We can deduce from this verse, and other ones similar (e.g., 2 Chronicles 19:11) that there are differences of spheres, but we mustn’t ignore the plethora of other verses that clearly say that the civil magistrate is under the authority of God (Romans 13:1-7).
Before we dig further, we have to remember the context. The Pharisees were trying to “entangle” Jesus in his words. They wanted him to either 1) Go against Caesar’s tax, and thus get him for treasonous behavior or 2) Be in favor of the tax, thus losing credibility with the Jews who hated Rome. Note that they handed Jesus the coin (implying that they were in possession of something powerful, and as Gary North once pointed out); Jesus then acknowledges that it does in fact belong to Caesar. North writes,
Caesar’s rule brought social stability. It created international legal framework for economic growth. It was Rome, not Israel, that had built the highways and had cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates. There are no free lunches, and Rome was merely collecting what belonged to it. Jesus was saying that the benefits of civil government had to be paid for. The beneficiaries owed something to the State.
They owed taxes to the government, and there was no reason not to pay Rome what belonged to Rome. What is interesting is that Jesus silenced them so quickly (just like he did in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery). He threw it back in their face. North notes again,
If they denied Rome’s right of taxation, they risked political suppression by Rome. If they affirmed this right, they would undermine their popularity with the more radical factions of the people. If they affirmed the tithe, they also had to affirm the Sadducee party. If they denied the tithe, they had to oppose Moses.
Now, back to the issue again: is this a proof text that suggests that Christians are to blindly follow the government? To start, the verse does not say that it is a sin for rulers to acknowledge God. In other words, God most certainly does not ask civil governments to disobey him. The implication, of course, is that they are responsible to obey him and uphold his law. This is where we must take the entirety of Scripture in order to draw the correct conclusion: Christians are to submit to the government to the extent that the government submits to God. In other words, when a civil magistrate institutes an unjust, unbiblical law, it is our duty to obey God first (Acts 5:29). (Check out this excellent book for more information on interposition).
To say that God has nothing to do with the civil government is to completely ignore the clear passages of Scripture (Romans 13:1-7). As Steve C. Halbrook points out,
If God has nothing to do with civil government, then there is no moral law binding on civil government. Neither theft, torture, nor genocide on the part of the state could be considered evil. If there is no king above Caesar, Caesar has no moral accountability. Indeed, the view that, “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn. 19:15c) in the civil realm was responsible for the greatest injustice ever committed–the crucifixion of Christ. Here the King of kings Himself was rejected for Caesar as the standard of civil justice; the view that God and Caesar rule two distinct realms was taken to its logical conclusion.
The reality is, and Halbrook nails it again, “A requirement to submit to Caesar is vastly different than a requirement for Caesar not to submit to God.” Instead of teaching two-kingdom theology, it actually teaches one-King(dom) theology, that being that Caesar is to submit to God and also to rule by God’s Law. Bahnsen points out something powerful,
Caesar is required to render to God those things which belong to God; this included the life and service of Caesar to God since the person of Caesar bears the “image of God,” just as citizens must render their taxes to Caesar because their coins bear the image of Caesar.
Christ has all authority on heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18); because of this, He is Lord over all things (including the civil government). Halbrook again,
Thus since Christ is the King of kings (1 Tim. 6:15), rulers are warned to serve Him (Ps. 2:10-12) by terrorizing evildoers (Rom. 13:1-5) in accordance with God’s law (Matt. 5:17-20; 15:4).
Far from being a proof text for blind allegiance to those in authority over us, it serves as a sobering reminder that yes, we must obey our leaders, but only so far as they submit to the will of God found in the Law of God. Like Daniel opening his windows so that he could be seen praying (in clear violation of the newly instituted rule; see Dan. 6:10), so we must cautiously, yet boldly, confront the king (1 Kings 18:17-18) with the truth of God’s Word and God’s gospel. There is no neutrality. All government is religious government–either for Christ and His Crown Rights, or for man and his pursuit of his own glory. Thankfully Christ is reigning now, putting all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). SDG.