Last week we commemorated our American Independence Day, July 4, when the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress. The Declaration is our foundational document, stating the underlying principles of our nation. The Constitution is the document that puts those principles into action.
On the Fourth of July we think about our country, its struggle for independence over 230 years ago, and what American patriotism means. Patriotism is in the news these days, especially in this presidential campaign. Moreover, there are differences of opinion in the United States as to how Christians should relate to their country. Some say conservative Christians are too patriotic, almost making patriotism into a civil religion. They say there shouldn’t even be a flag flown on church property or displayed inside the church. Those on the other side of the argument say that we, as Christians, are to be loyal to our country and open displays of patriotism are appropriate.
In a certain Gospel passage (Luke 20:19-26), the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus in a question regarding a similar kind of dispute – the question of paying taxes to the Roman Empire. Let’s take a look at this story and other biblical passages, to see what we can apply to our lives today.
Today, the question of whether it is OK to pay taxes to the Romans may seem rather benign, yet to the Jews of that day it was a loaded question. Because the Jews hated praying taxes to the Romans, the religious leaders felt that they were going to box Jesus into a no-win situation with their question. If Jesus said it was OK to pay taxes, his popularity would plummet. If Jesus said it wasn’t OK to pay taxes to the Romans, then he would be subject to arrest by the Roman governor for treasonous speech.
Jesus, of course, astounded them with a good answer, one that was true to Scripture, yet recognized the two realms on the earth: civil and spiritual. Jesus’ famous answer is found in Luke 20:25b (NIV): “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Regarding honoring civil authority, the Scripture of Jesus’ day, the Hebrew Bible, says that the people are to support the government. Proverbs 24:21 says: My child, fear the LORD and the king, and do not disobey either of them… NRSV
God told the told the Israelites when they were in captivity (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV):
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
In his simple answer to the loaded question, Jesus recognized that the two realms are legitimate, and each is to be supported. The people are to support the civil realm, instituted by God, with their taxes. The Apostle Paul wrote after Jesus’ time, but made these points in Romans 13:1-2:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. NRSV
The other realm is spiritual one, which is the church, and we are to provide what is necessary for its support and its ongoing work for God’s Kingdom. This support includes monetary offerings and volunteer work of various kinds.
More on how we as Christians are to relate to our country in a future post.