This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 03 (2011). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
Contemporary Christians in the Western world live in nations with governments that are sometimes called “liberal democracies.” Because such governments allow their citizens to form political parties, vote, run for elected office, and petition the government, Christians in such nations are blessed with opportunities to shape their communities in ways that were absent in prior generations. Although the Bible does not say much about the role of a Christian citizen and his relationship to the state, Scripture does communicate to us certain principles that provide us with insight on the scope of a Christian’s responsibility in a liberal democracy. In order to understand these principles we will explore three topics: (1) Caesar’s coin and the image of God, (2) doing justice, and (3) knowing your government, its laws, and the scope of your citizenship. Christians must use their freedom wisely and behave honorably before their unbelieving neighbors as well as accept and respect the rule of law and the authorities put in place to protect it, all for the sake of the common good.
Should a Christian citizen be politically engaged? Although the New Testament speaks very little about a Christian’s responsibility as a citizen, one may glean certain principles from the Bible that contribute to our understanding. In order to accomplish this, I will cover three topics: Caesar’s Coin and the Image of God; Doing Justice; and Knowing Your Government, Its Laws, and the Scope of Your Citizenship.
CAESAR’S COIN AND THE IMAGE OF GOD
Jesus, in a familiar scene, is confronted by the Pharisees:
“Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Matt. 22:11–13 NAB)
Most readers understand Jesus as instructing His audience that the church and government have jurisdiction over different spheres. Although I believe this is a correct reading, we often miss its subtle political implications. Jesus first asks whose image is on the coin, and the answer is “Caesar.” There is an unsaid question, however: Who has the image of God on it?1 So, if the coin represents the authority of Caesar because it has his image on it, then we, human beings, are under the authority of God because we have His image on us. Good governments, nevertheless, ought to be concerned with the well-being of their citizens. Thus, both government and the church, though having separate jurisdictions, share a common obligation to advance the good of those made in God’s image.
This implies not only that we should not confuse the state and the church, but also that we should be concerned with the good of our fellow human beings. This concern may be manifested in a number of different ways. We can help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or comfort the afflicted. This can be accomplished by our churches or by the wider community through government programs. The issue for Christians is not whether one should support works of mercy and charity—we are commanded to do so by Scripture (Matt. 25:31–46; James 1:26–27). The real question, rather, is what is the best way to achieve success. Christians are, of course, divided on this question. Some emphasize free market solutions, with government playing a minimal role and the church doing virtually all of the work. Others maintain that some social welfare programs administered by the government are necessary, with churches playing a role in politically advocating such programs along with doing their own independent work as well.
We should, however, remember that the theological purpose of Christian charity is not merely to help the poor and others who are in need of the church’s love and care, but also to allow the grace of God to work through us so that we may be conformed to the image of Christ and bear witness to the world of that grace. According to Jesus (Matt. 5:17–24), it is the bearing of fruit, the hearing and acting on Christ’s words, the doing the will of His Father that constitute the life of faith, a life likened by Jesus to a house that could fall if not adequately constructed to withstand severe adversity. The Gospel of Mark recounts these words of Christ, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). Because the Christian gospel is as much about getting heaven into us as getting us into heaven, we should not be quick to accept government solutions that may have the unintended consequence of impeding the church’s opportunity to bear witness to Christ’s grace in our works of charity and mercy.
Scripture instructs both the state and the individual to do justice. Christ, for example, tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27), and offers the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to help us to understand that the stranger, too, is my neighbor and entitled to be treated justly (Luke 10:29–37). The Old Testament is replete with calls for justice and condemnations of injustice (e.g., Isa. 58:6–10; Deut. 24:19–22; Prov. 31:8–9). The Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2–17) tell us something of God’s plan for a rightly ordered, or socially just, community. We are to worship God, honor our mothers and fathers, remain faithful to our spouses, not covet our neighbors’ property or spouse, maintain integrity in word and deed, and respect the intrinsic dignity of human life. In political terms this can be translated to the government respecting and privileging religious liberty, the right to life, private property, traditional marriage, male-female parenthood, and integrity in public life.
A Christian’s moral obligation to do justice may also involve concern for the public culture and how it affects the virtue of its citizens. Political theorist Robert P. George refers to this as a community’s “moral ecology.”2 We know that film, art, television, literature, the Internet, and other forms of entertainment and expression have the power to shape and influence a culture. This is why companies advertise. They are fully aware that a well-crafted image or a string of carefully fashioned words has the power to change minds and hearts. This should not surprise us. Jesus uttered parables, not doctrinal treatises, in order to teach theological truths, just as Plato penned his entertaining dialogues in order to offer philosophical arguments on an array of issues concerning the nature of knowledge, reality, politics, and law. Everyone knows the story of the Good Samaritan, but virtually no one, except for a handful of professors, can recite to you the version of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative they were taught in college. Stories and images matter.
Just as the natural environment of the Earth requires an ecological balance, so does the moral environment of a culture. Just as a polluted river has the potential to negatively impact fish, wildlife, recreation, and industry, a polluted culture can impair the moral ecology of a community. This seems uncontroversial. Thus, it is not surprising that in the United States some of the fiercest political and legal battles are over public school curricula. Activists from many sides clash over the content of everything from sex education courses to the teaching of evolution in science classes. For all sides know that ideas have consequences and that whoever controls what and how ideas are communicated in the schools shapes the beliefs of the next generation. This is no less true of other cultural phenomena, including the assorted media that incessantly bombard us from all angles, such as radio, television, film, and the Internet. Consequently, if a Christian is truly concerned about loving her neighbor as herself, she should be just as worried about her neighbor’s loss of virtue resulting from, and contributing to, an imbalance in her community’s moral ecology as she is with the loss of her neighbor’s physical health caused by an excess of automobile emissions.
And yet, the Christian has to be careful on how far he or she will extend the power of the government to protect a community’s moral ecology. Take, for example, the debate over gay rights. There is a wide range of opinion on this subject, even among Christians. Very few, if any, Christians, even very conservative ones, argue for the state to criminalize homosexual behavior that takes place in private between consenting adults, though most Christians would not argue that homosexual practice is good or ought to be celebrated by the state. But yet it is clear to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and virtually all evangelical Protestants that a society that embraces same-sex marriage is one that has effectively abandoned a fundamental truth about human beings—marriage is a one-flesh communion between one man and one woman—supported by both Scripture and natural law that is essential for the common good.3
A Christian must be prudent and wise about how he or she addresses the volatile issues that arise out of the debate over gay rights. First, even if we believe that homosexual behavior is immoral and harmful to those who practice it (as many of us do indeed believe, including me), one must never forget that homosexuals are persons made in the image of God. Thus, we do not want our support of the sanctity of marriage to obstruct our love for those for whom Christ died, including our homosexual neighbors and friends. For this reason, the Christian should focus on what he or she supports rather than merely on what he or she opposes, though at times we cannot avoid speaking frankly about what we believe about human sexuality and the nature of marriage. In those cases, we should ask our dissenting friends and neighbors to extend to us the tolerance and open-mindedness they often (and I believe, inaccurately) claim that we lack.
Second, because Christians, even in the United States, live in widely different communities, one has to be realistic about what one can achieve by the political process. In some locales, the best one can do is to make an effort to protect the church from being coerced by the state to violate Christian moral theology. In Massachusetts, for example, soon after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 required that the state issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Catholic Charities, which was at the time in the child adoption business, was told by the state that it could no longer exclude same-sex couples as adoptee parents, even though the Catholic Church maintains that same-sex unions are deeply disordered and sinful. Because it did not want to compromise its moral theology, Catholic Charities, sadly, ceased putting children up for adoption.4 Even if one supports gay rights, this forced departure of Christian kindness from the public square is an appalling violation of religious liberty. It means that a religious organization with an outstanding track record in placing children in loving homes had to stop that activity simply because it will not acquiesce to the state’s requirement that it violate its theological understanding of the nature of marriage and family. It seems to me that, in situations like this, Christians have a right to resist through legal and extra-legal means such an intrusion by the state on the practice of the church’s moral theology. For this reason, Christian citizens should be aware that laws and court opinions that are defended as liberating for one group may in practice nurture cultural and political hostility toward Christians and other citizens.
KNOWING YOUR GOVERNMENT, ITS LAWS,
AND THE SCOPE OF YOUR CITIZENSHIP
Scripture seems to teach that we have an obligation to understand the nature of our government and its laws and employ that knowledge so that the gospel is not disadvantaged by the state. According to Paul, Christians ought to obey generally applicable laws because they receive their authority from God. Thus, to disobey such laws is tantamount to disobeying God. Paul writes:
Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in their places of power. People who oppose the authorities are opposing what God has done, and they will be punished. Rulers are a threat to evil people, not to good people. There is no need to be afraid of the authorities. Just do right, and they will praise you for it. After all, they are God’s servants, and it is their duty to help you.
If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is. But you should obey the rulers because you know it is the right thing to do, and not just because of God’s anger.
You must also pay your taxes. The authorities are God’s servants, and it is their duty to take care of these matters. Pay all that you owe, whether it is taxes and fees or respect and honor. (Rom. 13:1–7 CEV)
In order to comply with Paul’s instructions, one must be conversant with the laws of one’s government and the rules and regulations that one is required to obey. The Apostle also rejects a consequentialist justification for this obedience. That is, he says that we should obey the law, not merely because we will be punished if we don’t obey it, but rather, because “it is the right thing to do” even if we know that we won’t be punished if we disobey.
However, it would be a mistake to take the apostle’s general advice to the Romans and apply it to situations in which a good law is administered unjustly, or an unjust law punishes the good and rewards evil, or when the authorities instruct Christian citizens to betray the principles of the gospel.
Concerning the case of unjustly administered law, the Book of Acts records an incident in which Paul, after being beaten and imprisoned with Silas for preaching the gospel, appeals to his Roman citizenship in order to exercise his civil rights and to remedy a wrong:
But when it was day, the magistrates sent the lictors [the Roman magistrates’ attendees] with the order, “Release those men.” The jailer reported the(se) words to Paul, “The magistrates have sent orders that you be released. Now, then, come out and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, even though we are Roman citizens and have not been tried, and have thrown us into prison. And now, are they going to release us secretly? By no means. Let them come themselves and lead us out.” The lictors reported these words to the magistrates, and they became alarmed when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and placated them, and led them out and asked that they leave the city. (Acts 16:35–39 NAB)
Several points stand out here. (1) The Apostle used political status—Roman citizenship—in order to ensure that the gospel could be preached freely. (2) He was not afraid to exercise the rights that this political status accorded him as an act of community leadership, even if it struck fear in the hearts of the magistrates. (3) He directly cited a violation of his rights as a citizen—lack of due process (“we…have not been tried”)—against those in the government that committed the act. (4) Paul employed political leverage to correct an injustice done to him and a fellow Christian.
Today, citizenship, especially in liberal democracies, carries with it a greater array of rights and responsibilities than the Apostle ever had. Thus, if Paul thought there was nothing tawdry or unchristian in employing his Roman citizenship and the rights and powers that accompany it in order to protect the gospel and to remedy a wrong, then we ought to take our own citizenship just as seriously when the proper time and circumstance requires that we avail ourselves of its powers.
Consider another encounter between the church and the civil authorities (Acts 5:17–42). This concerned the right of Christian believers to preach the gospel. The apostles were imprisoned in a public jail by the Jewish Sadducee high priest and his colleagues. After an angel released the apostles that evening, the Sadducees convened the Council of Jewish authorities and requested that the apostles be brought before that body. But the apostles were not in jail any longer. They were in the Temple preaching the gospel. So, when the council members heard this, the captain of the Temple guards and his men went to the Temple and escorted the apostles back to the Council. The text goes on to record the following exchange:
When they had brought them, they stood them [the apostles] before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:27–32 NASB)
In this case, the infant church disobeyed the civil authorities because they were requiring that the church not obey Christ’s command to preach the gospel (Matt. 28:19–20). This records a clear case of a political regime oppressing the church. But it also tells us something else that is often missed by biblical commentators: it shows us what the apostles thought about the truth-value of the message they were preaching. Rather than appealing to a “right to conscience” or some modern concept of religious liberty to justify their preaching (though there is certainly nothing wrong in appealing to such a concept), the apostles told the high priest that they were justified in preaching the gospel because they had good reason to believe that the gospel was true. Given the religious nature of the civil authority they were encountering—a Jewish Council—the apostles delivered to that body the only sort of argument that could justify what they were doing in the minds of their oppressors: we have knowledge of a truth that gives us the warrant, and thus authority, to do what we are doing. Of course, the Council members were not persuaded by the apostles’ argument, for “they, when they heard this, were cut to the heart, and minded to slay them [the apostles]” (Acts 5:33 ASV).
One lesson from this story is that Christians may at times be obligated to disobey the civil authorities. But another lesson, that is often ignored, is that Christians should defend their place in the polity by appealing to the truth of what they believe. Fortunately, for many of us, we live in nations in which our religious liberty does not depend on whether we can make a case for the veracity of our faith. This is because, ironically, as many scholars have argued, the very idea of religious liberty is rooted in a Christian view of human beings that entails that religious liberty is a fundamental right that all persons possess. Denominations as different as the Southern Baptist Convention5 and the Catholic Church6 have embraced this understanding and defend it as a natural outgrowth of Christian principles found in both Scripture and church history.
The same Peter who courageously stood up for the gospel in the Book of Acts tells us in his first epistle that in this world we are “aliens and exiles,” and that we ought to “conduct [ourselves] honorably among the Gentiles [i.e., unbelievers], so that, though they malign [us] as evildoers, they may see [our] honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Pet. 2:11–12 NRSV). Peter goes on to write:
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17 NRSV)
So, the Christian must use his freedom wisely and be honorable to his unbelieving neighbors as well as accept and respect the rule of law and the authorities put in place to protect it, all for the sake of the common good. In a liberal democracy, such as the United States, the Christian citizen has unprecedented access to the levers of power in comparison to his predecessors in the ancient and medieval worlds. Thus, Peter’s instructions, as well as the example set by the apostles in Acts, may have more practical application in our modern age than at any time in the 1500 years following the establishment of the first-century church.
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Resident Scholar in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. He is the author of many books including Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010), from which this article is adapted. His website is www.francisbeckwith.com
* This article is adapted from portions of Chapter 2 of Francis J. Beckwith, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010).
- This is an insight I learned from Luis Lugo in his essay “Caesar’s Coin and the Politics of the Kingdom: A Pluralist Perspective,” in Caesar’s Coin Revisited: Christians and the Limits of Government, ed. Michael Cromartie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 14–15.
- Robert P. George, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 46.
- See Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain, eds., The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2006); and Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
- Maggie Gallagher, “Banned in Boston,” The Weekly Standard, May 16, 2006, 11, 33.
- See “Religious Liberty,” on the Web site of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, available at http://erlc.com/topics/C33/.
- See Dignitas Humanae (December 7, 1965), available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html.