And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap [Jesus] in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” and they marveled at him (Mark 12:13-17).
When Jesus told those who were trying to trap him to obey both God and the government — the government of their pagan Roman oppressors — he was signaling a major paradigm shift. Prior to that time, Israel had a unique religious and ethnic identity. They had been ruled by various kings (and occasional oppressors) over the years, but ultimately, Israel was a theocracy ruled by God. With the advent of the New Covenant and the Christian church, God instituted a change from a national covenant with Israel alone to an international covenant with Christians the world over. With that radical statement, Jesus detached his followers from any particular nation.
Along with that pronouncement, Jesus commanded Christians to be good citizens (render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s), but he also — stunningly — indicated that the pagan state could be a legitimate form of government. The denarius in question not only bore Caesar’s image, but it said that Caesar was “God” — it was idolatrous and deeply offensive to the Jews. Yet Jesus instructed them to pay the poll tax, worth a day’s wages, even though it was a sign of subjugation to the ungodly Roman emperor.
Jesus was not in the theocracy business. He never instructed his followers to advance an earthly kingdom or impose Old Testament laws on the Roman government. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Even though Jesus had “all authority in heaven and on earth,” (Matthew 28:18) he did not instruct his followers to set up an earthly government. Rather, Christians were to be citizens of the countries in which they lived — and were to be good, law-abiding citizens unless the law conflicted with their duty to God: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when there was a conflict.
Augustine explained that Christians are pilgrims, caught in limbo between the City of God and the City of Man:
[T]wo cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.
We have many rights and responsibilities as Americans and we have a long, exceptional history of Christians influencing government affairs for the good. Our Declaration of Independence asserted that certain inalienable rights were given to us by our Creator — not the government. But as Paul reminded the Christians at Philippi, “[O]ur citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). We have a higher authority and calling than the United States government.
Though Jesus is the master of American Christians, He is not president of the United States. Though our government is sometimes run by Christian leaders — much to the distress of secular progressives — it is currently largely in the hands of those who don’t worship the God of the Bible, those who are even antagonistic to its truths.
But God did not need the U.S. Constitution to build His church. It began in the wicked Roman Empire and spread across the known world at the time, despite the severe persecution of Christians.
Many Christians are looking over their shoulders these days, wondering when the next blow will come to religious liberty. Justice Scalia said that the majority in the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling characterized those who support traditional marriage as hostis humani generis — enemies of mankind. Those of us with strong religious convictions are left to wonder about the coming lawfare against people of faith and the shrinking First Amendment.
Of course, Christians will fight for the First Amendment and every other word of our Constitution (though sincere Christians will differ on what that fight will look like). But as we do, we must keep the perspective that we have one foot in the City of Man and the other in the City of God. The former is only temporary as we sojourn to the completion of the latter.