When Jesus said,”Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), He established the principal that there is one realm of activity under the authority of civil government and another realm of activity under the direct authority of God. This distinction lead us to two principals:
This principal means that there should be no church control on the actions of civil government. This is generally a matter where both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, in the United States today agree…one of the few things. Another support for this idea is the fact that in the New Testament there is no indication that the elders in the local churches have any responsibility in the local government or provincial or empire-wide government. Those governmental officials are always distinct from the elders of the New Testament churches. At one point in His ministry, Jesus Himself refused to assume any governmental role.
“Then one from the crowd said to Him,’Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But He said to him,’Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?'” [Luke 12:13-14].
Jesus refused to take authority in a realm of civil government that had not been assigned to Him. If the church should not govern the state, this implies that various popes in the Middle Ages were wrong to attempt to assert authority over kings and emperors, or even the right to claim a right to select the emperor. These things came about as a result of failing to appreciate the distinction that Jesus made between the things that were Caesar’s and the things that were God’s.
The second principal is that civil government should not govern the things that are God’s. This principal implies that every nation should allow freedom of religion, by which every person is free to follow whatever religion he or she chooses. This principal is rightly protected in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which says,”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Further support for the idea that government should not control the church…or synagogue or mosque…is found in the selection of church officers in the New Testament. The first apostles were chosen by Jesus, not by any Roman official. [Matt. 10:1-4]. The early church, not any government official, chose “seven men of good repute” to oversee the distribution of food to the needy. [Acts 6:3]. Paul gave qualifications for elders and deacons that would have to be evaluated by those within the church. [1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:3-9]. There was clearly no involvement by civil government, neither by local officials or the Roman Empire, in the selection of officials in the early church. Contrary to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the government of the church and the government of the state are different systems of government, and they have authority over different groups of people, for different purposes. The civil government should not rule the church or infringe on the church’s right to govern itself.
While civil government should not rule over the church and should not promote any religion over another, there is the question of whether civil government should give support to churches or to religion in general? Support would be the granting of tax-exempt status to churches. Another example would be government support for chaplains in the military and in US prisons. These actions seem to be appropriate for government as they flow from the government’s responsibility to “promote the general welfare” [US Constitution], or to promote the good of the nation as a whole. [Rom. 13:1-7]. As long as the opportunity is available for any religious group to take advantage of these benefits, it does not seem that the government is inappropriately favoring one religion over another. Sadly, some segments of American society have lost sight of the idea that churches are healthy for a society and should be encouraged.
The most difficult church/state questions arise when people disagree over whether something belongs to the realm of the church or to the realm of the government. As has been previously shown, the founding principals of our laws are based on Judeo/Christian principals, but even today these principals are being questioned and by some, other principals are being pursued…i.e. sharia law. While it does not appear that pursuit is going anywhere for the time being, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s is creating controversy. In the ancient church, the civil government thought that bowing down to a statue of Caesar and swearing allegiance to him as a god was an appropriate thing for the government to require of every person. Bowing down to Caesar was something that belonged to Caesar. But early Christians thought that this was forcing them to commit idolatry, and that worship was the thing that belonged to God. Many Christians died for the sake of that conviction.
In the United States today the question is still a source of conflict. Here are just a few of the cases that have been the source of separation questions:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses have traditionally objected to blood transfusions, claiming that this was a religious belief. The civil government has had to forcibly impose transfusions to save the life of young children reasoning that the protection of a child’s life is not a matter of worship but rightly in the domain of civil government. [Catherine Philip,”Babies Seized after Jehovah’s Witness Mother Refuses Blood for Sextuplets”, Times Online (23 Feb 2007)]
- A Brazilian religion in New Mexico claimed that the use of hallucinogenic tea in worship services was part of their religious practices. The Supreme Court agreed. [Gonzales v. Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, US Supreme Court, Docket No. 04-1084, Decided 21 Feb 2006]
- A new religious group in California…you might know…claimed that its recently invented religion required them to grow and use marijuana as part of their ‘worship’. A federal court disagreed saying there was no historic tradition establishing this as a genuine religious belief. [Kiczenski v. Ashcroft, US District Court for Eastern District of California, Decided 24 Feb 2006]
- In another case, Sultanna Freeman, a Muslim woman in Orlando, Florida, claimed the right to be veiled except for a thin slit for her eyes when getting her driver’s license photo. The state made a reasonable effort to accommodate her saying she could be photographed in a private setting with only women present. That did not satisfy her. The Florida Circuit Court on 6 Jun 2003 ruled that if she wanted a driver’s license there was a compelling interest requiring her to have a photo taken without a veil. [“US Muslim Ordered to Lift Veil”, BBC News, 6 Jun 2003].
This is just a few of the many examples that have created confusion between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Abortion, same sex marriage, military service, prayer in public, Christian displays on public property, the Bible in school, divorce, etc. are just a few of the sources of conflict. When all is said and done, we must remember that freedom of religion does not release people from the obligation to obey the ordinary and morally good laws that are required of all members of a society.
Next week we will take a look at the government’s obligation to establish a strong and clear separation of powers. It is up to the Christian community and God’s churches to make sure congregations are aware of government actions and speak up when the government ‘crosses the line’.
– Bob Munsey