The Place of Politics in Modern Christianity
Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in
Should believers be involved in politics? This question is being discussed in Christian circles all over the country. A new book by columnist Cal Thomas puts forth the premise that Christians have lowered themselves and the gospel of Christ by engaging in partisan politics. Religious leaders such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson are on the defensive, trying to justify their past political involvement. This controversy is ongoing, and will not end soon. The upcoming presidential election will ensure it.
What does the bible say? Or does it even speak on the matter at all? Possibly the most pertinent scripture on the subject is the above quoted Matthew 22:15-22. In it, we find biblical answers to these questions.
The Counsel v. 15
In verse 15 we see the two major political parties of Israel introduced. The Pharisees were the religious leaders who used the political system to their advantage. They were nationalists, believing that the Roman occupation of Israel was unacceptable. The Herodians were their opposition. They were the liberals of the time, compromising with the Roman government for their own political gain.
An amazing fact is that Jesus was such a threat to the political system of His day that both major political parties conspired together to stop Him. The word translated entangle means "to snare as trapping a bird." The political experts decided to play political games with the Son of God.
The Christ v. 16
Notice how the political experts handled Christ. They used the old political trick of flattery. But in their attempt to flatter Him, they actually pay Him great homage. They call Him Master, a term denoting His authority as a teacher. In saying thou art true , they mean that He is a lover of the truth. In teaching the way of God in truth, they judge that He is an objective teacher, one who does not play favorites. They also praise His objectiveness with people, not preferring one over the other. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians think that they have Christ in a political quandary, so they lavish Him with compliments, trying to build up to the defining moment when they present the poisonous question.
The Challenge v. 17
It is almost
humorous to examine the question presented to Christ in light of present
day politics. In verse 17, we have the political experts' opinion
poll. "Tell us therefore, what thinkest thou?"
As in the opinion polls, you get the choice of two answers. Is
it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? This was
their "poison pill" question. Politically, there was no way to answer.
If He rejected the paying of taxes to the Roman government, He would be
considered a seditionist and a rebel. He could be arrested.
If He advocated payment, He risked alienating His largest group of supporters,
the common people who hated being under the rule of Rome.
The Corruption v. 18
Verse 18 says that Jesus "perceived their wickedness." Wickedness here refers to "evil purposes." These challengers of Christ were political power-players. They knew the game and how to play it. Their purpose was not to be taught or edified by Christ, but to destroy Him if they could. They resented the hold He had on the people. They were losing their grip on their power. Jesus' question to them let them know that He could see through their sham. "Why tempt ye me..." Why do you use craft and cunning to test me, He is saying. Then He labels them "hypocrites." Pretenders! Stage actors! Jesus certainly did not use political correctness in dealing with the politicians, He exposed them!
The Coin v. 19-20
Jesus asked them for the coin. In doing this, He placed the entire political process on display. The coin represented the government of Rome; it was backed by the Roman empire. It was the currency of their culture. He then asks them whose image is embedded on the coin. In doing this, He placed the political leaders on display. Caesar represented the supreme political power of the day.
Notice too that Jesus made His challengers produce the coin. This placed Him above and beyond the controversy. The coin did not come from the pockets of Christ, but from the questioners themselves. Let us always remember that our faith is never subject to the political whims of the day. Our salvation is always "above and beyond" the political process.
The Charge v. 21
Now we come to the great teaching that has amazed the teachers and scholars to this day. To "render" means "to pay or to deliver." We are to deliver allegiance and obedience to our government. We are obligated to fulfill our duties to the state, such as paying taxes, voting, serving on juries, etc. I believe that we are "rendering unto Caesar" when we honor the flag and show patriotism.
But that is not the entire teaching. The word "and" which connects the two parts of the sentence is "a primary article, giving force to the words preceding and proceeding it." Christ is saying that there is benefit in respecting and honoring your government, but not at the expense of "rendering unto God." The two causes are separate causes, and there is no question which is to be the most important to the Christian.
We are to "render unto God the things that are God's." Our supreme duty and passion is to give glory and honor to the God of our salvation. There can be no compromise, no debate, and no discussion. By His statement, Christ forever separates faith and politics, and at the same time, links the two together. The state can never overtake the principles of our faith, but our faith must always be our guide in our political and governmental dealings. If there is a division, God must take preeminence. When the disciples in the book of Acts were commanded by the magistrates not to preach anymore in Jesus' name, they said, "We ought to obey God rather than man."
The Conquest v. 22
When the questioners heard the words of Christ, they marveled. That is, they wondered in admiration. They had been defeated in their designs. They were silenced and confounded and they went their way. Christ had upheld the principles of Christianity when confronted by the political apparatus of the day. Christianity is not for sale or compromise in the political arena. Believers are not to negotiate away our standards and principles.
Conclusion: So where does this study leave us? Should a Christian enter the political arena? The answers are complicated. First, Christians are divinely responsible for being "salt" and "light" in their culture. Our beliefs are a part of our very beings. We cannot "check in our religion at the door" as we enter the political process. We must be allowed to stand for the principles that make us who we are. Those who would exclude Christians from the political process on the basis of separation of church and state do so with no authority from our constitution or the words of Christ.
Conversely, Christians should never expect to further the cause of Christ through the political process. We do not have a divine mandate to use politics in the work of God. Politics is a dirty business, a compromising endeavor. I believe that today's Christian depends too much on our governmental leaders to uphold our Christian heritage. The Christian heritage we reverence is not a product of our government. It rests in God's people and our individual testimonies. God is our refuge and our help, not a flawed government with flawed leaders.
Christians can use the political process, but we should never allow politics and politicians to use us.
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