“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). This was Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The question wasn’t asked out of genuine curiosity, but only one of the Pharisees many attempts to trap Jesus. Depending on His answer, Jesus would either appear to be a traitor to Caesar or have His ministry discredited. His answer in Matthew 22:21 startled those who questioned Him. Verse 22 says when they heard Jesus’ answer, “they marveled” and went away. Former pastor and commentary writer, Kent Hughes says that with His answer in Matthew 22:21, “the Lord established the validity of human government, while at the same time set its limits”. Hughes goes on to call Romans 13:1-7 the Apostle Paul’s exposition of Jesus’ answer to this question. It’s easy depending upon party affiliation or political philosophy to only accept governmental authority when its leaders meet our approval. It’s also easy to take this passage and use it inappropriately in an attempt to make it mean what it doesn’t. So, what should the Christian response toward civil government be? How are we to conduct ourselves in light of how our government conducts itself?
When considering Paul’s teaching in these verses, it’s important to remember that at the time he was writing, Christians in Rome were living under the authority of a less than friendly government. It is also important to remember the clarity and direct nature with which Paul wrote, not only to the Christians responsibility toward civil government, but also to God’s intended purpose for government. Christians are to honor and respect governmental authority. We are to be good citizens. God’s purpose for government is to restrain evil, promote good and to punish disobedience. I think it’s safe to say that in both instances we have failed. Christians have often used governments’ immoral and irresponsible acts as an excuse for our own less than Christian response. At least I know I have. And our government has clearly run away from its God-ordained responsibilities as well. Not only are our tax dollars spent irresponsibly, but more and more our government supports policies that are contrary to God’s standards.
This passage of Romans doesn’t answer all of our questions, but Scripture does tell us how we are to order our priorities as it relates to obedience. We must obey God before all else. When the apostles were told by the governing authorities not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Paul also emphasized in this passage of Romans that Christians obey “for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). Our conscience involves our sense of what is right and wrong, but even more our awareness that we are to do what is right. That’s why the apostles didn’t obey when they were told not to teach in the name of Christ, their consciences told them not to. God always has the final say as to what is right.
I mentioned above that in his commentary, Kent Hughes indicated that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:21 not only validated the role of human government, but also set its limits. His point was that although there is a proper role for government and all are to respect its authority, government functions only under the sovereign hand of God. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings…” (Daniel 2:20-21). We can take great comfort in understanding that every king, every ruler or dictator, every president and every member of congress, no matter their political philosophy or party is there only because God ordained they be. And they will be there only until He determines otherwise.
In short, Christians should be our nation’s best citizens. Our respect, honor and submission to governmental authority should be above reproach, stemming from the recognition that government is a divine institution. However, this passage doesn’t require Christians to be passive toward sinful and immoral actions by our government. And it doesn’t teach blind loyalty to government. Our hope should always be that we are able to obey both God and men. However, when man’s law or command conflicts with God’s, we must choose God’s. As Scriptures makes this point, it also teaches the appropriate manner and tone in which we disobey.
Lastly, like all institutions, sinners occupy the seats of our government and our leaders must remain objects of our prayers. These prayers should not be conditional of who they are or what political party they belong to. Jesus changes everything for those touched by His grace. We must believe in the power of prayer.
As Hughes concluded his commentary on this passage of Romans, he said it is only through Jesus Christ that we can live out our duty to obey as described in God’s Word, but that it is also only through Christ that we are able to fulfill our duty to disobey when it is the will of God for us to do so. Remember, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Below is a prayer offered by an early church Father, Clement of Alexandria. Our nation’s leaders need these prayers today.
“Thou, Master, hast given the power of sovereignty to them through thy excellent and inexpressible might, that we may know the glory and honour given to them by thee, and be subject to them, in nothing resisting thy will. And to them, Lord, grant health, peace, concord, firmness that they may administer the government which thou hast given them without offence. For thou, heavenly Master, king of eternity, hast given to the sons of men glory and honour and power over the things which are on the earth; do thou, O Lord, direct their counsels according to which is “good and pleasing” before thee, that they may administer with piety in peace and gentleness the power given to them by thee, and may find mercy in thine eyes.”