God and Caesar: On the limitations of government

JFKWe Christians are a strange, motley bunch. Part of the glory of the gospel – and part of the joy and the challenge of life together in this world – is that God draws us together as his people from such diverse backgrounds. When we come together as his people, united as brothers and sisters in Christ, we bring with us an enormous range of quirks and weaknesses, experiences and strengths.

This wonderful diversity in the Christian community also means that we bring with us all kinds of passions and commitments. Sometimes, sadly, trivial matters can become our consuming desire, and yet we might remain coolly indifferent to things that really should put fire in our bellies. Sometimes, however, it’s just a matter of personal preference; the things that excite one person leave the next person unmoved, and that’s okay.

Where does politics fit into that mix?

Should politics capture our attention, energy and imagination? Does it belong in the unimportant basket? Or is it just all a matter of personal preference? How should we think about our governments, and (for those living in democracies) our responsibility to elect or un-elect them?

These are some of the questions in the background as we’ve explored the issue of God and government in this five-part series. But to wrap things up, and to answer some of the above questions, we need to conclude by looking at the limitations of government. And in this day and age, that means kicking off by thinking about the nature of democracy.

The Wisdom of the People
I’ve lived all my life under democratically elected governments, for which I am very, very thankful. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

At the very least, we can be thankful that we live under a system that allows for such freedom and direct involvement in our political processes. We can be thankful for the generally excellent governments (relatively speaking, of course) that democracy delivers. We can rejoice, for example, at the incredibly peaceful hand over of power that took place in the US in 2000 while George W. Bush and Al Gore vigorously disputed the election outcome – a peacefulness that would be unthinkable in many countries (though I would argue that this had less to do with democracy itself, and more to do with the biblical worldview that undergirded the foundations of the nation).

There’s much to be thankful for in democracy. But precisely because there is so much to give thanks for, we also need to be cautious. We live in a world where democracy is seen as an ultimate good. No one can argue with “the wisdom of the people.” When a politician invokes this phrase, it’s game over!

But can you defend democracy from the Bible? Biblical principles might lead us to prefer it to other forms of rule, but it is still flawed. For the gospel teaches us that we are all fallen, limited and sinful. These problems are not overcome simply because we all get together and agree on something. In fact, they could be made worse. Bad decisions can be made en masse. The majority of people can be terribly wrong at the same time. (As the saying goes, two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner is democratic.) The tower of Babel in Genesis 11 reminds us what happens when human beings band together without giving any thought to God – and you could make a good case that many 21st century democracies are more than a little Babel-like in their elevation of human wisdom.

The Bible reminds us that ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus – not to Barack Obama because a plurality of Americans pulled a lever with his name next to it in 2008 and 2012. We will not spend eternity living in a democracy. You won’t be voting in the new heavens and the new earth. The Lord Jesus Christ will not be up for re-election every three or four years. We will spend a large part of eternity simply bowing down before the throne of the Lamb.

Yes, democracy is good, but it’s not flawless. It’s not the ultimate good that it’s often depicted as being.

But what about the limitations of government more generally? Does an earthly government have the potential to deliver a perfect society?

Every Square Inch
John F. Kennedy once said: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

Is JFK right? Of course not. The Bible, not to mention our experience of watching politics in action in the real world, tells us that emphatically. Government is called to do much good, and can do much good. But it can never provide us with the Saviour we long for. It can never fix the world. We can never expect a utopian society here on earth. Every attempt has failed, and Christians know why. It’s because of our sin, and because God’s plans and purposes are not focused on earthly governments. They are focused on Jesus Christ.

Remember that passage from Mark 12 we looked at way back in the first part of this series? In part one, I only mentioned half of Jesus’ astounding answer: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he said. But what was the second half of his answer? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The Roman denarius bore the image of the Emperor, showing that it was his. So, Jesus says, if it bears his image, give it to him.

Where do we see God’s image? Our very selves! (Gen1:26-27) Jesus says we are to give ourselves to God. We are to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Our allegiance to earthly governments is real. We can invest real hope, real time, real energy in seeking the best for them, and from them. But our commitment to our earthly governments must also be limited.

Not so with our allegiance to God. We owe him (quite literally) everything – and so our devotion to him, and our hope in him, is completely unlimited. The great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper was absolutely correct when he said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Government will always be important, because order and justice are important. But while government is our duty, it will never be our ultimate hope. Christians can be useful and effective in public life precisely because we recognise that there is something more important, more lasting, beyond the political realm. To use the categories of Augustine, the city of man is our residence, and we do well to care for it. But the city of God is our home. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).

Jesus Christ came into the world to do something far, far more revolutionary than any political leader has ever dreamt of, much less actually accomplished. In his death and resurrection, Jesus defeats the enemies that enslave every single human being and which determine our eternities: the enemies of sin and death. He brings real, eternal deliverance from the greatest oppression we could ever face.

Where governments can pass laws to protect people and restrain evil, they can never change the heart. But Jesus can. Jesus changes his people from the inside. He doesn’t just give us an example to follow: by dying to make us his people and pouring out his Spirit, he gives us new hearts so we actually can consider others better than ourselves. We can begin to love God and live for him. We can love our neighbour as ourselves, even using the privilege of our vote for the sake of others.

So pay your taxes. Be a good citizen. Pray for your government. Vote wisely. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But put your trust in Jesus alone – and give yourself and your life to God.

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

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