The Bible, Government, and the Law

claire-anderson-60670-unsplashThere was a whole lot of Bible-quoting going on in the news last week, and most of it poorly done. That’s what happens when you marshal selected verses out of context to provide support to whatever policy you want to justify.

The verse in question was Paul’s statement in Romans that human government has a God-pleasing role in society and we are to respect that role. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

This incident has been dissected and the verse given its proper interpretation by many others and I would encourage you to find and read those articles, especially noting how this verse was used by white supremacists to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws. But more on that in a bit.

There is another verse that is used to promote a blind subservience to government. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) This verse is used to support the separation of church and state but also to assert that religion has no place in the political arena and people of faith should stay in their lane. Those aren’t the same things, and that’s not what this verse is about.

As always, context determines meaning and application. In the ancient Near East there was a tradition that valued wisdom above all things, and part of that tradition involved debating. This wasn’t so much a test of a person’s knowledge as a test of one’s cleverness. The goal was to stump your opponent while avoiding being stumped. It was a contest of wits.

When the Queen of Sheba came to see Solomon, she came to engage in such a contest. “When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon…she came to test him with hard questions.” When Solomon successfully navigated her questioning, she praised him and gave him many gifts.

Something similar is happening in Mark 12. “They sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.” The question about tithes and taxes wasn’t to learn Jesus’ position on tithes and taxes, it was designed to box him in.

There were two possible answers, and either one would get Jesus in trouble with someone—either the Romans, if he said no to paying taxes, or the Jewish nationalists, who insisted that the rule of Rome was illegitimate and no true Jewish patriot would ever pay the illegitimate Roman tax.

The key here is to see that Jesus is more clever than his questioners. He gives an answer that allows him to be seen as siding with either position—or not, depending on your perspective. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”

To the Romans Jesus seems to be saying, “Pay your taxes,” but to the nationalists, who didn’t believe any Jewish wealth was owed to Caesar, Jesus seemed to be saying, “Don’t pay your taxes.”

Jesus escapes their trap, and that is the point of the story. Jesus is not making a statement about taxes, tithes, or separation of church and state. You have to find your support—or lack thereof—for these things elsewhere.

Whatever support the Bible provides for supporting a government and obeying its laws is not based on some intrinsic quality of that government or the mere presence of its laws but on human rights, the rights given to people because they are all created in the image and likeness of God.

The legitimate role of government under God is the protection of and the fulfillment of those inalienable rights. Inasmuch as a government fulfills this role, it has God’s blessing. Inasmuch as it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

Likewise, laws that protect or enhance those inalienable rights are laws that deserve to be obeyed, and “those who resist will incur judgment”; but laws that violate those rights need to be changed and, sometimes, as with the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement, challenged, ignored, and violated.

A nation’s laws can be in accord with God’s laws, but they are never above God’s laws. This is in keeping with our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, but more importantly, with the way Jesus lived his life.

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

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