Theme: Understanding the State’s Authority
In this week’s lessons, we see that the state has a legitimate authority from God, and is therefore responsible before God to use that authority for righteousness rather than for wrong.
Scripture: John 19:11
When we begin to talk about the two ideas of the church and the state, there is of course a clear contrast between the two. But when we start to think about them on a deeper level, there are two areas of ambiguity. One of these is what I have called the secular church because although the church should be sacred, it’s nevertheless often quite secular to the degree that it operates according to the world’s principles, formulated by the world’s wisdom, the world’s theology, the world’s agenda and the world’s methods. The second area of ambiguity is the state. The ambiguity that concerns the state is reflected in Scripture.
On the one hand, we’re told in many significant passages of the New Testament particularly that behind earthly powers there stand heavenly powers that are identified with the demonic. But on the other hand, we turn to passages like that of Romans 13, where Paul is speaking of the state, and he says the powers that be are ordained of God and they are ordained for a good purpose—the maintaining of justice and order in this life. Therefore, he says Christians should pray for those who have authority over them even in the secular world.
How do we explain that ambiguity? The answer is that although the state is created for a good purpose, it doesn’t always serve this good purpose. Thus, while it has a proper function that should be encouraged by Christian people, it can also very easily, simply because it is secular, fall over into the demonic side of things and serve a very ungodly or unjust purpose.
For this reason, Christians are always in somewhat of a state of tension over against the state. They respect it, they pray for it, but they recognize that they also have the obligation to speak to the state on the basis of the revelation of God and to challenge the state when it goes in a way that’s contrary to what God shows in his Word. Probably the text of Scripture that is known best for dealing with the church-state question is from Matthew 22, in which our Lord was asked a question about taxes. It was a trick question, meant to trap him. They asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. What they thought they were going to do was to get Jesus to answer either yes or no. If he said yes, they would say, “Well, he’s just a collaborator with the Romans. What kind of a leader is that? The Messiah isn’t going to encourage that kind of servility to Rome.” On the other hand, if Jesus answered that it is not lawful to pay taxes, they could go to Pilate and report to him what Jesus was saying against paying taxes to Caesar.
After hearing their question, Jesus asked to see the coin used to pay the tax. They showed him the coin, and then he asked whose picture and inscription was on it. They replied that it was Caesar’s picture and inscription. Our Lord then said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” It is Caesar’s money; it was issued by the Roman Empire. If he wanted part of it back, it was his right to require it. But then he said, perhaps flipping the coin over as he did so, render to God what belongs to him.
So he obviously was establishing what people since have recognized as two spheres of authority, nevertheless, not two distinct spheres. Christians have always dealt with this church-state matter with this text from Matthew 22 in mind. Even so, it still raises some questions. While it does address the subject of taxes, people then ask about other areas. Suppose the state is doing things that are unrighteous? Is the Christian obliged to follow the leading of the state and do what the state requires? Suppose the state is conscripting people into service for a war that is an unjust war? Where do Christians stand in that kind of a situation? These are important questions.
Let me say, however, that there is one thing that Christians must not pass over too lightly and this is that Caesar does have a legitimate authority given to him by God. We have to remind ourselves of that because we’re sinners like everybody else, and one manifestation of sin is that we resist authority. For example, it might be easy to think of 55 miles an hour as an illegitimate use of the authority of the state, but it is not. The state has the right to do that and so we have to recognize that we must be very, very careful when we find ourselves coming to the position where we disobey the state’s authority.
Study Questions:

Explain the two forms of ambiguity that are present when we think about the church and the state.
What is Jesus teaching about the state in the story of the tax in Matthew 22?
From the lesson, what point is made that Christians ought not to pass over too lightly?

Reflection: In what ways are you tempted to resist authority?
For Further Study: For more teaching about the state, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “The Power of the Sword.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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