As we rapidly approach the final quarter of the year, those of us in the United States are going to be in the unenviable and inevitable position of facing another Presidential election. We are going to hear the case for who deserves our vote, from both sides of the political aisle, and from every possible ideological angle. I have no intention of adding to that noise. I’m not here to insult your intelligence by trying to sway your thinking. I wouldn’t dare, because I think as citizens of heaven, and members of the Kingdom of God, it is a nearly impossible task to be asked to help pick a Caesar.
Some take umbrage with my usage of the word Caesar in relation to the leader of our nation. I do not use the phrase in regards to the individual in the office, but to the office itself. And I get that the term is harsh, and perhaps polarizing. I’m okay with that. I’m not okay with facing elections as if we are voting for the legality of our favorite principle. Our election is about putting a person in office, not about making this or that legal or illegal. We hear about the next election, every four years, as if it is the most important one of all time, and we buttress that argument by stating that if we vote for so and so, we get this kind of America, or that kind of America. Perhaps that is true, but I’ve done this essay before, or at least a variant of it. I’m not looking to do it again. I’ve even made the argument that our idea of majority rule isn’t actually true, as our system of government is built to protect the minority from the majority. So let’s not traverse these waters again. Instead, lets talk about how cautious we should be as members of the Kingdom of God, for there are bigger things to consider than the politics of your party and your nation.
If the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land should teach us anything, it might be that we should be cautious before putting our faith in democracy. Israel functioned under a sort of theocratic rule, with a central figurehead in Moses. Moses heard from God and then he governed. Israel rebelled from time to time against this form of government, with less than desirable results. Moses was their God-appointed leader and they were at their best when they followed his lead.
I don’t expect that we can duplicate this system, nor am I sure they we should. But I want to be clear that this system is not what we have. Our leaders are not chosen by God; they are chosen by us. God didn’t pick the President; we did. God doesn’t make our laws; we do. You can’t say that God appointed one but not the other, when the vote of the people chose them both, unless you are willing to concede that God made people vote the way they did one time, but not the other. There are obvious problems with this, and they are too numerous to work out in a book full of essays, much less this feeble attempt.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Yes! But how do you determine if the Lord is the God over the nation? Is it because the guy we want is in office? Is it if the majority of the people claim God? Is it a constitution with God’s name, or his principles in it? What about Jesus? Does he have to be mentioned, or served? Or what if the nation, whose God is the Lord, is the holy nation, the peculiar people, the chosen generation of Peter’s epistle, namely, the church of Jesus Christ? What if the nation that God is working through is that nation; His Kingdom?
So I can’t and I won’t tell you how to vote, or even if you should, and yes I realize that last statement goes over like a lead balloon in our culture. Anyhow, there are three things from a biblical perspective that I want to take a moment and address. One involves the majority and the minority, one involves what belongs to Caesar, and the other is the often-used argument of Romans 13.
Be cautious of the majority opinion. I don’t mean it’s wrong because it may very well be right, but just be cautious. The majority opinion reflects what people want in the moment, and may not necessarily have the interests of the whole at heart.
Israel came to the banks of the Jordan River at Kadesh-Barnea. God ordered Moses to send 12 spies into Canaan so they could see the land that God was giving them. Notice that the spies were not told to go into the land to see if they could take it; that was a given, for God was granting them the land. They were simply to bring back a report of what the land was like. This was to excite Israel and motivate them to take what was theirs. Instead, 10 of the 12 spies focused on the size of the enemy rather than the size of the reward, and in a repeat of their forefathers, who had used majority rule to sell Joseph into slavery, the democratic process at the banks of the Jordan led to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
This is certainly not an endorsement for the minority opinion in every case, for they have not cornered the market on truth either. Those same 12 tribes of Israel eventually crossed the Jordan and went into the land of Canaan. But they had spent so long on the wilderness side, that two and half of their tribes decided they would rather take their inheritance on the wilderness side. So the majority of Israel went into the Promised Land, while a minority took a lesser inheritance. The majority was wrong on one side of the river, and eventually, the minority was wrong on the other side of the river.
In our day and age, we have enormous faith in majority opinion, as long as it somewhat matches ours, and ironically, we have an odd tendency to embrace minority opinions if they suit our pleasure. I think this is what is happening with the prolific rise of conspiracy theories. They appeal, as long as they are in the minority. If everyone suddenly believed them, we would be very suspicious of them, since too many people are in on it. And be cautious of minority opinions that have experts attached to them. In our history, we have taught that redheads are vampires, left-handedness is a disease, and runaway slaves suffered from dractomania, a disease of the mind brought on by slave owners that treated their slaves too well. I mean, why else would a slave want to escape?
What about the argument that we should render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s? This is an oft-used verse to try and establish that Jesus acknowledged the authority on the earth of Caesar, and encouraged his followers to do what they were told. But what is left out when people quote that verse, is that Jesus went on to say that we should also render to God, that which is God’s. So I ask you, what belongs to Caesar that doesn’t first belong to God? Or better yet, what belongs to Caesar at all? If the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, then Caesar, or any of us for that matter, own nothing that doesn’t belong to the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Jesus’s statement was powerful. “Oh Caesar has his face on a coin? Then let him have his coin back. But be sure to look for God’s face on what belongs to him, and you will find, it all belongs to Him.”
Finally, the argument of Romans 13 is used to sort of put rebellion in its place, and to establish the nearly godlike authority of governments. It begins with, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Again, remember that Paul is speaking within a dictatorial empire, not a republic or a democracy. Paul then adds a verse that is celebrated as a sort of an anti-protest verse. “Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
We love these verses, taken literally, with no context, when it comes to defending the actions of government. But they are problematic when put in a historical context, and especially within the context of the book of Romans.
Historically, if we followed Romans 13 to the letter, the American Revolution would either have not happened, or we would have to look at it as an act of rebellion against the authority of God. You can’t hold on to the supremacy of government in Romans 13 and rebel against King George III. Had we lost the Revolution, we probably would have cited these verses as the cause for our loss. But having won, we ignore that we were the rebels against authority, because obviously, God was on our side.
Be warned that these verses have been used like a warm blanket by the church for centuries, to overlook the overreach of government. A majority of Christians in Nazi Germany agreed with the Nazi party, and no doubt, Romans 13 contributed. It’s easy to frame things in retrospect. It’s harder in the moment. But we aren’t called to do the easy.
Within the context of Romans, I believe Paul is being ironic, even overtly so. Chapter 12 ended with “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Then, his verses about government, which conclude with this thought: “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul elevates love above all other obligations of citizenship, thus promoting a value that is the opposite of those represented by Caesar and the empire. Rome did not overcome evil with good; they attempted to overcome evil with violence. They practiced evil for evil.
He caps his argument it with this, in Romans 13:12, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” Nero, the Caesar under whom Paul writes these words, was actively promoting Rome as an empire of light. Paul has quite subversively stated, “The world is not really in light, but darkness, but you aren’t. You are different. You are light. You are love, and that is what you owe your enemy, the empire. Not your loyalty, but your love!”
So be cautious of seeing the majority as the hand of God. Be just as cautious at heeding the opinions of the minority. Render to Caesar, sure, but don’t forget where he belongs in the hierarchy of your Kingdom. Finally, make a determination about the efficacy of government to a people who are children of the light. I have no idea how you should vote. I can only end the way that 13th chapter of Romans does. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” Maybe the great battle is determining just how much of what we want is fulfillment of our lusts, or the putting on of who our Jesus is. I leave that to you; same as your vote.
Grace to you.