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Does the Church Belong to Caesar?


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I'm not sure which is more sad, that American pastors are being arrested for having public worship services or that most Christians seem to be perfectly fine with that travesty. While I always assumed the American “church” would fold at the first sign of persecution, it turns out that many have folded far easier than that.

They didn't have to be beaten, shot, or tortured; they merely had to be commanded by the government to stop meeting; and most squeamishly complied.

The First Amendment has been discarded as nothing more than a quaint footnote to a bygone era. To a time when “patriots” valued their freedom to assemble and worship as they pleased. To a time when they would rather die than give up this freedom. And to a time when a nation was formed with the idea of enshrining this freedom as the law of the land. Sadly, today we are told it is our “patriotic duty” to cancel church services for the sake of the greater good.

Cable news anchors are exempt from such decrees because they're considered to provide an “essential service.” Yet pastors are deemed “non-essential” and most Christians seem fine with that. And while it is not surprising to see a secular government make such dictatorial decrees, it is astounding to see how quickly the churches have submitted. Things used to be different in Christian circles. They were certainly different in New Testament times.

Some have said it is the church's duty to “render unto Caesar” as Jesus said to do. The passage in question involves a time when Jesus was asked about whether or not it was lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar. According to scripture the question was posed by a group who was trying to entrap Jesus and get him arrested. Luke records:
The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. (Luke 20:19-20)
Several things should be noted. First of all, Jesus was in hot water because he PUBLICLY SPOKE AGAINST THE AUTHORITIES. In this case, it was the Jewish “scribes and chief priests” who were not only religious authorities, but also the local governing body for the Jews. All under the authority of Rome. If the “render unto Caesar” argument is followed to it's logical conclusion, then Jesus was blatantly refusing to “submit” to the local “Caesars” (I.e, scribes and chief priests) by continuing to speak publicly against them. Why didn't he submit to the Sanhedrin, since they were the local authorities who governed with Rome's blessing? In fact, Jesus did the opposite.

Secondly, the opponents of Jesus sought to “hand him over the the rule and authority of the governor.” Of course this eventually happened, when he was arrested and stood before Pontius Pilate. But why did they want him arrested? What was his crime? Why did they oppose him so vigorously? Because he spoke out against them. Jesus didn't go silently into the night, as many Christians seem willing to do today. Much of Jesus's ministry involved speaking out against corrupt authorities.

When asked the question about Roman taxation, Jesus used a denarius, with Caesar's inscription, as his object lesson. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” (Luke 20:25) 

Technically, Jesus was not answering a question about paying taxes in general, but rather explaining whether or not it was “lawful” for a Jew to do it; since some Jews saw it as an act of idolatry to grant Caesar such payments. Jesus's answer put the question to rest from a Jewish perspective, in telling them to “render unto Caesar” the taxes he demanded.

The more telling aspect of Jesus's statement is the second half of the verse, which is often overlooked; and seems to be have been largely forgotten by Christians today. Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, AND TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD'S.” (Luke 20:25 emphasis added) 

This begs an obvious question: Does the church belong to Caesar? Or does it belong to God? And does the church look to Caesar to find out if, when, and how they are allowed to worship God? Does the church in America belong to the government? Do individual Christians belong to the government? Or for that matter, does any person belong to the government? Are we citizens or are we slaves? Christians are indeed “owned.” But they recognize Christ as their rightful Lord and Master. He alone owns the title of possession, because he alone paid the price with his blood.

Churches today are certainly free to cancel their services, or go “online” as many have done. But they are also free to gather together. They should not cancel based on a false notion of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” Because the church doesn't belong to Caesar. Nor any other governing authority. It belongs to God. America's founders understood that all too well, and were willing to die for this “freedom of religion.” They were willing to enshrine it in the Bill of Rights in the very first amendment which states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The government can't force you to worship. They also can't STOP you; at least not LEGALLY.

Is it best for churches to cancel, in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic? Some say yes and some say no. But it's not for Caesar to decide; at least not in a “free” country like America. And certainly not in a church which looks to Christ, not Caesar, as its ultimate authority. Are Christians risking their lives by going to church? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But shouldn't it be their choice to decide? Do we not take a risk every time we leave our house? Do we not take a risk every time we drive a car or get on an airplane? Life is full of risks. That isn't in question. The question is whether or not we have the freedom to take risks as we see fit. Being commanded to not leave your house is draconian. But being commanded to not gather for worship is demonic. Yet Christians today seem perfectly fine with such mandates.

In most cases, what fuels the Christian's compliance is fear. I get that. People are afraid of getting sick and dying. And they are afraid of getting arrested for non-compliance. But if the pandemic is real, then the church needs to meet. Or at least have the FREEDOM to. Let the people decide if they want to attend services or not, and let the government stay out of it; as they are Constitutionally bound to do.

Don't claim that a “national emergency” renders the Constitution moot; because the document was written in the midst of a “national emergency” (or revolution) with the intent of protecting liberty. And liberty is most under fire during “emergencies.” Moreover, if our liberties can be squelched at such a time as this; whose to say that future administrations cannot do likewise over far lesser “emergencies?” Who gets to decide when an emergency is serious enough to take our freedom? And why should anyone be allowed to decide that for someone else?

Pastors are being arrested in America today, for the crime of “unlawful assembly.” And most Christians seem perfectly fine with that disturbing reality. But once upon a time Christians didn't fold their tents so easily. Once upon a time, Christians were willing to be arrested for their beliefs. They were willing to oppose unbiblical mandates against their faith. Indeed they were willing to die for the cause. Not so today. They're too busy “rendering unto Caesar” the things that AREN'T CAESAR'S TO TAKE. While forgetting to render unto GOD.... the things that belong to God.

Reprinted with permission from The Narrow Road blog.

Kastler is Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

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