The Christian Citizen
By Francis J. Beckwith
Contemporary Christians in the Western world live in nations with governments that are sometimes called “liberal democracies.” Because such governments allow their citizens to form political parties, vote, run for elected office, and petition the government, Christians in such nations are blessed with opportunities to shape their communities in ways that were absent in prior generations. Although the Bible does not say much about the role of a Christian citizen and his relationship to the state, Scripture does communicate to us certain principles that provide us with insight on the scope of a Christian’s responsibility in a liberal democracy. In order to understand these principles we will explore three topics: (1) Caesar’s coin and the image of God, (2) doing justice, and (3) knowing your government, its laws, and the scope of your citizenship. Christians must use their freedom wisely and behave honorably before their unbelieving neighbors as well as accept and respect the rule of law and the authorities put in place to protect it, all for the sake of the common good.
Should a Christian citizen be politically engaged? Although the New Testament speaks very little about a Christian’s responsibility as a citizen, one may glean certain principles from the Bible that contribute to our understanding. In order to accomplish this, I will cover three topics: Caesar’s Coin and the Image of God; Doing Justice; and Knowing Your Government, Its Laws, and the Scope of Your Citizenship.
CAESAR’S COIN AND THE IMAGE OF GOD
Jesus, in a familiar scene, is confronted by the Pharisees:
“Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Matt. 22:11–13 NAB)
Most readers understand Jesus as instructing His audience that the church and government have jurisdiction over different spheres. Although I believe this is a correct reading, we often miss its subtle political implications. Jesus first asks whose image is on the coin, and the answer is “Caesar.” There is an unsaid question, however: Who has the image of God on it?1 So, if the coin represents the authority of Caesar because it has his image on it, then we, human beings, are under the authority of God because we have His image on us. Good governments, nevertheless, ought to be concerned with the well-being of their citizens. Thus, both government and the church, though having separate jurisdictions, share a common obligation to advance the good of those made in God’s image.
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This implies not only that we should not confuse the state and the church, but also that we should be concerned with the good of our fellow human beings. This concern may be manifested in a number of different ways. We can help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or comfort the afflicted. This can be accomplished by our churches or by the wider community through government programs. The issue for Christians is not whether one should support works of mercy and charity—we are commanded to do so by Scripture (Matt. 25:31–46; James 1:26–27). The real question, rather, is what is the best way to achieve success. Christians are, of course, divided on this question. Some emphasize free market solutions, with government playing a minimal role and the church doing virtually all of the work. Others maintain that some social welfare programs administered by the government are necessary, with churches playing a role in politically advocating such programs along with doing their own independent work as well.
We should, however, remember that the theological purpose of Christian charity is not merely to help the poor and others who are in need of the church’s love and care, but also to allow the grace of God to work through us so that we may be conformed to the image of Christ and bear witness to the world of that grace…
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