There is a Sesame Street song that goes “one of these things is not like the other”. Its aim is to highlight differences in simple things, like vegetables and rocks. Children watch these and they get it. It may look similar, but they are two completely different things. Take diesel and petrol, both drive cars, but never confuse the two or you end up with a large repair bill as the engine is cleaned out.
Too often Christians confuse the role of the state with the role of the church. Take for example the same gender marriage debate. As church teach marriage is between a man and a woman, but the legal institution of marriage is determined by the state. We can influence the state, but we cannot be the legal authority that defines marriage. The church is not a political organisation, it is the body of Christ. We pay our taxes, obey the law, serve in various capacities, but that does not make the church the state. It simply makes us good citizens, applying our vocation in service of God and one another.
Matt 22 continues the theme of authority and whether Jesus had the right to act as he does. Trying to trap him, the Pharisees, ask a question about Roman taxes. Their issue is twofold. Israel was a political nation, called and established by God. They considered themselves under divine authority, and resented foreign occupation. The temple this clearly marked this out, with only Jews accessing the inner courts. Secondly, foreign nations were pagan nations, signified by their idolatry. Israel’s refusal to use graven images was embedded in the law, and no foreign coin could be bought into the inner courts of the temple. The Pharisees want to see if Jesus will either deny the separation of church and state, or whether he will embrace idolatrous practices by using foreign currency. But Jesus again asks them, “whose image is on the coin?” and then uses their reply to say “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Lutherans teach there is a clear separation of church and state. The state is God’s good order, as it enables us to live in a free, just, and ordered society. There are many Scripture accounts where God uses political powers to enact his will. The church is part of God’s kingdom, were God reveal His relationship of grace, established through Christ. It is not the role of the state to tell the church what it should believe, just as it is not the churches role to impose its will upon the state. We serve God by being good citizens, paying our taxes, and obeying the law. Only when the state ceases to operate according to God’s good order are we obligated to oppose the state. We do this by pointing out the problem, and by then remaining faithful to what God has set in place.
It is sad that too many Christians have caused such angst towards the church by trying to insist that the state operate in the same way as the church. It is said that too often in history, the church has usurped political power where it has no right to do so. It is equally sad when the state has insisted that the church believe and practice according to its decrees. None of this behaviour is helpful. In fact, it too often stands in the way of the Gospel. We need to be people who affirm the state and act as good faithful citizens. This is our witness to the world. In the same way, we need to by grace oppose the state when it departs from God’s good intent. Again, this is our witness of the Gospel to the world. Rather than creating angst, we need to show grace and remain faithful to what we know to be true.