In an iconic passage in the Gospels (Matthew 22:19-21), Jesus responded to His religious critics by asking them to hold up a Roman coin. He then asked them about the image on the coin. To the Pharisees and Herodians (defenders of the Roman status quo), He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Most of us read that passage as confirmation that faithful Christians should, despite misgivings, pay taxes to a civil government. Jesus was indeed instructing people to obey the tax, however oppressive. And later in Romans 13, Paul offers a similar command. But Jesus is also saying so much more.
To the people of His day, especially those who participated in the Roman religious rituals, Caesar was more than just a public official in a seat of power in the world’s superpower, he was a god. And when rulers are considered gods, there is no limit to what a ruler can ask from his subjects. So, when Jesus says to His critics that there are certain things that belong to Caesar and certain things that belong to God, He was speaking a subversive message against the all-encompassing power of the state.
His essential message was that, yes, Caesar’s image is on the coin and, yes, you are required to pay taxes as a Roman citizen, but remember that Caesar’s power is limited and there are things, such as your conscience and your identity, that only belong to God. The state has no power over your heart and mind—those belong to the One who fashioned you in His image.
This is why Christians have often championed religious liberty. Religious liberty is more than mere convenience for Christians, it’s a recognition of human dignity—that people are not made in the image of the state, but made in the image of God. For governments to enforce religious practice or to trample on religious freedom is to trample on the conscience. It’s an assault on human dignity.
One of the gifts given by God to humans is the ability to think and reason rationally, to make moral choices. But a government that refuses to allow the space for this to happen, that doesn’t recognize the difference between that which belongs to Caesar as delegated by God (Romans 13), and that which belongs to God, is a state that has violated its mandate to rule well.
This is why, for instance, Paul urged Timothy to pray, in 1 Timothy, for the freedom to freely live out the faith. Why? So the Gospel might have a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
This is why Christians, at our best, not only advocate for the religious freedom of our own communities, but for the religious freedom of others. Even though we strongly disagree with other faith groups and even consider their ideas to be false, we don’t want a government that plays referee over an image-bearer’s soul. We don’t want a government so big that it enforces one religion over another. We don’t want a state that tramples the free conscience of its citizens.
And there is growing evidence that in the countries of the world where religious liberty flourishes, there also flourishes human rights and freedom of expression. These civic goods go together. And in areas of the world where religious liberty languishes or is not even allowed, there follows human rights violations, a lack of flourishing and, in many places, awful atrocities. Preying on human bodies begins by preying on human consciences.
So while Christians are far from the only religious group to strongly advocate for religious freedom and are thankfully joined by other religious communities, the principles that argue for free expression borrow from the Christian story. And when Christians hesitate to advocate for religious liberty, for ourselves or for others, we are departing from Christian ideas.
We can work for free and open societies, where religion can flourish unmolested, because we have confidence in the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit to change minds. We don’t need the sword to convert the hearts of men and women. And we don’t need the state to make decisions reserved only for God.
Because, humans, after all, were not made in the image of the state, but in the image of God. ©2019 Daniel Darling
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Daniel Darling is the vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Above: A supporter of Egypt’s Christian community shouts during a protest near the United Nations against the Egyptian government’s treatment of its Christian minority.
Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images