In the past several years, Christians have begun to face increasing pressure to conform to the prevailing ideologies and points of view of the surrounding culture. Almost everywhere we look, people want us to accept practices that our faith condemns, such as abortion and gay marriage. We’re told that we need to get with the times and leave behind our outdated moral doctrines. We’re promised that progress will prevail with or without us, so we might as well hop on the bandwagon and end up on the right side of history.
These explicit challenges to our faith are relatively easy to recognize, but there is another, a much more subtle form of social pressure that is not quite as easy to see. If we stand firm and refuse to give up our Christian beliefs, we are then often told that we can conform to the surrounding culture without actually giving anything up. Rather, we can continue to believe whatever we want as long as we don’t try to impose those beliefs on anyone else. For example, we can continue to oppose abortion personally as long as we let women have them if they so choose, and we can continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman as long as we let others marry whomever they wish, man or woman.
This kind of pressure is much more subtle because it doesn’t explicitly try to get us to relinquish our Christian beliefs. Instead, it tries to get us to give them up in practice but not in theory, but that is actually just as bad. If we hold Christian beliefs but do not act on them, then we might as well not hold them at all. Unfortunately, this attitude is becoming increasingly popular in Christian circles, and people are becoming less and less able to see what exactly is wrong with it. In this article, I want to take a look at this attitude in light of the Gospels and see if Jesus’ teachings can shed any light on whether or not it’s acceptable.
Church and State
When people propose that we privately hold to our Christian beliefs but refrain from acting on them publicly, they often appeal to one of Jesus’ most well-known sayings: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 2:21). This verse, they claim, supports a separation of church and state, between our private duties towards God and our public duties towards the government and our fellow citizens. As a result, while it may be our private religious duty to believe certain things, it’s our public duty to let others act on their own beliefs, even if those beliefs contradict ours.
Now, this understanding of Jesus’ words is not entirely wrong. He is saying that we have certain duties towards the government and that they are distinct from our explicitly religious duties. For example, as St. Paul says in one of his letters, we have an obligation to obey our civil leaders and pay our taxes (Romans 13:1-7). However, this is a far cry from saying that our public duties can actually contradict our personal religious beliefs. Jesus never said that we could engage in practices that are condemned by our faith. In fact, if we examine his words closely, he actually said the exact opposite.
In the Image of Caesar
To see what I mean, we have to look at this famous saying in context. It comes in a story about a controversy over paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22). Some people asked Jesus if it was right for Jews to pay taxes, and he answered with his famous line about things that belong to Caesar. However, he didn’t explain what exactly belongs to Caesar. He didn’t tell us how we can figure out what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. Instead, he expected us to be able to figure that out for ourselves.
Luckily, even though Jesus did not explicitly spell this out for us, he did give us enough clues to make his meaning obvious. When the people asked their question about taxes, he didn’t give his answer right away. He first asked for a Roman coin, and he pointed out that it had an image of Caesar imprinted upon it. Only after this did he give his famous saying about what belongs to Caesar, implying that Roman coins (which were used to pay taxes) belonged to the emperor because they bore his image.
What Belongs to God
Once we understand why taxes belong to Caesar, we can then figure out what belongs to God. If things that bear Caesar’s image belong to him, then it stands to reason that things that bear God’s image belong to God. And what bears God’s image? We do. As the first creation story in Genesis says:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
As a result, it’s clear that we belong to God, so we owe our entire selves to him. Not just part of ourselves, not just our private religious beliefs, but our entire selves. Our personal beliefs aren’t made in God’s image; our private religious convictions and practices aren’t made in God’s image. No, each and every one of us in our entirety is made in God’s image, so everything that we do and are, belongs to God.
If we belong entirely to God, then our duties towards him go beyond our private lives. We belong to him all the time, in everything that we do, so our primary duty is always towards him, not towards the government, the prevailing culture, other people’s beliefs, or anything else. No, our first duty is always to act in accordance with God’s will, so we can never compromise our religious beliefs in any way, shape, or form.
This means that it’s not enough simply to hold those beliefs privately. We have to live in accordance with them in public as well, even if they go against the grain of the culture around us. For example, we can never vote for or support the legalization of abortion or gay marriage, no matter what anybody else believes. Instead, we have a duty towards God to uphold his law at all times, and that means refusing to cooperate or participate in sin wherever we find it.
Human Authority’s Proper Place
When we understand Jesus’ teaching this way, we can see that he wasn’t telling us that God and the government have two equal but separate claims to our obedience. If everything we are and everything we do belong to God, then there is nothing left that can belong to anybody or anything else. Consequently, he could not have been saying that our obligations towards human authorities are on the same level as our obligations towards God. Rather, the clear implication of his teaching is that in a certain sense, God is the only one we have any real obligation to obey.
To understand what this means, let’s take a look at how St. Paul begins his exhortation to obey civil leaders, a passage we briefly touched on earlier:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)
Here, St. Paul is telling us that obedience to civil leaders is actually obedience to God. God has delegated authority to governments to maintain law and order, so they rule on his behalf. Consequently, we have legitimate duties towards human authorities only because God has given them a share in his own authority. We don’t obey them for their own sake; rather, we obey them because obedience to them is obedience to God.
Once we understand this, we can see a further reason why we can never compromise our religious convictions for the sake of any human authority or obligation. Since governments rule on God’s behalf, they’re only authorized to rule as he would. As a result, if they enact laws that go against his will, they are overstepping their bounds, so those laws have no legitimate claim to our obedience.
To make this teaching more concrete, the New Testament gives us an example of how the early Church lived it out. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about a time when the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, commanded the Apostles to stop preaching the Gospel (Acts 5:27-32). However, despite the insistence of their rulers, the Apostles refused to comply. Instead, they answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
The Apostles knew that when it came to choosing between God and any human authority, they had to obey God. Even though the Sanhedrin had authority over the Jewish people, that authority was limited by a higher law, the law of God, and when they transgressed that higher law, their commands lost their force. This is an example of how we too should live out Jesus’ teaching that we belong to God. The Apostles didn’t agree to privately believe in Jesus but keep quiet about it in public. They had a mandate from God to preach the Gospel, so they continued to do so despite the demands of the Sanhedrin. Like the Apostles, we too have to obey God if there is ever any conflict between our religious beliefs and duties and any human authority or cultural pressure.
Resisting the Pressure
From all this, it’s clear that Christians should resist the subtle social pressure to hold personal religious convictions but refrain from acting on them publicly. Even though it may not seem as bad as the more explicit pressure to give up our beliefs altogether, it really is. Since we belong to God, we can never compromise our beliefs or act in any way that is contrary to our faith. Instead, our first and most important obligation is towards God and his law, both privately and publicly.