“Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13:5–7, NASB95)
Clearly rulers have the authority and responsibility to enforce law, but today’s passage deals with more than that. It deals with our own conscience as it pertains to that law and our relation to those in charge. While its primary focus is on the payment of taxes, the payment of taxes is merely a practical illustration of a greater principle.
The other day (1/25) when we looked at Romans 12:9 and that our love is to be genuine from the heart, not being hypocrites or actors, we stopped and looked at the Pharisees trying to trip up Jesus by asking about what the greatest commandment is (Matthew 22), to which Jesus clearly answered that the first and foremost commandment is the love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Then He added the second which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. They were stumped.
This effort to try to catch Jesus in a failure of the law was a persistent practice. In the same chapter of Matthew, preceding the above encounter, we have a couple of other such encounters on the same day. One of them had to do with the issue of taxes.
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.” (Matthew 22:15–22, NASB95)
Jesus could have easily called into question the entire authority to tax if God were opposed to it, but rather He reinforced it by pointing to the very coin they were using to pay their tax and asking them whose image it bore. Here in Romans we are told to pay the taxes that are due. And in our country this is largely a system of voluntary compliance and honesty. There are some of our documents that are reported and which are known, but there are others which are largely never verified and for which the government takes our word. Sure there is the power to enforce and penalize the non-payment of taxes, but the greater weight is on our doing what it right and paying what is due. This is a matter of conscience, of being able to sleep nights and walk clearly knowing that this issue was handled honestly before God and man.
What Scripture does not get in to, and as such what we are not given the authority to withhold our taxes for, are those things with which we disagree. This has created a great deal of tension recently as the government has mandated that health insurance cover things for which employers do not agree. And with our Supreme Court saying that the government has the authority to force this as a tax, now we have employers deciding whether or not they can in good conscience before God comply with the government mandate. In our country we still have the ability to contend this in our courts and to adjust it with legislation, but at some point the law will be settled and hard choices will have to be made.
Jesus’ response did not deal only with rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but He added that we are to render to God that which belongs to Him. It is this higher responsibility that I trust will guide people when they have to make these difficult decisions. And in so doing, they might suffer consequences from the government for the sake of their conscience. But this is a dangerous and slippery slope when we make ourselves the determinant on what truly is to be given to God in honor and to Caesar as duly obligated.
This goes beyond the issue of taxes as do the verses we are looking at today, because it is broadened to the considerations of rendering fear and honor to those to whom it is due. This brings us back around to how we walk under the laws which not only regulate the payment of taxes but even how we operate our business, manage our careers, and drive our cars. Clearly we have to make hard choices and in so doing be willing to suffer harsh consequences. This might go to the nurse or doctor who refuses to perform lawful and maybe even mandated practices. It goes to the baker who in his or her art refuses to celebrate a union which conflicts with the biblical understanding of marriage. It goes to the employer who refuses to provide health insurance that includes biblically reprehensible benefits. It even includes the military Chaplain whose speaking of the gospel with which he was called is being restricted. And it goes to the employee who risks his or her position of employment for the sake of doing what is right.
For the majority of our lives this is a pretty simple and straight forward principle of Scripture without any issue of compliance. But for that minority time when the issue becomes very, very large we have to place our trust fully in God and entrust ourselves to His strong hand. Paul knew what it was to suffer at the hands of government for the sake of the gospel. And he knew what to do even with that opportunity as he placed his trust and confidence in God.
“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” (Colossians 4:2–5, NASB95)
Even at the end of his life when he knew his death was near we read,
“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:8–13, NASB95)
He remains faithful!