Every election season there’s controversy about whether Christians should vote for one party or another. Some people think of one party as the natural Christian choice while others are more disillusioned and see not voting as the best option, wishing that they could pick Jesus rather than any other name on the ballot paper.
In Jerusalem, a few days before his death, Jesus himself was asked a similar question. In Matthew 22: 16-17 we read:
“[The Pharisees] sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?’”
This question isn’t primarily about tax justice but political identity. The two obvious answers represented two different views of faith and politics for Judea under Roman rule. For one group, there was no way of living faithfully as God’s holy nation and serving unbelieving rulers – such as by paying tribute. The other side supported the Roman authorities, and even made loyalty to these authorities a core part of their identity. The Herodians, for example, took their name from the puppet-kings of the day, who ruled with Rome’s blessing.
By answering this question on the tax, Jesus was being asked to lend his authority to one side. But here is how he replies (Matthew 22:18-21):
“‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'”
So both sides had got it wrong. On the one hand, Caesar’s face was there on the coins: God was clearly calling His people to live faithfully under Roman occupation. Instead of creating a theocracy, they were to ‘give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ On the other hand, it was also a mistake to derive one’s identity from this political reality and so become indistinguishable from everyone else. Instead, God’s people were to be radically different from all the other subjects of the Roman Empire, giving ‘to God what is God’s.’
For those Judeans who followed Jesus, this double command led to an uncomfortable political identity. They were in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-18). So tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) and Roman centurions (Luke 7:1-10) didn’t drop everything and leave their roles – they remained within the existing system. But these passages tell us that they did so in a radically new way, that would have stunned or even enraged their colleagues. They gave to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s.
What does this mean for us today, as voters in a democracy? At election time and with largely secular parties, we face a similar challenge. Hearing God’s call to faithfulness, we’re tempted by two false paths: to see one party as the Christian’s only choice, correct in all areas and largely beyond criticism or to disengage completely from all political parties for purity’s sake.
Jesus’ teaching points towards a different way. We vote, but take care not to define ourselves or our neighbours by a political position. We join parties but are prepared to disagree with them – and be criticised by those who would rather we toe the party line. This is uncomfortable, but such discomfort is generally the first stage in being prophetic, as we show up and and call for change from within.
I think this uncomfortable, prophetic engagement with political parties comes closest to what Jesus calls for when he says ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and ‘to God what is God’s.’ The candidate we choose will be for us to decide, with much prayer as we seek to be faithful to God’s vision for our society. But God does not give us the option of not engaging at all with the society he’s put us in.
As John Stott put it, we cannot blame the meat for going bad if we are unwilling to be the salt that preserves it. God calls us to be a candle, not to curse the darkness.
The deadline for registering to vote is the 22nd of May. Register to vote here.
For other resources about how we can engage with the election as Christians, check out the Evangelical Alliance’s election website.