How Not To Argue for a Vote
I openly challenge co-workers on both sides of the political aisle. I do so respectfully and as one who studies the candidates as forgivingly as possible. The conversations have gotten progressively better, though sometimes I need to remove myself when they get carried away. Recently, I received a flurry of messages asking if Christians are obligated to vote.
The question on the table is if we are required by the command of God to vote. As many do, the question turned to Jesus' statement concerning the image of Caesar and image of God. However, it is incredibly important to look at the passage in its original context before trying to make an application.
The Meaning of the Passage
Many go to Matthew 22 looking for answers on politics and — surprise — find political answers. In a time when "Church and State" could be the leading news story on any given night, Christians do seem inclined to search the Scriptures for these categories. Matthew 22 presents itself as a possible guide for navigating this issue.
Despite the political nature of the question, the root of Christ's answer is not political. As with most sneaky sayings of Jesus, it is subversively religious and points forward to his death. So let's look at that passage first,
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
The first thing to note is that the question is intended to confound Jesus. The question itself is meant to cause offense to either Jewish zealots or Rome. Christ's awe-inspiring answer is diffusive to both of these issues. With this in mind, modern readers who attempt to use this question and answer as the basis of ethical behavior should tread carefully. Focus instead should be given to the subversion nature of Christ's answer which intentionally comes in two parts.
Second, Christ's two-part answer is not to be read dichotomously. Contra modern perception, Christ is not saying everything falls into the realm of "belongs to Caesar" or "belongs to God" as if to affirm the "church and state" distinction. Christ is not affirming the autonomy of the state. Nor is he making some blanket statement about participating in every element of the state system. Christ is taking advantage of a practical and theological similarity to make a grander religious statement. Yes, Jesus concedes, the coin has the image of Caesar. But, more importantly, man is made in the image of God. The profound ethics of this is quite clear and the audience gasped as they grasped it. Caesar could put his stamp on metal, God had put His stamp on creation.
In the midst of political strife, Christ's answer straddled the lines of political and religious — "stop being psuedo-religious." They were told to give Caesar what he stamped with his image (e.g. taxes). True religious service, aka the "kingdom of God," did not mean fighting Caesar or supporting his system. True religious service meant rendering to God your very person. This distinction is incredibly important in its application to the ethics of voting.
Third, Christ's answer predicts his future death in a way the audience did not yet understand. This is the sterling accusation that undergirds this entire answer. It would be the true image of God, Jesus Christ, that the people of Israel would render unto Caesar. In their demand for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the people of Israel rendered their ethical submission to Caesar and not God. Further, they rendered the very image of God to Caesar.
These are the evident teachings of Jesus from this passage within its context. The first point should make us slow to apply the text to ourselves. The final point is indicative of one way we cannot apply the text to ourselves. Any Christian application today lies in the middle point, we must recognize ourselves as those both made in the image of God and those being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
How This Applies to Voting
Before I get accused of saying this text does not apply to voting, it does apply to voting. However, the mistake is often in what realm we place voting. If we approach the false dichotomous view, it would be quite easy to state that voting like taxes lands in the "to Caesar" portion of this text. However, this type of thinking ignores the overlapping reality of "church and state." Righteous Christian disobedience springs up from this overlap where the believer must render unto God the things that Caesar demands. I'd prefer to keep this available without going into a detailed exposition of Romans 13 or 1 Peter 3.
Put simply, I think Christians should obey any law that does not require an act against a biblically-minded conscience — I don't think one needs to have a good attitude towards the government in such cases. In a government where voting was compulsory (which I would deem unethical on the part of the government but also not the worse possible situation), then I would certainly attempt to make the argument that voting bears the image of Caesar and is to be rendered unto him in such a way that God is still honored.
However, we do not live under a government where the voting of individual citizens is compulsory (one could argue the role of delegates and the electoral college is compulsory). One could even argue I am protected from compulsory actions such as these. There is a freedom here. In this freedom, voting does not have the "image of Caesar." Instead, voting — as it reflects me and my ethical action — must submit it to the God whose image I bear.
Voting ceases to be an object I can render and becomes an expressive act of my submission to God, and more specifically the Lord Jesus. No longer can one argue for the ethics of voting a certain party, voting against a certain candidate, or the necessity of voting. Our very act of voting (and not the outcome it attempts to arrange) is active submission to God and Christian ethics. In many cases, thoughtful Christians may be inclined to (and probably should) refrain from voting altogether.
An Example of Failure To Exegete
Back to the start, I was recently sent a podcast by a co-worker asking for my opinion on his pastor's politically minded sermon. If you feel inclined to endure 30 minutes of "preaching" with barely 5 minutes spent on Scripture then by all means listen before continuing to read.
The first Biblical citation comes 15 minutes into the sermon and is a truism from the book of Proverbs on the sovereignty of God over all rulers. Much of the opening time is spent building to a list of "competency, character, and christian values" being necessary for a political candidate. The joke is then made about the remaining candidates and how they line up with this list. All of this sets up the pastor's suggestion that many will have to "hold our nose" in the voting booth. Before supporting the position that voting is mandatory for believers, the principle that God can use anyone to achieve what God desires to do is covered — hence the first Biblical quotation from Proverbs. The pastor's point is true enough, but it plays little role in convincing that Christians must vote. God's sovereignty does not negate human responsibility to act ethically in history. That type of logic would render ever human decision mandatory but ultimately useless (this type of determinism and fatalism transcends Calvinistic churches funny enough).
It is only at this point that the pastor gets to Matthew 22. He lays out some rather extreme depictions of Roman Government that are supposed to remind us of whichever candidate we dislike and then asks "What is the Lord saying to me and you in Austin, Texas?" — putting application before exegesis. For him, "Christ's message" through the example of "taxes" was for Christians to participate in the structure/system of our governing authorities. It is difficult enough to figure the jump from mandatory taxes to participation in voluntary government systems. But this doesn't stop the pastor from resorting to examples of "ends justify the means" ethics — you should have voted and instead we got stuck with Obama.
The pastor provided zero insights or comments on what Christ meant by "the things that are God's." He says something about being citizens of heaven (to what point I do not know) before stating that voting is a command from God. He even makes remarks about voting in local elections (which I support). He gives us three requirements heading into the polling season "pray, be informed, and vote." But where is the exegesis on what belongs to God?
I make no assumptions about my own understanding about voting. I believe Matthew 22 supports the opposite thesis that voting is not mandatory. My views on voting may be faulty. But far too often, I encounter the usage of this Scripture for a soap box platform. The church deserves better.