John Bunyan spent a number of years in jail, and it was not for preaching the gospel, as is commonly supposed. He was there for preaching the gospel without a licence.
A lot of modern Christians, more cooperative than they ought to be, will immediately wonder why Bunyan didn’t hie himself down to the Department of Preaching Licences, and stand in line like a good boy. The answer has to do with the nature of lawful authority. How do jurisdictions work?
Now the issue I am raising does not have to do with whether or not Bunyan made the right call. My point is that he lived in a time when men had to make such calls regularly, and they knew what the issues were when they did so. We are not so fortunate.
Certain truths lie right on the surface of the Bible, and this is why true Christians generally do well in times of overt persecution. When they are commanded to bow down to an idol, they know that Daniel’s three friends refused to do so (Dan. 3:16). When they are commanded to stop spreading the gospel, they know that this was the point where the apostles refused to cooperate (Acts 5:29).
Where Christians don’t do as well is when times are relatively peaceful, and they are asked to do something that seems relatively minor, but which surrenders the jurisdictional principle. Another way of saying this is that Christians do better when the trap has sprung than they do in refusing to take the bait.
“And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him” (Mark 12:14-17).
This exchange is often misread. Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not. The way the encounter is frequently read, the answer Jesus gives is “yes, it is lawful.” But why would an affirmative answer to a simple binary question cause them to marvel at Him?
They were trying to trap Jesus with a question of tax policy, and Jesus answered by pointing to two kinds of coin. One coin had the image of Caesar on it, and it was therefore lawful in principle to give that back to Caesar. That which has Washington’s image on it may be sent back to Washington. That which has “Federal Reserve Note” printed on it may be mailed back to the Federal Reserve. But Jesus did not just say that they should render Caesar’s image back to him — He said that something should be rendered back to God also. What would that be?
The answer is that we are coin from God’s mint. We are created in the image of God, and are therefore forbidden to render ourselves to Caesar. We give one thing to Caesar and another to God. We may not render it all to Caesar. It is prohibited. And they marveled at Him.
Now this creates a line that must not be crossed, and it also creates a host of questions about that line. I do not want to minimize how legitimately complicated such questions can get — Bunyan was imprisoned by a Christian nation for refusing to go through normal channels to get a blessing to preach.
But there are other times when it is not complicated at all. We live in a time when the ruling elite formally denies that we are in fact created in the image of God. That is considered by them to be a legal and jurisdictional irrelevance. And so it is that they reserve to themselves the right to seize property, ban the sale of Big Gulps, and fine Christian photographers who don’t want to record the joy and laughter of a perverse union. The issue is not the dollar amount. The issue is the jurisdictional claim implicit in the ruling. What are they saying it means?
Is it lawful for Christians to drive on a toll road? Can they throw two quarters in the basket, and drive on with a clean conscience? Sure thing. But what if the existing authorities reduced the price in one way and raised it in another? Suppose the toll was just a quarter, but a sign over the toll booth said “Artemis Turnpike,” and you had to say Hail Artemis to the sullen occupant of the booth before depositing your quarter. Is that what your conscience costs? A quarter?
The issue is not the amount. The issue is what it means. And because we live in a culture that formally denies that we are created in God’s image, we ought to be having many more clashes than we are. Many more.