Jesus vs. Caesar

I came across an informal poll on Twitter asking Christians if it is okay to lie to serve their nation. A full 53.4% said “yes” versus 41.2% who said “no” (the remaining 5.4% were either “unsure” or disputed the question itself).

So which is it?

Well, before we can answer the question, we first have to understand the question. And, with 2,000 years of history behind the Church, we’re by no means the first generation of Christians to ask this question. Human governments have asserted demands and defended their right to certain interests that appear to conflict with Jesus’ teachings since our very beginnings in Rome. So Christians have had to answer this question from the beginning.

How one answers this question boils down to one of two very simple but distinct Christian worldviews. On the one hand, there’s the Augustinian view that argues Jesus ordained the Church to govern our religious life (what we today would conceive of as our “spiritual life”), while the government was instituted to govern our civil life. Juxtaposed to this view is the one held by almost all early Christians for the first 300 years of Church history, which argues that Jesus’ rule was universal and held even human governments accountable to his commands.

Today the Augustinian view is the majority view among most Western Christians, but it hasn’t always been this way.

The problem with this view is, of course, that apart from Biblical revelation there can be no foundation for any moral authority because “all authority has been given” to Jesus. How do you know if your government’s request is “right” or “wrong”? Can someone fornicate to gather intel for their country? Can one assassinate dissidents or political rivals deemed “dangerous” at the request of their leaders? Can someone use biological warfare against an enemy State’s citizens if their government tells them to do so? Unless one’s answers are anchored in Scripture, there are no grounds upon which anyone could refuse any of these dictates, which means that even government must answer to the authority of God’s word.

To illustrate this problem, right now Russia’s government is telling its service members to attack Ukraine, and Ukraine is doing the same. Who is right? Should Christians in Russia obey their government and take steps that ultimately result in Ukrainian deaths, some of whom might even be fellow Christians? Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party appears ready to invade Taiwan, so would it be right for Chinese Christians to obey the CCP and take steps that would eventually result in the deaths of countless Taiwanese (and possibly Americans), some of whom are also Christians? Who is right, the government of Russia or Ukraine right? Who is right, the government of China or Taiwan (and America)? Which government authority should Christians obey when two governments issue conflicting orders? You see? Without Biblical revelation there is no standard for any moral authority, which means the Augustinian view that God’s word only governs “religious life”, leaving government the authority to govern “civil life” is manifestly wrong. Since both Russia and Ukraine can’t be right, there must be some authority higher than the government against which their actions must be measured. And that authority is the Bible (even when we don’t like what the Bible says)!

On this question Jesus is very clear:

Matthew 5:37 (CSB) — 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.

We worship whomever we serve. To set aside Jesus’ commands to serve the government’s interests is to worship the government by acknowledging its authority as supreme over our lives! But Christians must submit exclusively to the authority of the Lord.

Jesus teaches us that anything more than “yes” or “no“, which necessarily includes deceptive subterfuge, is from Satan! How can someone “let their ‘yes’ be ‘yes’” while practicing any kind of espionage? Only by nullifying Jesus’ commands could someone practice espionage as an agent of the State.

Likewise, Paul is clear:

Ephesians 4:20–24 (CSB) — 20 But that is not how you came to know Christ, 21 assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.

Christians “put away lying” in order to put on the new self “created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.” So how can someone who has put away lying regularly practice deception in service of their government? Likewise, how can someone who is being renewed “in righteousness and purity of the truth” practice deception?

The implications of these teachings apply far beyond “spies” (the most extreme example), but also to political offices wherein it seems almost mandatory that elected officials regularly deceive their constituents. Whatever office or practice that cannot be successfully occupied without deception is incompatible with the life those who follow Jesus must lead.

Christians cannot practice deception.

I’m sure someone will object: “would you have told Nazi officers where you were hiding Jews?

I’m sure the question is sincere, so my answer will be equally sincere: “no, I would not, but neither would I lie“. First, as much as Jesus tells us that we should not lie, he also tells his disciples that they must not love their own lives (John 12:25), nor fear those who can kill the body (Matthew 10:28); we should be ready to die protecting the innocent, but we mustn’t use evil to overcome evil. And, although I’ve not been in this position myself before, I have been in the position where I was forced to deal with security issues from hostile governments, and when we resolve to follow Jesus at all costs, it lends itself to these conclusions that you must ultimately entrust yourself to God’s protection because there are certain lines you cannot cross, either to protect yourself or others. I think this is why Jesus, when warning about the hardships soon to come, told his disciples “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), a passage that leads up to the above admonition “not to fear those who can kill the body“. Put simply, we must ultimately entrust ourselves to God’s care and be willing to offer him the fullest measure of devotion if called upon because we’re sent out as “innocents among wolves“!

Another might object: “Rahab is commended for lying to protect the Israelite spies.

But Rahab was never commended for lying to protect the Israelite spies, only for her faith seen in “welcoming the spies in peace” (Hebrews 11:31). Far from being commended for lying, Rahab is commended because she believed the report about God and welcomed the Israelite spies in peace instead of turning them over to Jericho. We should also recognize the difference between her situation and our question: her deception wasn’t regularly practiced under the authority of human governments. She was a gentile and would have been completely unaware of even God’s law. She’s further separated from us in that she was long before the resurrection and didn’t have the good news of Jesus or his indwelling Holy Spirit. God’s acceptance illustrates his grace for her condition rather than his affirmation of her behavior. And I’ll add that I have no doubt God will show grace upon grace in Christ for people who have found themselves in difficult positions and tried to protect innocent lives despite their failures. But we’re asking here if Christians can take upon themselves the duty to lie for the sake of their governments, and that is an altogether different question than asking if God will have grace for people who fail under impossible situations.

We must refute the lie that government has the authority to nullify the commands of Jesus.

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