The Domain of Caesar

The Islamist vision for the world is a simple one. Mohammed was not only a religious figure, but a political, judicial and military one as well. He was preacher, warrior, politician, poet and judge. All offices of government and society were combined in him. And so, in the Islamist view, it follows that any Islamic Caliphate should follow this model. Hence just like communism and fascism, Islamist ideology is totalitarian.

But Christians too believe Jesus is Lord of the whole of life (public and private). So, what is the difference between the two?

This passage from Mark gives us some insight:

“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’

And they were amazed at him.” (Mark 12: 13-17)

This  passage of New Testament Scripture is often misunderstood by Islamists, (and a great many others). On a surface reading it appears that there is a division in God’s concern between the sacred and the secular, with God’s concern squarely on the sacred areas of life. The confusion arises because people fail to realise that God has separated the various domains of life and invested each of them with a limited authority: The Church has a domain, the state has a domain, the family has a domain and the individual has a domain. All are limited in their authority within their given domain.

Everybody, including Caesar, remains accountable to God for his (or her) domain. But there is a definite and necessary separation of powers. Difficulties in our society arise when the various authorities over-reach their respective domain. In a sinful world, limited authority and the separation of powers puts necessary checks and balances in place to ensure each domain is kept accountable and does not interfere in a domain outside its purview.

The success of western democracies owes a great deal to the application of this biblical idea – an idea that underpins all of our political and civil institutions. In our society, for example, there is a separation between the parliament and the courts. The Church is also separate from government. An independent media also provides a further check on the power.

God-given domains are becoming increasingly blurred in our society. Our community increasingly expects of schools that which should be expected of the parental domain. Government oversteps its domain by over-regulating the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual and risking the creation of a “nanny-state.” Media often acts as judge and jury in cases yet to be tried by the courts? There are innumerable instances of “domain over-reach.” Historically, even the Church has encroached on the domain of Caesar. The institutional will to (wrongful) power is ever-present and must be constantly checked.

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             Caesar Augustus               (Reigned 27 BC – AD 14)

For Prayer and Reflection: What are the various domains of your life? Are there areas where you over-reach your authority? Are there areas where you are wrongly abrogating your authority and responsibility? Ask God to help you and our society keep the various spheres of life in proper tension.

 For Further Reading: Matthew 22:15-22

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