44 – Rendering Unto Caesar and God

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way (Matt. 22:15-22).

The theocentric principle here is the distinction between God's ownership and man's. Men owe God for the use of His goods, in the same way that they owe the government for services rendered. If the State has the power to enforce payment, surely God does, too.

Tribute Money

Accompanying the Pharisees were Herodians, a priestly party allied with the Sadducees.1 Herod was the regional monarch. He was under Rome's authority. He was an Idumean, meaning an heir of Esau.2 Those who were allied to Herod were normally not friends of the Pharisees. But Jesus was a problem for both groups. He was undermining their authority. The two groups joined forces on the assumption that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" — until the enemy is removed. Jesus recognized the nature of this temporary alliance and warned His disciples against both groups.3 Forty years later, the Idumeans joined forces with the Jews to resist Rome, then turned on the Jews when the siege of Jerusalem began. They looted the Jews. Titus slew some and sold an "immense" number of them into slavery after the city fell.4

The Pharisees sought to entrap Jesus. The Romans were hated by the Jews. Roman rule was regarded as tyrannical. If Jesus could be lured into acknowledging the legitimacy of Roman rule, He would lose favor with the Jews, for they resented this rule. They paid their taxes, but they did so grudgingly. On the other hand, if He denied the legitimacy of taxation by Rome, the Herodians would surely report this to the Roman authorities. He would be trapped, or so they imagined.

They began with flattery: "Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men." In other words, "Say your piece loud and clear, sucker; then we'll be rid of you forever." Jesus was not fooled. He identified them for what they were: "Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?" The hypocrite feigns righteousness but in fact is a sinner.

He asked them to show him a coin. "Shew me the tribute money." They brought it to Him. At that point, He had them trapped. The "penny" was a denarius. This was a coin used specifically to pay taxes. If taxes were not legitimate, why did his critics possess one? Furthermore, it bore an image. It also had an inscription. The inscription invoked the language of divinity. The Jews regarded this as idolatrous. But they had brought Him a coin. What were they doing with such coins? 5

Jesus asked them specifically: Whose image? Whose inscription? Caesar's, they answered. What else could they say? "Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." By acknowledging that they possessed a tax coin, they were also acknowledging that Rome brought civil order. Such order must be paid for. If Caesar's image and inscription were on the coin, then those who used such coins in trade were gaining a benefit: money. By using money to gain what they wanted to buy rather than bartering, they were extending the division of labor. This increases men's output per unit of resource input. It makes them wealthier.

Caesar's rule brought social stability. It created international legal framework for economic growth. It was Rome, not Israel, that had built the highways and had cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates. There are no free lunches, and Rome was merely collecting what belonged to it. Jesus was saying that the benefits of economic growth had to be paid for. The beneficiaries owed something to the State.

A coin was a mark of sovereignty in the ancient world. It still is. The theology of Rome was visible on Rome's coins. The image and the inscription announced the divinity of the emperor: "Emperor Tiberius august Son of the august God." 6 This is what angered the Jews. But the agents of the Pharisees or their Herodian allies had such a coin in their possession. The Herodians were content with the coins. The Herod of Jesus' infancy had been a ruthless tax collector.7 But the Pharisees were indeed hypocrites. This is why Jesus said a bit later, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23:23).

Jesus was not arguing that Caesar owned everything that he laid claim to. On the contrary, men are to render to God what God possesses. What Caesar owned was legal sovereignty over the political system that provided the Roman Empire's money. This legal system had to be supported by taxes. Israel was benefitting from this system, despite the system's inequities. Besides, Israel was under judgment, and had been since the captivity. Living under foreign domination was nothing new for Israel. Rome had brought greater trade and prosperity by opening up new markets. Israel was benefitting from the arrangement. On what basis should Israelites have refused to pay taxes? Jesus had the answer: none. But He gave this answer in such a way that the Pharisees could not embarrass Him.

What Belongs to God

The Israelites' tithe money went to support the priests. The priests were Sadducees, the Pharisees' rivals.8 By reminding the people of their obligations to God, Jesus was undermining the authority of the Pharisees. He was reminding them that they owed a tithe. This meant that they owed God by way of the Sadducees' faction. This was a public challenge to the Pharisees.

Jesus used this incident to lay the foundation for a comprehensive covenant lawsuit against Israel. God is owed far more than the tithe, He warned them, and they had not paid God what He was owed. Judgment was coming.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation (Matt. 23:23-36).

Jesus passed the dilemma back to the Pharisees. If they denied Rome's right of taxation, they risked political suppression by Rome. If they affirmed this right, they would have undermined their popularity with the more radical factions of the people. If they affirmed the tithe, they also had to affirm the Sadducee party. If they denied the tithe, they had to oppose Moses. So, they went away . . . again. Jesus had successfully silenced them, just as they had sought to silence Him . . . again.

Tithes and Taxes

The tithe is mandatory. It preceded the Mosaic law. Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20). There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that this law has been annulled. Only the recipients have changed: from the local Levites to the local churches. Through Christ, the church is the heir of the Melchizedekan priesthood. "So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 5:5-6). "Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace" (Heb. 6:20-7:2). Men owe the local church their tithes.9

What do they owe the State? Less than a tithe. Any system of civil government that takes as much as ten percent is tyrannical, Samuel warned. "And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day" (I Sam. 8:11-18). The Israelites refused to heed this warning (v. 19). In the twentieth century, Christians have not cried out when the State has extracted four times the tithe or even more from them. They live under what the Bible clearly identifies as tyranny, yet they call it democratic liberty. What rouses their ire is any suggestion that they owe a tithe to their local churches. "We're under grace, not law!" they proclaim. In fact, they are under pagan law, pagan bureaucrats, pagan tax collectors, and pagan lawyers.

Pagans have denied that the Old Testament applies to modern times. Christians have agreed. Pagans have asserted the sovereignty of the State to extract money far beyond the tithe. Christians have agreed. Pagans have affirmed the right of the tax collector to require comprehensive income records from every taxpayer. Christians have agreed. Yet any suggestion that a church's officers possess a similar right would be met with total opposition by church members. No one suggests that such authority is possessed by the church. Well, not quite. No one other than me. I argue that every voting church member must prove that he tithes, and this requires him to submit such records to the elders.10 But no one agrees with me. Protestant churches offer voting membership to any adult who joins. Non-tithing members are given the right to vote for leaders who will decide how to spend the church's money.

The State has merely imitated the Protestant churches in opening the vote to non-taxpaying citizens. It collects tax money from every resident on a graduated basis, and it exempts some citizens from paying taxes.11 Yet it allows any citizen to vote, irrespective of the percentage of his income that the State collects. This is the judicial basis of the modern welfare State and the politics of plunder. What the church allows to its non-tithing members the State allows its non-taxpaying citizens. A few Christians argue that the graduated income tax is wrong, but they never see that the graduated income tax system was pioneered by Protestant churches that do not distinguish a voting member from a communicant member by means of the tithe. They see no contradiction here. The tax-funded school system has done its work well.

Revolt: Tax or Tithe

If it is wrong for the State to collect taxes beyond the tithe, is it right for citizens to revolt when taxes exceed the tithe? Not if they can change the law legally. Not if they can legally beat the tax system individually. A tyranny involves more than high levels of taxation. Tax rates identify a tyranny, but tyranny is a package deal. The Bible identifies as rebellious every civil government that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible as sovereign. But the answer is not armed revolt; the answer is evangelism, followed by the invocation of a new civil covenant. A new personal covenant is only the beginning of the Great Commission. The long-term goal is a new civil covenant. This is an implication of the Great Commission: "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matt. 28:18-20).12

Jesus told His followers to obey the Pharisees, even though He knew that they taught men's traditions rather than the Mosaic law. "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matt. 23:1-4). He knew the religious leaders were hypocrites; nevertheless, He told His followers to obey them. Why? Because the Old Covenant had not yet been annulled historically. The temple still stood. Until the sacrificial fires were extinguished forever, the religious leaders possessed legitimate authority. The Christians would have to wait for deliverance. It came in A.D. 70.13

There is no need to rush when it comes to throwing off a self-imposed tyranny. God will eventually destroy it. His people must work to replace it, not through violence, but through principled non-violent resistance and political mobilization. (Sending their children to Christian schools is basic to such a strategy.) The apostles refused to obey when told not to preach the gospel (Acts. 5:29), but they willingly suffered the consequences of this disobedience. "[A]nd when they [the Jewish council] had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" (Acts 5:40b-42).


Jesus made it clear that the State is entitled to taxes. He implied that the church is entitled to money. If we do not turn to the Old Testament to find out what the limits of taxes and church contributions are, we shall forever be caught between the tax collector and the church in their quest for funding. The Old Testament provides information on these limits. For the church, the limit is ten percent of our net income. For the State, the limit is less than ten percent. The State does not have the right before God to extract from residents as high a percentage as the church has the right to demand of its voting members. Any State that demands as much as ten percent is a tyranny. The total level of taxation, from local civil government upward, must be less than ten percent of a person's net income.

The modern church does not believe this. The result is a church that does not have the courage to demand tithes of its voting members, and a State that cannot resist extracting four times more than the tithe. Christians have sought to starve God's church by refusing to tithe. Meanwhile, the messianic State extracts their wealth unmercifully. God is not mocked.

The top priority in this passage is social budgeting based on the Bible. The Bible identifies what God is legally entitled to and what the State is legally entitled to. This, the world has refused to do. The result in our day is the widespread acceptance of the welfare State. The end result of this is personal dependence on the State and social bankruptcy.

"Herodians," Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1904), IV, p. 360.
"Herod," Columbia Encyclopedia (5th ed.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). See also, "Edom."
"And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod" (Mark 8:15).
Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VI:VIII:2.
Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars: Historical Sketches (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), ch. 8.
6. Ibid., p. 125.
7. Ibid., pp. 116-17.
Herbert Danby, Introduction, The Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, [1933] 1987), p. xiii.
Gary North, Tithing and the Church (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994).
Gary North, Tithing and the Church (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), ch. 3.
The poor who are on government welfare pay no income taxes in the United States. Income derived from income from municipal bonds is also income tax-free.
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Greatness of the Great Commission: The Christian Enterprise in a Fallen World (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
David Chilton, The Great Tribulation (Tyler, Texas: Dominion Press, [1987] 1997).

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