After St. Paul’s missionary trips in Greece and Asia Minor, he went south to Jerusalem despite being warned that in Jerusalem some Jews would try to capture him and turn him over to the Romans. The warnings were soon realized when the Pharisees and Sadducees accused Paul of sedition and false teaching. A plot to kill Paul was foiled when Paul’s nephew (Acts 23:16) reported what he had heard to the commander of Roman troops. When it was revealed that Paul was a Roman citizen, the commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem arranged for Paul to be taken to Caesarea. In a hearing before the Roman Governor Felix, Ananias the high priest made the accusations and Paul offered his rebuttal in a powerful confession of faith.
Following that, however, Felix procrastinated. Luke writes that one of the reasons for the procrastination was that Felix was hoping Paul would offer him a bribe and could then be released. Paul languished for two years until Felix was succeeded as governor by Festus. After an additional hearing, Festus asked Paul if he was willing to go up to Jerusalem, where he would hold a hearing, and it is at that point that Paul says: “I appeal to Caesar,” to which Festus says: “To Caesar you shall go.” Paul was then passed on to King Herod Agrippa, who agreed that Paul should be judged by Caesar—who at the time was Nero.
This is the same St. Paul who exhorts Christians to “obey the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). The Apostle Peter writes similarly, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” to the king or to governors (1 Peter 2:13). Both of these point us to Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The apostles carried that out when, in response to demands to desist from their preaching about Jesus, they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
These Bible passages would seem to put Christians in a dilemma. Christians are to obey the government and there is a time when Christians are not to obey. So, we ask: When must I obey government? When must I disobey the government? Is it according to my conscience? My personal opinion? God’s Word? How do I decide?
The Bible teaches us that the Christian in this life lives in two kingdoms or realms. One is the spiritual or heavenly realm—governed by the gospel, faith, and God’s Word (called the kingdom of the right). The other, the earthly realm (the kingdom of the left), is in this world; it is established by God, but it is not governed by grace and faith, but by law and reason; not by the Bible and faith, but by laws enacted by men. The world is not the true home of the Christian but an alien and temporary home. Christians live in the world as strangers and pilgrims, but do not set aside their Christian life, beliefs, and behavior. They remain Christians and do not adapt themselves to worldly principles that are contrary to God’s Law. While they live under the law of human government, they conduct themselves according to God’s revelation in His Word. When they have to say, “We ought to obey God rather than men,” they do not resort to violence, though they may also have to suffer the consequences of their refusal.
When St. Paul appealed to Caesar, he was simply exercising his right as a Roman citizen. He was a Jew from the city of Tarsus in the Roman province Cilicia in Asia Minor. His father, a Jew, was a Roman citizen, which made Paul one by birth. The rights of Roman citizens included that they could not be put to death or beaten in the Roman empire without a trial. Thus, when Paul was persecuted by the Sadducees and Pharisees, they were acting against Roman law (as well as against their own law, as Paul points out). Before Festus, Paul defended himself: “Neither against the law of the Jews…nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all” (25:8). Paul’s appeal was against the beatings and attempts on his life made on the person of Paul, a Roman citizen, without a trial. It was a matter of legality. And yet, Paul sees the hostility of the Jews as being against Christ: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
Christians must remember that their freedom to appeal to government is not license to disobey rules that they don’t like, find inconvenient, or disagree with. “Obey God rather than men” points to divine commands—the law and the gospel. So, how does “I appeal to Caesar” apply to Christians in this life and society today? “To obey God rather than men” applies to matters not of our own subjective preferences, but to matters which are clearly given by God. St. Paul describes what is to be the spirit of the Christian living in the world: to conduct “ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12).
The alien home where Christians are strangers and foreigners is a nation of laws which guarantees its citizens certain rights. The Christian lives within those bounds—they have the same rights as do others in American democracy to petition the government, local and national, and not be persecuted or “canceled” when they do. Christians in America have all the rights of citizenship, and to “appeal to Caesar” is one of those rights; appeals can be made to the courts or to legislative government. When citizens object to laws, enacted or proposed, which they must disobey in order to be faithful to God’s Word, they do not violate God’s Word or the United States constitution, nor are they mixing church and state.
When laws or policies are considered or enacted which would prevent individuals from corporate worship or force Christians into actions expressly forbidden by God’s Word, church leaders who are authorized to speak for the churches will have to “appeal to Caesar”— neither is that a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
When individual Christians and church leaders speak to clear cases where government legislation or policies violate the religion clause of the first amendment, they rightly appeal to Caesar. Such appeals do not violate the biblical teaching on the two kingdoms, nor do they violate the political principle of separation of church and state. The first Amendment forbids the government from establishing a state church as well interfering with the free practice of religion. That includes regulations concerning public worship as well the confessed beliefs of the religion.
The Doctrine Committee of the ELS