Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, makes an often neglected point. Using Matthew 22:21 to support the claim that civil governments are not to be questioned or confronted by lesser magistrates or the people is misplaced and misunderstood.
Israel was under the domination of Rome. We don’t live under Caesar today, and the Americans didn’t live under Caesar in the eighteenth century. Their dispute with the British monarchy and Parliament was over contractual issues. England had violated an agreement made by two sovereign powers and governments. Actually, in terms of the states, there had been multiple violations because there were 13 state governments.
Paine has an extended discussion of Judges 8:22–23 where he describes “the King of Heaven” to be Israel’s “proper sovereign.” He then spends several pages quoting, discussing, and making application of the importance of 1 Samuel 8 to the modern situation. He concludes this section of Common Sense with these words: “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) by the world in blood and ashes. ’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”
There are restrictions on Caesar’s sovereignty, and by extension the sovereignty of all rulers, because we are told to “render to God the things that are God’s,” and Caesar is under God. The things that are God’s did not belong to Caesar, and what legitimate authority Caesar did possess had been given to him by God (Rom. 13:1).
Did Jesus give Caesar, and by analogy all civil governments, unlimited authority to rule without regard to God’s commandments? Whatever else Matthew 22:21 can tell us, and it can tell us a lot, we know that Scripture limits the sovereignty of Caesar.
When Christians protest against unjust judicial decisions and overreaching congressional laws, they are often enjoined by their critics to remember that Caesar should be followed no matter what. The assumption seems to be that once “Caesar” speaks, there can be no objection or political action to challenge “Caesar.”
But we do not live under Caesar! The Caesars have been dead for nearly two millennia. We live under a constitutional system with checks and balances, built-in limitations of power, and a mechanism whereby political changes can be made. Americans can change the balance of power in government my using the right and freedom to vote.
Our “Caesar” is the United States Constitution, each state constitution, and the will of the people to make changes to their government. There is no need for anarchy or revolution when laws can be changed at the ballot box. The rise of tyranny lies with Christians who fail to take advantage of the freedoms in their possession and opt out of the political process.