Tag Archives: state

Civil Society for the Common Good

October 2015 Pulse

In their essay ‘Developing Civil Society in Singapore’, Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon offer a brief but helpful account of the genesis and metamorphosis of civil society from pre-independent period to the present. The authors also discuss some of the forces that are expected to drive and shape civil society in the nation in the future.

In their essay, Koh and Soon have elected the broadest possible approach to achieve a working definition of civil society. For them, civil society ‘includes all forms of voluntary organisations, whether formally constituted or not, that lies between and is independent of the state and family’. Each of these groups, they add, ‘is held together by shared values, interests and purposes, and seeks to mobilise resources and people to achieve those’.

This broad and inclusive descriptor notwithstanding, it is important to note that most civil society scholars have underscored just how notoriously difficult it is to arrive at a definition of civil society that would satisfy everyone. As a result, there appears to be no consensus among scholars on what civil society actually is and what it does. There is also no agreement among scholars on whether, in certain parts of the world, civil society exists.

(Incidentally, because consensus on the nature of civil society and what it looks like is so elusive, some scholars have concluded that there’s hardly any civil society in Singapore, while others maintain that it has always existed – even before independence.)

Yet, despite the fact that the idea remains ambiguous and opaque in many ways, civil society appears to be hailed by many as a panacea for the ills and fractures of modern society.

The Advocacy Institute in the USA lauds it as ‘the single most viable alternative to the authoritarian state and the tyrannical market’. Politicians in the UK aver that civil society will hold society together against the onslaught of globalising markets, while the United Nations and the World Bank maintain that it is one of the keys to ‘good governance’. The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin even calls it ‘our last, best hope’.

While the Christian would be instinctively wary of such extravagant optimism invested in any form of social advocacy, the advantages of civil society as an expression of associational life must be duly recognised.

Many would no doubt agree that a good society – again, what this entails is contentious – is in some significant way dependent on the health of the associational life of different groups in society. Civil society, as part of the public sphere, is therefore in some strong sense vital to a healthy associational ecosystem of society.

Philosophers and social theorists have noted how certain instantiations and embodiments of social, economic and political systems have destroyed the bonds between different individuals, different groups and between humans and their environment. In different and sometimes significant ways, civil society can not only alert us to the problem but also reconstitute these important relationships.

By institutionalising ‘civility’, civil society may arrest alienating and destructive social habits, and open up a new and different way of living in the world.

Koh and Soon are right to stress that the goal of civil society is the common good. ‘An effective response’, they write towards the end of their essay, ‘would allow civic activism to result in a more socially inclusive and compassionate Singapore where citizens renew their commitment to the good of the collective, but not the tyranny of the majority’.

Civil society must have as its ultimate goal the common good of society, which must transcend the specific concerns and agendas of particular groups. Put differently, the special projects that drive individual civil society groups must always be inspired and energised by a larger and more expansive vision of the flourishing of society as a whole.

As Koh and Soon have alluded, this means that civil society should never be governed by a superficial and dismissive majoritarianism. This is because the majority can be blind to the very real needs of the minority – the invisible poor or the unborn – whose welfare and wellbeing must never be excluded when we think about the common good.

But in order for civil society to be committed to the ‘good of the collective’, it also must not cower to the tyranny of the minority. It must not allow minority groups to question or overturn important social institutions in the name of group rights and inclusiveness.

This means that the presence of civil society alone is not enough to guarantee that the compassion and justice that are indispensable for human flourishing will prevail, and that the common good will be served.

In our fallen world, civil society is a morally ambiguous reality. As such it can promote virtue or vice, and it can be morally progressive or regressive. As Richard Miller points out: ‘Civil society is an arena for moral formation and deformation’.

For civil society to really serve the common good, we must ask whether the attitudes and practices it embodies are truly civil and civilising. For civil society to fulfil its true vocation, its aspirations and goals must never violate or detract from God’s purpose for the human race.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.



[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

The State

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

Perhaps the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1). The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: ‘it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up’.

Romans 13 tell us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human flourishing. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: ‘The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God’. Romans 13 urge everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’. The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13-14).  Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a ‘nevertheless’. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that ‘if the emperor order one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed’. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: ‘when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey’. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, ‘My Country, Right or Wrong!’, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy. The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (August 2013).

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Trumpet (TTC).

Can politics be separated from religion, according to the Christian perspective?

The separation of religion from politics, resulting in the notion of ‘private religion’, is the outcome of the secularism associated with the 18th century European Enlightenment. Before that time, religion was always a matter for the whole community, and never just for the individual. In addition, religion and culture were always inextricably intertwined with each other in such a way that their separation was inconceivable. If politics is broadly defined as the principles or policies by which a community orders its life, then religion obviously cannot be artificially excised from politics. This is true especially for multi-religious societies like Singapore. Christians generally maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated. This is because according to the Christian faith, there can be no place for any distinction between secular and sacred. The God who created the world must surely be Lord even of the political realm.

To maintain that there can be no separation between religion and politics is not to reject the concept of the secular state or to insist that the Church should not be separated from the state. The two issues are quite different and must not be confused with one another. Although the concept of the secular state is in itself in many ways problematic, it is nonetheless useful in identifying the duties of the state. The secular state is one in which the government is limited to the seculum or temporal realm. It is a state that is free from the control of any institutional religion and therefore independent of the latter. The idea of the secular state therefore denies the government the right to use religion for the accomplishment of political ends, and it denies religion the right to use the government for religious ends. In this way, the secular state is arguably better able to ensure what some scholars have called ‘benevolent neutrality’, where the interests of the members of all the different communities represented in society are taken seriously. As mentioned earlier, although this model raises a number of difficult and important issues and is far from perfect, for reasons I cannot discuss in this short article, Christians can broadly endorse it without fear of too much compromise. I believe that Singapore’s ‘Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act’ of 1992 is broadly inspired by some such concept of the secular state.

A paradox immediately presents itself: How are we to understand the relationship between the secular state and a religious society? Are the two concepts not contradictory? Here we must further sharpen our understanding of the secular state. A secular state is one that is concerned with the seculum or temporal affairs. However, a secular state is not a state that is committed to secularism. That is to say, the secular state does not deny the reality of the non-physical world and it is not hostile to religious belief and practice. The secular state therefore will not attempt to expunge religious discourse from the public square. It recognises the importance of religion in public life, even as it prohibits religion from using the government for religious ends. Although there is a growing minority in Singapore who are committed to excluding religion from public discourse, I believe that this is not the position of the Singapore government. This is clearly evident in the fact that the latter has openly invited different faith communities to participate in debates on important societal issues.

Christians believe that they can make significant contributions to public life, not least by participating in debates on social and political issues. As I have argued elsewhere, this is an aspect of the Christian’s responsibility in society. Christians and the Church therefore may serve a political purpose by playing a prophetic role in public life. Although some Christians have argued that the separation of church and state and the acceptance of the concept of the secular state require the privatisation of religion, I maintain that this is not the case at all. In fact, the contrary is true: the separation of church and state has made possible the genuinely prophetic role of religion because the church, freed from institutional dependence, is no longer subservient to the state in a way that would mute her prophetic voice. The Church is therefore able to be herself – a free and authentic witness for God in society. The separation of Church and state and the concept of the secular state therefore make possible an authentic public religion. They make genuine interaction between Christians and political society a living reality.

Christians contribute to the political life of the society by advancing justice and promoting the common good. But in order to do so, Christians (and the Church) must sometimes question the established order and refuse to endorse or ‘sanctify’ policies and traditions that are not in harmony with God’s will. These are all aspects of the prophetic role of Christians in society. Furthermore, prophetic religion must also reach out to the oppressed, the dispossessed, the disinherited and the discriminated. It must reject the temptation to show favour to any particular socioeconomic class. It must be free from the fetters of any given culture and the prevailing norms and conventions of society. By speaking rationally, truthfully and compassionately to many shared concerns and issues, and by participating respectfully, calmly and patiently in public discourse, Christians can contribute – in small but sometimes surprisingly significant ways – to society. In this way, the Christian community can fulfil its public vocation in the world on behalf of freedom, peace, and justice for all.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (September 2013).

Render To Caesar… Render To God

March 2015 Feature Article

Whenever there is a discussion on the obligations of Christians towards the state, a key saying of Jesus is invariably cited. The most well-known rendition of it is found in the King James’ Version of the Bible: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

A common interpretation of this saying is that Christians owe different sets of obligations to God and to the state. It is depicted in the diagram below:

Render to Caesar revised

So, as this interpretation of Jesus’ saying goes, there are obligations we owe to the state alone (perhaps things like paying taxes, respecting public order). These we should “render unto Caesar”. Then there is a completely separate set of obligations we owe to God (perhaps the obligation to tithe or to pray). These we should “render unto God”. Jesus’ saying, therefore, has repeatedly been used through the ages to urge Christians to be good and law-abiding citizens; to discharge well our unique obligations to “Caesar”.

The problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ saying is quickly apparent. It invites us to divide our lives into two portions, one governed by God, and the other by the state, with no interaction between the two. God’s reign over us is therefore restricted to so-called “religious” matters, while Caesar has the final say on how we should behave with regard to our lives in the public square. This interpretation of Jesus’ saying is, in other words, totally in line with the secularising agenda of many contemporary societies. The secular ideal is that one’s public life should be free of religious considerations. There can be a carefully circumscribed role for religion in one’s private devotion and morals, but that is as far as it should go.

Could this understanding of Jesus’ saying be correct? Could Jesus have been a man before his time, advocating a secular agenda more than a millennium and a half before these ideas took root in Western societies? Might Jesus actually approve of the marginalisation of religion we see in so many contemporary societies? Surely, something is amiss. It behoves us to examine carefully the passage in which this saying is contained to see if its context sheds any light on how it should be interpreted. We will focus on the description of this episode in the Gospel of Mark (12:13-17).

This immediate context of our passage is a trap set by the Jewish religious authorities. As v.13 puts it, “they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words”. These emissaries began with flattery. They praised Jesus’ integrity and said they admired the way he taught the way of God truly without being swayed by the fear of man (v.14). Having cunningly set up an expectation for Jesus to speak the truth fearlessly, they sprung the trap:  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (v.14-15). This question was designed to put Jesus in a deadly bind. Whether he answers “yes” or “no”, he would get into deep trouble.

If Jesus were to answer, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar”, it would have given a basis for the Jewish religious authorities to persuade the Roman rulers to arrest Jesus. The Romans were very sensitive about their system of taxation, and any potential disruption to it was likely to draw a swift and firm response. This is where the Herodians come in. They were a political faction of Jews seen as loyal to Rome. They would be best placed to report any subversive behaviour to the Romans.

If, on the other hand, Jesus were to affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Caesar, many of his followers would have abandoned him in deep disappointment. Many Jews had an intense hatred of the Roman tax. They had even started a series of riots over the payment of taxes not too long before Jesus’ time. How do you think these Jews would have felt if Jesus were to encourage meek submission to the oppressive Roman tax system? Most conveniently, the Pharisees were on hand to fan any angry responses. They were respected among the Jews for their anti-Roman sentiments, and were best placed to incite the crowd should Jesus affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Rome.

How did Jesus emerge from this bind unscathed? He did the rather unexpected thing of requesting for a denarius (v.15). He then asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The denarius was a Roman coin, and had the portrait of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar on its front side, with words proclaiming his title and name. It was therefore a simple thing for the Pharisees and the Herodians to answer “Caesar’s” (v.16). Jesus then spoke the final words recorded for this episode, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. This reply totally floored the Pharisees and the Herodians. They thought they were cruising to victory in this boxing match. But Jesus’ reply was the knockout punch they did not see coming. V.17 tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at him. The account in the Gospel of Luke describes them being so astonished that they fell silent (Lk 20:26). Matthew adds that they left Jesus and went away (Matt 22:22)—probably in shame that their mission had failed.

This is where the common interpretation of Jesus’ answer does not make sense. What would be so utterly amazing about Jesus teaching that we owe different sets of obligations towards God and the state? Such a reply would also not have successfully evaded the trap, since it is in essence a “yes” answer; it suggests we ought to pay taxes because we owe obligations to the state.

The key to understanding Jesus’ last sentence lies in his earlier question, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The original Greek word for “portrait” is εἰκών (eikon). This is the word from which the English “icon” is derived, and can also be translated as “image”. To the Jew, one of the first things which come to mind when the term “image” is mentioned is the teaching in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. εἰκών has also been used in other parts of the New Testament to denote this image of God present in human beings (e.g. 1 Cor 11:7). The English word “inscription” is translated from ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe). A form of this word is used in passages like Isa 44:5 of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which reads:

“One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’;
Another will call himself by the name of Jacob;
Still another will write (epigraphein) on his hand, ‘The LORD’s’
And will take the name Israel”

So how would Jesus’ Jewish audience have understood his reply? Just as the denarius had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar’s name on it, human beings are made in the image of God and all those who belong to God have his name written on their hands. Therefore, when Jesus speaks about giving to God what is in God’s image and what has God’s inscription, he is calling for the giving of the whole of ourselves to God. He is reminding the Jews that their one loyalty is to God alone. So, if we do pay our taxes to Caesar, it should be as an aspect of our sole obligation to God; it should be as an act of worship to God. The converse is also implied: If the state should overstep her boundaries and impose obligations which conflict with our fundamental obligation to God, “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). The one guiding principle for all of life is our obligation towards the one who has made us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands. Thus Jesus, in his answer, does not advocate uncritical submission to the state and its laws. Yet he also does not advocate rebellion for its own sake. Everything has to be evaluated according to one’s sole duty to God. He therefore manages to avoid the unequivocal “yes” or “no” his enemies were expecting.

The pervasive influence of secularism in modern societies has caused Christians to live fragmented lives. The phenomenon of a “privatised” Christianity is evident amongst many Christians. We have carefully shepherded our Christian faith into a small and comfortable corner of our lives. When it comes to “religious” activities, like attending church, or going for small group meetings, we are happy to say and do all the right “Christian” things. Outside of these times, however, we often refuse to allow the reality of our Christian faith to guide and impact the other aspects of our lives (e.g. when we are in the office, when we discuss national politics, when we evaluate the economic direction of our society). It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, for many of us, Christianity has effectively been reduced to a kind of drug for our psychological well-being. We take it once a week on a Sunday to feel a sense of comfort and joy, but refuse to let it interfere with the business of living in the real world.

The privatised Christianity of our secular age needs to hear afresh the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. This, far from being an affirmation of the secular tendency to divide our lives into different spheres which are hermetically sealed from one another, is a powerful call for us to re-assemble the fragmented pieces and live our entire life in obedience to God. If we do discharge our obligations to others (e.g. the government, our families, employers, friends), it is as an aspect of our service to God. The key obligation which holds everything together is our loyalty to God, and our key task is to learn and reflect upon what this one loyalty entails for the various facets of our lives, both “religious” and “secular”. May these words of Jesus help bring wholeness and focus to Christians today, as we live in wholehearted gratitude and service to the God who has graciously created us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands.

Dr leowthenghuat


Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

Church and State support one another with their distinctive roles

What is the proper relationship between the Church and the State?

IN ORDER TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION we have to inquire what the Bible and the teaching of the Church have to say about the role and purpose of both these institutions.

Let us begin with the State. In my article for Methodist Message on the Christian understanding of the secular State, I argued from Romans 13 that God instituted the State for the purpose of maintaining the civil order and peace necessary for human flourishing. According to the Reformers, the presence of the secular State points to the reality of Original Sin: it is because of sin and depravity that human society requires the State in this form to prevent it from descending into total anarchy. Because the State has been tasked with enforcing law and order in human society, it has the power to wield the sword. The State is God’s servant so long as it fulfils its God-given mission to ensure that justice and peace prevail for the common good of human society.

As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

The mission of the Church is profoundly different from that of the State. As a community of sinners redeemed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Church is called to proclaim the Gospel of God’s salvation throughout the world. In fulfilling its mission, the Church not only embodies the Gospel it proclaims, but also stands in solidarity with the world it has been sent to minister. Thus, in bearing witness to the God of grace and mercy, the Church is called to share in the joys and hopes, the anxieties and sadness of humankind.

It is in its profound solidarity with men and women in every station and of every circumstance that the Church becomes the sacrament of God’s love in the world. And because the Church is the means by which divine grace reaches and touches the world, it is present as God’s tabernacle, God’s tent of meeting. Because the Church is a concrete, public and visible community, it is in a very real sense a political reality. But it is a different kind of political reality from the State.

The Church and the State therefore must remain distinct from each other and yet also be related to one another, as we shall see. The Church does not have the authority to write laws that govern the secular lives of citizens of a nation. The State does not have the authority to adjudicate proper forms of worship and religious practices. A failure to acknowledge and respect the differences between the two institutions may result in an unwarranted and illegitimate alliance between them that would be both harmful and dangerous, as Dostoevsky was at pains to show in the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov.

“A Church dependant on the authority of the State”, writes the lay Catholic theologian George Wiegel, “is open to forms of manipulation that are incongruent with the Gospel and that dangerously narrow the Church’s necessary critical distance from all worldly sovereignties.” The distinction between – and therefore separation of – Church and State would enable both to fulfil their unique missions in the world.

It is by performing their distinctive roles and by fulfilling their special missions that these two institutions support one another. The State indirectly serves the Church by ensuring order and peace in society, that is, by creating and preserving the conditions that make the “quiet and peaceable life” possible (1 Tim 2:2).

By maintaining law, order and peace the State protects the people from the invasion of chaos, and ensures the stability that is so important for human communities and individuals to flourish. From the standpoint of the Church, this stability and absence of strife enables it to worship God, preach the Gospel and minister to its fellow men.

IN FULFILLING ITS ROLE as the guardian of public peace, the State has the right to ensure that the Church conducts itself in accordance with outward justice. But the State should not claim or seek to be the final authority over the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament. Put succinctly, the State truly serves the Church by letting the Church be the Church!

The Church, on its part, serves the State by recognising that the State is instituted by God for a particular purpose and by subordinating itself to it in obedience to God (Romans 13). What does it mean for the Church to be subordinated to the State? The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth clarifies: “What is meant is that Christians should carry out what is required of them for the establishment, preservation and maintenance of civil community and for the execution of the task [of serving the community].”

In subordinating itself to the State, the Church merely acknowledges that God has bestowed on it a certain authority. However, the Church recognises that the command for it to submit to the State is not an absolute imperative, and that its submission to the State must always be relativised by its unconditional submission to God.

Finally, the most important service that the Church can offer to the State is to pray for it (1 Tim 2:1-2). The Church prays that the State may continue to be true to its mission – of maintaining order and peace in the secular realm – so that the Church may fulfil its mission as God’s witness in society.


“By maintaining law, order and peace the State protects the people from the invasion of chaos, and ensures the stability that is so important for human communities and individuals to flourish. From the standpoint of the Church, this stability and absence of strife enables it to worship God, preach the Gospel and minister to its fellowmen.”

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.