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John Ben Shepperd: Our Debt to God and Caesar

April 8, 1957

Christian Men’s Fellowship (Paris, Texas)

Our Debt to God and Caesar

The purpose of the Christian Church’s Christian Men’s Fellowship group is two-fold: first, to give us the opportunity to visit with and become better acquainted with our fellow members; second and even more important, to call attention to the fact that every Christian layman is equally responsible with his minister for proclaiming the Gospel, for ministering to the needs of his fellow Christians and others and for guiding his church along the path of spiritual rectitude.

Too often we let the minister carry the whole burden. We forget that the church is a body of Christian believers, all of whom are co-workers, and that the church is at least designed to function, if necessary, without a minister at all. The wise old book of Proverbs tells us that “the locusts have no king, yet they go forth all of them by bands”. That’s more than you can say for a great many churches. In many a present-day church if the minister should suddenly die, the church would develop rigor mortis before he did.

What does the layman owe to his church? In the old days before Jesus came and gave the ancient law of Moses a deeper spiritual application, it was enough for a person to go into the temple, buy a pigeon, offer it as a blood sacrifice, toss in his tithe and spend his day keeping track of hundreds of little rules and laws of behavior. These rules became so devoid of spiritual meaning that the scribes and lawyers made small fortunes helping so-called believers find the loopholes that would allow them to send their aged parents to work farms instead of supporting them, without compromising religious principle.

Is it enough for the Christian layman today to fill a church pew on Sunday morning, drop a dollar in the plate with such reluctance that you’d think he was making a blood sacrifice and sit rehearsing yesterday’s ball game or next week’s business problems while the man in the preacher’s box assumes the whole burden of evangelism?

Is it permissible for a Christian to listen to the Sermon on the Mount with particular interest in what it does not forbid him to do? In Jesus’ day the people used to go to the Master and say “Lord, what must I do to be saved?” Too many of us now are asking, “Lord, how much can I get away with and still be decent?”

It was enough in the old days to give a pigeon and a tithe. But the Christian layman today is obligated to give much more—namely himself and all he has.

I’m sure you have read about the custom among many of the Moslems whereby every year they weigh the Aga Khan on the scales and give him his weight in gold, diamonds or other precious substances. Then ceremonially, he recognizes their devotion and generously returns it. God too gives back everything we give Him if we give it all and if we give it without reservation. But if we tithe only in the expectation that God will say, “Because you have been faithful in little, I will give you much,” or if we lay down a sacrifice only in the hope that we’ll get it back with interest, then we are not Christians, but gamblers, betting on God the way we would bet on a horse in the fifth race at Saratoga. A Christian layman is simply a Christian who lays—lays everything—on the altar of God and takes his orders from a Power that is above governments, above social custom, above economic necessity, above the laughter and derision of friends, above human attachments, above human law.

And what does God tell us to do when we have given ourselves to Him? What did Jesus tell His disciples after they had given themselves, been released from the old Jewish law and made subject to God’s spiritual grace? He said, “Go ye into all the world . . . I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.”

And He told them to pay their taxes, to do what the Roman soldiers told them to do and to give to Caesar whatever tribute they owed him. He told them to give no one cause for complaint about the citizenship of a Christian.

That seemingly inconsistent command has caused a great deal of trouble down through history when followers of Christ were torn between their duty to God and their duty to serve the government under which they lived. It caused hundreds of Huguenots to be slaughtered by the King of France. It caused trouble during the Second World War when numbers of a certain religious sect refused to salute the American flag. And it causes trouble today when a Christian cannot give Caesar what is his and God what is His because there isn’t enough to go around. There isn’t enough money in the paycheck sometimes, to give thirty percent to Caesar and ten percent to God. Sometimes there isn’t enough time to serve on the school board and the church board too.

Many a dedicated Christian is therefore inclined to gravitate to the church and leave the job of government to the politicians.

If we as Christians cannot apportion our energies justly between the duties of citizenship and those of the church, if we cannot divide our time and attention fairly between God and Caesar, then we are guilty of a divorce that God never intended. We are failing in our duty to go into all the world and to bring Caesar in subjection to God.

I realize of course that there are too many church members who give the church nothing but their presence every Sunday, if they even give that. But I’m not talking about them because you can be pretty sure they’re not giving Caesar anything either. I’m talking about sincere church members who are reluctant to devote time to secular things that could be devoted to church work. While they are giving time to the church—as necessary and commendable as that is—a rascal attends the political convention, a crooked politician gets the nomination and a scoundrel gets into office to wield power over Christian lives and exact tribute from Christian pocketbooks. As Peter Marshall put it, people who don’t stand up for something are likely to fall for anything. The voice of the people is not the voice of God if all the Christians have laryngitis.

Every nation gets the government it deserves. If men are good, government cannot be bad. But a lot of Christians are inclined to shirk from public office because they’ve heard politics is dirty business and they don’t want to hob-nob with crooks. They don’t want to be called birds of a feather. If that’s the way they feel, they don’t belong in church because church is a hospital for sinners, not a club for saint. Christ cannot hold sway in the national or state capital, nor even in the county seat, except through Christian citizens and Christian officeholders.

If we could have Christians only in one place or another but not in both, would it be better to have them in the church committee or in the city council? Singing in the choir or serving on the grand jury? And when it comes to politics and activity in public affairs, is it better for Christians to go forth as sheep in the midst of wolves as Christ commanded or to hover around the church hearth and chirp like crickets? Since when is it Christian to stand in the church door and cast horrified glances at the sinners in the city hall?

When I urge you to take a greater part in civic affairs as a Christian, I am not saying “Go” but “Come”. As a former public official, I have fought the battle of which I speak. They say no man is better able to judge what is good than he who has endured evil.

The person who enters the turbulent waters of public life strives to reconcile the public welfare and the public will, to keep God and country above party, persons and private interests, weather the ups and downs of public opinion, repel the tempter and ignore the flatterer, bear the criticisms of rivals and friends alike and all the while maintain close fellowship with Christian friends in Christian service. He realizes more fully than ever that “Ye cannot serve God and mammon”. You have to serve God with mammon.

What is the mammon that God has given us? He gave us a benign form of government, founded on the same principle that motivated even Christ’s sacrifice for us—the supreme happiness of the individual. Shall we throw away God’s earthly blessings and expect him to heap spiritual blessings upon us? Will you carry a cross and leave others the burden of the flag?

The Scriptures condemn the man who said to the poor, “Be ye warmed and filled”, but gave them no clothing or food. Let no Christian, therefore, say to government, “Be ye clean”, until he carries a broom into the courthouse. Nobody has the right to yell “Throw the rascals out!” unless he is ready to step in. Let no man or woman sit complacently warming a church pew while outside the church door there are shirked duties and unchallenged wrongs. Let’s not sit and hope and pray for Christian peace and soul while the Caesars who govern us make wrong choices and bad decisions for want of Christian counsel.

What is the alternative? The triumph of the most serious threat to Christianity and democratic freedom—Communism. Communism is the philosophy that comes and fills the vacuum where there is no God. It is a weed that grows in the path over which Christians no longer walk with God to the polls. It springs up on the courthouse lawn where they no longer go with Him to political rallies. It springs from the concrete step of the schoolhouse where grown people never set foot.

Communism is a cobweb that spreads itself over the empty seats in the civic committee meeting and in homes where half the family just stands at the door waiting for the other half to get back with the car. It flourishes wherever people trade their Christian overalls for the prissy pants of piousness . . . wherever they can see no connection whatever between the Bible and a ballot . . . wherever they have forgotten that a Christian soul is an intangible, invisible object with a very stiff and tangible backbone . . . wherever men and women are looking for a helping hand at the end of somebody else’s arm.

So what do we owe to Caesar in the Twentieth Century? What is the great need of Democracy today? What is the duty of the Christian layman?

We need Christians in public affairs—citizens who will follow their conscience instead of the crowd. We need men and women who had rather be right than rich . . . who had rather be fair than famous . . . who had rather be good than clever . . . who had rather be free than be secure . . . who had rather die on their feet than to get on their knees to anyone but God.

There was once a king who called his wise men to him and said, “Give me a sentence that will be appropriate in all times and in all places.” The wise men deliberated a while and replied, “’This too shall pass away.”

But human liberty like everything else is subject to God’s immutable laws and as long as there is a heaven and an earth, it need not pass away—if only Christian citizens will add to their faith this simple creed:

Freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
To be born a free man is gift of God;
To live one is a responsibility;
To die one is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]