Caesar, the Beast, and Crafts

01.02.2013 by Reed Dunn


This week Hobby Lobby has to either cover “emergency contraceptives” for their employees or face a possible daily fine of $1.3 million.  This may be a bit of a canary in the cave for Christians and we need to be ready for it.  For too long we have thought Christianity and business could make for easy bedfellows - just ask CEO Jesus - but the public sector is changing and Christians will need more than cheap art, quotes from Jesus, and simple answers to engage it. 

Here is my attempt to highlight some of the issues, though I don’t offer any clear answers.  In fact, my first word of advice is to avoid people that think this is cut and dry!  It is not.  We need to be thoughtful on this subject.  Below are two different perspectives through which we can interpret these and future economic events. 

The Mark of the Beast!

Revelation 13:16 introduces us to the mark of the beast.  The author, John, was writing an intentionally cryptic historical and prophetic document.  Also, he had a strange fascination with numbers (Jn 21:11).  Couple that with our overly literal culture and you have the fertile soil of crazy interpretations (the “mark” could even be the internet!)

The mark may refer to Rome, but mostly it is a figurative mark to be contrasted with Christ’s mark (Rev 14:1).  But here is the part we care about: Revelation 13:17.  Without the mark, one cannot buy or sell.  This highlights a theme already expressed in Revelation where Christians, because of their convictions, are left out of the economic fun of Roman life.  Good Christians are said to be poor in Rev 2:9 while Christians in Rev 2:14 and 2:20 are rebuked for aligning with false gods, which convey the sense of material wealth and luxury.

There is an economic impact for being a Christian and it goes way beyond Dave Ramsey.  We overlook it because we may be more Rev 2:20 than 2:9.  For instance, what would be the economic impact if Christians quit coveting?  As Americans, coveting is one of our favorite pastimes... What if we stopped? 

But the impact goes well beyond the hypothetical.  The riot in Ephesus happened because Christians quit buying household gods (Acts 19:25-26).  It was the gods-makers (the silversmiths) that led the revolt against Paul, not the government.  Near the Black Sea, though, the government did get involved.  One of the chief reasons for persecution in the early church in that region was due to economics.  Trajan’s remarkable letter to the Roman Emperor (dated around 111AD) says that due to Christianity, it was hard to find anyone to buy the sacrificial animals!  Trajan’s complaint fits well with the persecution we find in 1Peter, which addressed that region.

So, is Hobby Lobby suffering because they bear the name of Christ instead of the Beast?  OR...

Taxes to Caesar

There is something else to consider.  The incarnation of Jesus is not only central to our salvation, it is helpful to see how God was willing to enter a broken system in order to redeem those who belonged to it.  It is a theme that runs through the rest of Scripture and it needs to be considered as we navigate the Hobby Lobby problem.

In Matthew 22:15-22 Jesus advocates paying taxes to Caesar and in Matthew 17:24-27 he pays the temple tax.  The governments in Rome and Judea were corrupt.  They did things with Jesus’ money that God hated.  Murder, sex, opulence, oppression, incest, unjust war, infanticide, abuse, all this was the practice of these governments.  And, if I can be so bold, Jesus enabled all of this with his tax money.  He could have stood against these injustices and he didn’t.

The concept continues in the early church.  In 1Corinthians 8, Paul allows the mature believers in the church to eat food that was sacrificed to idols.  But in other Scriptures that was considered part of the false religious practice.  Surely there were Christians that wanted to boycott such meat.  Surely they believed the whole system to be so corrupt that no Christian should be in any way complicit in it.  But Paul says no to that.  He famously states earlier in that letter that it is supposed to be the cross that is a stumbling block (1Cor 1:23), not our position against the world (1Cor 5:10). 

A related but less important example is that in seminary certain professors required us to use the secular designations BCE and ACE instead of the Christian BC and AD for dates.  They knew many students would be going on to get secular PhD’s and they wanted us to realize it was the cross that should offend, not Christians unnecessarily bucking the system.

Back to Hobby Lobby.  Is this an issue of compliance to a corrupt system where resisting only shifts the focus away from the primary goal?

The Takeaway

The owners of Hobby Lobby are not being asked to actually perform abortions.  If they were, this would be easy.  They have been ordered to comply with a corrupt system.  I applaud their willingness to prioritize the commands of Christ over financial gain.  And I have to admit that I don’t know what I would do if I were in their shoes.  But the truth is, this may begin happening more and more on smaller scales for all of us.  In fact, it may should have happened a long time ago but we were too blind to see it.  Either way, we must think before we act.

Christians are a people that like to act.  Whether it is Disney or Home Depot, Christians like a good boycott.  And now, with Chick-fil-A, we have discovered the fun of an un-boycott!  We like to have a cause we can fix.  As Americans and First World Christians, we have been lulled into thinking that injustices are not to be tolerated and we should always vote with our feet and our wallets.  But the days may be coming where things might not be so clear.  Or worse, where we don’t have full wallets to take elsewhere. 

I believe the Hobby Lobby problem should be seen as a harbinger of the hard questions that lay ahead.  As our government and culture move further away from the echo of Christianity, our involvement in corrupt systems will become more pronounced.  Some will over-withdraw.  Some will over-engage.  Many will argue.  But God help us as we navigate these new (but very old) waters.

One thing is for sure, and it is the theme of Revelation, God is on his throne and we are to trust him as the battle rages and the bowls of wrath are poured out all around us.