Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 1: A bit of exegesis

What should Christians think about taxes?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  How much do we have to pay?  What about tax shelters and loopholes?  What if we can legally avoid taxes–can we do so?

Such questions, which not all that long ago might have been considered no-brainers, are now a pressing ethical question for Christians, particularly in America.  As our governments increasingly lose the respect of their people and the aura of legitimacy, all taxes come to seem like an imposition, a coercive demand.  Many Christians are convinced that most of our taxes are in fact a form of theft, and hence to be protested and, if possible, not paid.  Any legal loopholes should be exploited readily as safe ways to avoid paying taxes we have no duty to pay. 

Although I’ve regularly given thought to related issues on this blog (see here and here), a recent question from a friend afforded me the opportunity to try to offer a more systematic ethical reflection than I’ve yet given the matter.  I certainly welcome any feedback.  A full response to this question would require a thorough consideration of the role of government in a well-ordered political theology, which is something I won’t pretend to offer here.  But a few key Scripture passages will provide us with some good starting points:

 

When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” 
He said, “Yes.” 
And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” 
Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” 
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

 –Mt. 17:24-27 (NKJV)

In this passage, a couple of things jump out at us.  First is Jesus’ striking flippancy regarding the whole matter– “They want money?  Heck, here’s a fish, take the money from the fish and pay it to them.”  Second is his apparent claim that Christians–“the sons”–can consider themselves “free” from the duty of taxpaying.  They should pay only “lest we offend them.”  Taken together, Jesus appears to give us a picture of Christian freedom, a freedom that expresses itself in service precisely because it is free also from selfish concern.  In one sense, you need not pay, but in another sense, you have no reason not to pay–it’s just money, after all. 

This is consonant with a recurrent theme of Jesus’ ministry, one we have seen already in Matthew–that Christians need not be overly concerned about money, their hearts are not to be set on it: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).  It is not merely greed that we are to avoid, but a prudent preoccupation with just making sure we have enough; instead, we should trust that God knows what he’s doing, and will provide: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:31-33)

 

Something similar, I suggest, is going on in the famous “Render unto Caesar passage”:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money.” 
So they brought Him a denarius. 
And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 
They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 
And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

–Mt. 22:15-22 (NKJV)

 

What’s interesting here is that Jesus does not, as a matter of fact, answer their question at all.  Too often, this passage has been read as if he clearly did.  They ask, “Is it lawful?” and he answers, “Give unto Caesar what is his due,” so clearly he is saying that it is not only lawful, but necessary.  But of course, Jesus does not actually say anything about “what is due”–he merely notes that this money is, in fact, Caesar’s.  There are several things going on here.  For one, we notice again a flippancy, a lack of seriousness confronted with a question which, for many Jews, was deadly serious.   Instead of appealing to theological principles to answer this question, which for the Jew was weighted with theological significance, Jesus adjudicates it on the question of a picture: “The coin’s got Caesar’s picture on it, so it must belong to him.”  

But there is a deeper message, underneath the irony.  Jesus’ teaching ministry is permeated by a contrast between God and Mammon–you cannot serve two masters.  And Mammon is repeatedly identified with the power-hunger and violence of both Rome and the Jewish leaders.  “Caesar demands money?” asks Jesus–“Well of course he does, since his kingdom is all about money.  God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is about other things.”  Give Caesar taxes, then, and don’t fuss yourself about it, if you are truly of God’s kingdom.   

 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  Therefore “ If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.  Render therefore to all what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are owed, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.   

–Rom. 12:14-13:8; NJKV (except for verse 7, which I have translated so as to make consistent with verse 8) 

As you may know, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time over the past couple years studying this passage, but I’ll confine myself here to a couple general points, without seeking to include the detailed justification for them that I’ve worked out elsewhere.  The point in this passage, I think, is not to lay out criteria of governmental legitimacy, upon which basis our obedience (including taxpaying) is required.  I think, on the contrary, that the point is to sidestep the issue of “legitimacy” altogether.  The Caesars were hardly “legitimate”–either in title or practice.  The taxes they demanded were largely unjust, both in quantity and in purpose.  But that doesn’t stop Paul from insisting that the Roman Christians continue to pay their taxes (or, if you translate the verb as indicative, as the NJKV above does, assuming that they will continue to pay their taxes).  This is because tax-paying is not primarily about legitimacy, but about love.  Jesus, as you will recall, told Peter to pay taxes “lest we offend them”; Paul here calls on us to obey and pay the authorities as a way of “blessing” rather than “cursing.”  Even if the government is an enemy, what are you supposed to do?  Feed the enemy.  What if it asks more than is justly owed to it?  Well, love should determine how much is owed, and there is no limit to love.  

The idea here is that Christians are not to be self-concerned in any of their relations–rather, they are to be concerned about how best they can show concern for the other, which includes enemies and authorities.  They are not to be be pre-occupied with ascertaining “legitimacy” and adjudicating “rights,” but are to be humble, confident that God is in control, and is using all things for good.  This is the context within which we are to understand tax-paying.  The main questions are not “How much can the government justly demand?” but “What opportunities for love and service does this demand provide?  How can I respond with maximum charity, faith, and humility in light of this demand?”  

Shifting from “rights” and “legitimacy” to “charity” does not necessarily make matters simpler.  Charity is a tricky business if there ever was one.  But it does help clear the field of false concerns that often blind us and entangle us before we even get to working out the tricky business of charity.

 

In these passages, I have taken what is, I suppose, a fairly Anabaptist tack, implying that the government is always bad and their tax-collecting illegitimate.  It is not my intention to make that claim.  Rather, the point is that, even if the government were bad and illegitimate, the core values and duties informing Christian taxpaying (and Christian citizenship in general) would still be operative.  If the government is in fact doing good and wonderful things for society, then all the more reason to pay up willingly.  

In the following post, I shall try to draw some implications from these passages and the rest of Scripture regarding tax-paying and tax avoidance.  I may also try to offer an additional post with some thoughts on tax protesting, if time allows.

4 thoughts on “Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 1: A bit of exegesis

  1. Alan Wood

    Brad, if a faraway stranger may quibble,Such questions, which not all that long ago might have been considered no-brainers, are now a pressing ethical question for Christians, particularly in America. As our governments increasingly lose the respect of their people and the aura of legitimacy, all taxes come to seem like an imposition, a coercive demand.From Australia, it feels much more as if:(1) Americans dislike and distrust their governments (especially their federal government, which was consciously founded in alternative to a disliked, distrusted government);(2) American Christians live within that, and have inherited a quasi-philosophical objection to paying taxes from that;(3) and other Christians, where they do claim an ethical objection to paying taxes, have caught that from our American brothers and sisters.Still, conceding what you have said, I think you could skip from that paragraph to this one:The Caesars were hardly "legitimate" — either in title or practice. The taxes they demanded were largely unjust, both in quantity and in purpose. But that doesn’t stop Paul from insisting that the Roman Christians continue to pay their taxes (or, if you translate the verb as indicative, as the NJKV above does, assuming that they will continue to pay their taxes). This is because tax-paying is not primarily about legitimacy, but about love. That, right there, shoots down 'No taxation without representation,' and, 'Governments derive their power to tax from the consent of the governed'. I'm with you on Romans 13, I think, but I'm not sure that your other Scriptural citations support your key statement.Finally, and for example, I don't think Jesus is quite saying what you say he is saying in Matthew 17. I read it like this: (1) Earthly kings don't tax their sons;(2) This tax is to maintain God's kingdom (in particular, his palace);(3) Jesus is God's Son, so he is exempt;(4) Jesus freely chooses to take a lesser position;(5) Jesus includes Peter (the representative Christian) in his liberty by saying, 'Let there be fish'. (My biggest problem with this passage is explaining why (4) is explained as not giving offence.)I think I might be able to get near where you are, but not via 'Christians = the sons = exempt from all taxes'. That seems a misreading of Jesus' words, 'the sons are free' (point 1), and of the peculiarities of the particular tax under discussion (points 2 and 5). You called this an 'apparent claim', but you haven't backed away from it anywhere, and I think it's illogical and wrong.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Alan,Thanks for the interaction, and for calling attention to points of unclarity before I moved on to Pt. 2 (delayed by all this OBL business).Your first complaint seems to be that I could've just left out the two Matthew passages, and still made my main point about not quibbling about the legitimacy of taxes as a basis for not paying. Sure, but that is not the only point I wish to make, and even to the extent that I could've made all the points I hope to make based only off Romans 13, I wanted to avoid doing that, so that the whole argument wasn't seen to rest on such a slender foundation. The two passages from the Gospels demonstrate Jesus's complete disinclination to quibble about taxes, and suggest that this is based much more on a sense of the relatively low value he puts on money, period, rather than any high value he puts on Caesar. And I think that will prove relevant for a discussion of how penny-pinching Christians ought to be about taking advantage of tax loopholes and such.Your second complaint is that my "exegesis," such as it is, on Matthew 17, seems hasty and the conclusion unwarranted. Fair enough. I was more or less using this passage as a cipher for the whole Protestant understanding of Christian liberty, which asserts that the Christian's duty with respect to external law is displaced from the realm of legal obligation to the realm of love. As Calvin puts it: “that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.” You can read somewhat more on this theme in recent posts here and here (though their focus is somewhat different). So, I guess what I'd say is, sure, the conclusion I want to argue does not follow straightforwardly, whole and entire, from that Mt. 17 passage; however, I think that conclusion can emerge out of a proper understanding of Christian liberty (which would draw on a whole range of passages and theological premises), toward which this passage would make a partial contribution. Of course, I should add that, as a deduction from the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty, what I have outlined is not something that Calvin, et al. would necessarily have endorsed (at least in quite the form I have stated it), because they were prevented by their, to my mind, unhelpful misreadings of Romans 13–which is why, of course, a re-reading of that passage (see also my most recent post) is so important.

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  3. Alan Wood

    Brad,Not at all. Thanks for the post, and the thoughtful response. Let me affirm you on the strength of your argument from Romans 13:1-7.The move of calling, 'Illegitimate!' so as not to pay taxes looks, from where I'm standing, to be driven by a desire to not pay taxes – I think it's a reflection of our age-old sense of private property. If you want to call that sense selfishness or greed, OK, but that makes this still a no-brainer, not a new issue driven by a societal trend. Upon further reflection, you are right to bring up Matthew 6 in addressing that.I think it's easier to make the quasi-ethical argument when those around us instinctively agree with libertarians and other revolutionary founding fathers. Libertarians want to say that Government taxation is just theft by those who hold the monopoly on violence, which (whatever its merits) legitimises tax evasion by ethical argument. By reference to Rom 13:1-7 in its historical context (i.e., the Caesars weren't legitimate), I think you really can torpedo the whole course of libertarian thought. Christians trying to use libertarianism to build an 'ethical' objection to paying tax need to ignore Romans 13:1-7, and not just your reading thereof – I haven't checked, but I think most exegetes and theologians over two millenia would agree. Tax-paying didn't become more problematic for us after Constantine. You have shown that tax evasion is disobedient to the revealed word.So far as this is just a stylistic snark, the equivalent of 'sound more convinced!' or even 'sound prophetic!' I apologise unreservedly for any offence. But I made the complaint because I don't think it's just that.First, if in academia you feel it necessary to drag Jesus in to buttress Paul-as-catholically-interpreted, Luther and Calvin, feel free to ignore me. But if you feel it's necessary when talking to Christians, feel free to beat them lovingly around the hermeneutical parts of their heads. Second, I think using these passages as belt-and-braces for the Romans argument will distract from their further, more interesting use. I think it is right to pay our taxes. And I agree with you, it's about faith and love. (I've got verses for love and faith, but I, too, would much rather say 'whole Protestant understanding of law, liberty and love'). I think (and I suspect you think) the more interesting questions involve when it is right to not pay our taxes also (not 'instead'). When and how could we do that well, out of love for the other (both the taxman and the covetous, adulterous, shall-not-work, father-dissing, baby-killing welfare recipient), and out of faith in Christ? Jesus twice tells someone to pay taxes, and never tells them not to. In your discussion, I missed the power of the latter aspect. Jesus tells Peter to pay the Temple tax. Some of the implied audience for Matthew were Jewish Christians, subject to the tax, but persecuted by the Temple authorities for which it paid. If they were supposed to follow Peter on this question, that's a big statement. So, too, is, 'Sure, give these idolatrous coins (which aren't allowed in the Temple precinct because of their flagrant breaking of the Commandment) to the man who's claiming them because of his blaphemous position as omnipotent Lord, chief heathen high priest, arch-oppressor of the Beautiful Land, and divine son.' Flippancy, if you want to call it that, is a big deal in both cases – Jesus doesn't say 'evade tax' even these two times.I've now wasted a ton of time and photons, so I'll stop. Thanks again for the mental workout, and God bless you.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Alan, I take it that the substance of your quibbles here is that I could and should have asserted an anti-tax evasion argument much more forcefully and directly, instead of gingerly chipping away at the question. If I'm reading you right on that, it reminds me of what your fellow Aussie, Matheson, complained about the post above this one. But you forget that I'm dealing with Americans who have some of these unbiblical paradigms very deeply rooted. Of course, I have on many occasions resorted to 'lovingly beating them around the head' as you put it, but there are times to try and be more patient and systematic. In particular, you perhaps forget that since at least the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos more than 400 years ago, it has been very common to try to use Romans 13 as a prooftext for *resistance* to illegitimate authority. This argument has been employed by Christian leaders I know to justify a Tea Party stance to taxes. So, perhaps you can see that it won't simply do the trick to wield Romans 13 as a club on this issue. Also note that I am addressing primarily tax *avoidance* not evasion. The latter violates the law, the former looks for loopholes. I know few people who actively encourage the former; the latter, obviously, requires a more nuanced approach. That, I take it, is what you are pointing to at the end of your comment, when you suggest the need for a discussion about when love might mean not paying taxes. That is what I hope to get to in part two, which has been delayed but will be up today or tomorrow.

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