Taxes are no one’s idea of a good time. Nevertheless, it is good to consider what the New Testament teaches, and does not teach, regarding Christians and all the various forms of taxes that exist.
Whereas the New Testament is more often than not silent in regards to political matters, there is a comparative wealth of concern regarding taxation.
And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk.
And when they were come, they say unto him, “Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, “Why make ye trial of me? Bring me a denarius, that I may see it.”
And they brought it.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
And they said unto him, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus said unto them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And they marvelled greatly at him (Mark 12:13-17; cf. Matthew 22:15-22, Luke 20:20-26).
Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this cause ye pay tribute also; for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing. Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7.
And, in the same spirit, we would do well to also consider 1 Peter 2:13-17.
Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
The principles expressed in these three passages are strong and should be compelling: Christians must respect and honor earthly governments. God has appointed earthly authorities for a reason. Our obligation to government is to pay appropriate taxes and to give appropriate respect and honor. We should keep in mind that “tribute” is the same as “taxation,” since both involve a government exacting resources from a population to support itself and its administration. This allows us to devote our time to God’s righteousness and Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33). We are to render to Caesar what is his, his money, and we are to render to God what is God’s: ourselves, our devotion, our energy, our resources (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, Mark 12:17 et al).
While taxes have never been popular, their necessity is begrudged by many. Americans in particular have been disillusioned about taxes for at least the past 30 years. This is understandable when many notable politicians have made their careers by proclaiming the evils of government and government spending.
Nevertheless, taxes are necessary, and for the majority of the population, beneficial in many ways. Many public services are funded through various forms of taxes. We can enjoy roads, parks, libraries, fire and police departments, and many other things because of tax money. We all benefit from the infrastructure that was built with tax money and also from the military protection paid for by tax money.
Therefore, taxes are not evil. They are as necessary as paying for food, drink, gasoline, health care, and the like. While tax monies are often used to promote ideas and practices with which we strongly disagree, we must also recognize that tax money is also used to provide benefits to us, and we should be thankful that the government has elected not to tax religious organizations. Believers, therefore, do not do well by constantly complaining about taxes and the tax burden.
Another important issue in regards to taxes is control over the money. Many people do not begrudge paying taxes in principle but feel as if it is wrong to pay taxes that in some way go against the purposes of God as revealed in Scripture. If tax money goes to promote sinful behavior or to hinder righteousness, are we in sin if we pay those taxes?
We must remember when Christians were commanded to pay taxes. Jesus tells the Jews to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s in the days of Tiberius. Romans was most likely written around 57 CE in the time of the Emperor Nero. By the likely time that Peter tells Christians to honor the Emperor (60-62 CE or so), Nero’s true nature is being revealed.
These are the days of the Roman Empire. Tax monies would be used to support the infrastructure of the Empire, including the Emperor’s extravagant, debauched lifestyle, the Roman military and its campaigns around the Empire, and even the Roman religion. Tiberius was no peach, and Nero’s sinfulness was legendary.
Therefore, the money that Christians would pay in taxes would go to the Roman authority who would use them to fund drunkenness, idolatry, murder, and all forms of debauchery. Money raised by taxes would help support the military that would be used to destroy Jerusalem and also to persecute the Christians.
Does this lead Jesus, Peter, or Paul to protest? Do they feel as if they are sinning because of how the monies are spent? They say nothing of the sort. Instead, they say that taxes should be paid.
This gets us to the essential truth: it is our obligation to pay taxes to “Caesar.” The taxes that the government demands it should receive. After that point we are free of obligation, for we do not have control over that money. The authorities in government are now responsible for how those resources are used. If the authorities in government spend the money to promote sin and/or hinder righteousness, then those authorities will be called into account for it (cf. Romans 2:5-10, 1 Peter 4:5, Revelation 18:1-24).
On the other hand, if we refuse to pay taxes because of our fears of how the money will be used, then we will be called into account for violating Mark 12:17 and Romans 13:6. That reality may not sit so well in terms of the American ideology of freedom, representation, and the expectation of accountability of elected leaders, but the New Testament never endorses American ideologies. Certain elements of American ideology may be found praiseworthy when compared to the will of God as revealed in the New Testament, but we should never impose American ideology upon the New Testament, especially when that ideology is antithetical to what has been explicitly revealed. Christians are called upon to respect and honor earthly authorities and pay taxes. Those represent our obligations and we will be called into account for how we fulfill those obligations (cf. Romans 2:5-10). It is better to let the earthly authorities bear their own burden and experience their own accountability!
Let us therefore freely pay the taxes that are owed and fulfill our divinely given obligations to “Caesar.” And let us then devote our full energy and resources to the advancement of the Kingdom of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry