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.