The Bible and the Ethics of Taxation

Nothing in the Bible indicates that taxation is anything other than legalized theft. Meriam-Webster defines the word “theft” as “(a) the act of stealing; the felonious taking and removing of personal property with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it,” and “(b) an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property.” Simply put, theft is taking someone else’s money or property by coercion.

Practically every Christian knows that scripture teaches that theft is wrong. Theft is a direct violation of one of the ten commandments (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19; Lev. 19:11). To steal is to profane the name of God (Prov. 30:9), and is listed as one of the injustices that led to the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:9). Stealing isn’t something that can be justified, even when it is done to satisfy basic needs such as poverty or hunger; nor does it become justified when the people excuse the thief (Prov. 6:30-31).

The same moral condemnation of theft appears in the New Testament. Theft is listed as a sin that can exclude people from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). It is something for which a Christian should never be guilty (1 Pet. 4:15). It is an action that grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:28-30).

Yet it is generally accepted that governments have the right to levy taxes on their citizens. After all, when Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” he responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk. 20:22-25). And when Paul addressed the Christian’s relationship to government in Romans 13, he wrote:

You also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:6-7

Why is this? If it is wrong to take another person’s property by force, why doesn’t scripture simply say “taxation is theft” and clearly condemn it as wrong? Why are Christians commanded to pay their taxes? And if there is a difference between taxation and theft, what is it?

Meriam-Webster defines the word “tax” as “A charge of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.” Yes, taxation and theft both describe the taking and removing of personal property by force. But there is one key difference in the way we use the two words. Taxation refers to the legal confiscation of property which is imposed by an authority, while theft refers to the unlawful confiscation of property.

If there is a difference between taxation and theft, this is it. It’s not simply that taxes become right because they are used to satisfy particular needs, for the Bible is clear that theft is wrong regardless of the needs the stolen goods are used to satisfy (Prov. 6:30-31; 30:9). It’s not simply that taxes cease to be theft because of the democratic approval of the people excuse them (Prov. 6:30-31). If there is a distinction between taxation and theft, the distinction is that of authority.

Therefore, if taxation is justifiable in a way that theft is not, we must be able to answer the following question in the affirmative: Does the Bible describe governments as having a special place of authority that gives them a claim over the property of their citizens?0

Taxation in the Old Testament

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel demanded a king, Samuel warned them that a king would:

Take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

1 Samuel 8:14-17

Observe that even though the king held legal authority, his confiscation of the goods of his citizens is still described with the word “take.” He was “taking” something that didn’t belong to him. If the king has a special place of authority that allows him a legal claim over the goods of his citizens, why would Saul describe this as “taking?”

When Solomon collected taxes from his citizens, this was described as a “heavy yoke” (1 Kings 12:4), a yoke which was increased by his son Rehaboam (1 Kings 12:14). This isn’t exactly a glowing review of the idea of taxation is it?

The story of King Ahab and Naaboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) only makes sense if we recognize that King Ahab did not have a rightful claim to Naaboth’s vineyard simply on the basis of his legal authority as a king. The only way Ahab was able to take possession of Naaboth’s vineyard was to kill Naaboth and to take it for himself (21:13-16). As a consequence of taking possession of something that was not his, the LORD condemned him to die (21:17-19).

While it is often recognized that the prophets warned against oppression and robbery, it should be noted that their warnings were often addressed directly to the rulers. For example, Isaiah pronounced a woe to rulers who “rob” (Is. 10:1-2). Jeremiah rebuked the king of Judah for “dishonest gain”, “oppression”, and “violence” (Jer. 22:11, 17). Amos rebuked Israel’s leaders specifically for exacting grain taxes, through which they “trampled the poor” (Amos 5:11). Evidently, the prophets didn’t view legal authority as a status which excused rulers from the sins of robbery and oppression.

Some may point to the tithes commanded in the Law of Moses as an example of a tax which was approved by God (Lev. 27:30-33). While the collection of tithes does give us an example of a collective pooling of resources, it should be noted that tithes were not to be collected by force, but rather they were to be voluntarily given as an act of obedience and devotion to the law (cf. 1 Chron. 31:4). Rather than establishing a system of taxation, the law of Moses limited the king from maintaining a powerful police force or acquiring much silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:14-20).

Despite the Old Testament’s clarity that theft is wrong, and despite the fact that the Old Testament never suggest that governing authorities were excused from the law’s demands or permitted to take possessions belonging to their citizens, many Christians continue to defend taxation as an ethical practice by pointing to their New Testaments.

Taxation in the New Testament

Many Christians will defend practice of taxation by pointing to Jesus’s quote in Matthew 22 and Luke 20:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Luke 20:25

A simplistic reading of this text would seem to suggest that Jesus recognized, and even approved of Caesar’s claim of ownership over the money he was collecting as taxes. This reading fails to consider the historical or textual context, which I have written about more extensively here and here. If Jesus’s answer simply meant “Yes, Caesar has a right to collect taxes”, nobody would have “marveled” at Jesus’s answer (cf. Lk 20:16). Instead they would have rejoiced, because the trap set by the question of the scribes and chief priests would have worked! But no Jew would have taken Jesus’s statement as an endorsement of taxation.

If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything (cf. Ps. 24:1; 50:10; Hag. 2:8), and Caesar’s claims are illegitimate. If one’s faith is in Caesar, then God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image. Jesus’s teaching should be understood as a challenge to the Jews to reconsider their allegiance.

If Jesus gave a hearty endorsement of taxation, as if often assumed, we are left to wonder why anybody would ever accuse Jesus as forbidding people from paying taxes to Caesar (Mt. 23:2). Such an accusation would have been laughed out of court, for it would have been quickly refuted by those who heard Jesus’ teaching. But if Jesus’s statement is understood as a challenge to serve God alone, then this accusation makes perfect sense.

Some will also point to the words of Paul in Romans 13, where Paul commanded Christians to pay taxes as an extension of their submission to government (Rom 13:6-7). It should be noted, that similar to Jesus, Paul offered no commentary on the ethics of taxation itself. He simply tells Christians to pay taxes should the government require it. To use these verses to justify taxation would be the same as turning to Matthew 5’s command to turn the other cheek as justification for the one who slaps you. Or praying for persecutors as a justification for persecution. Or pointing to Paul’s commands to slaves to submit to their masters as a justification for slavery.

Why did Jesus and Paul feel the need to command Christians to pay their taxes in the first place? This teaching only makes since if it was understood that something about Jesus’s mission actually challenged the very concept of taxation. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If all the silver and gold belong to God, it does not belong to Caesar.

The only sense in which we can understand governing authorities as having the authority to take the possessions of others is the sense in which Jesus said that Pilate had the authority to crucify him.

You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.

John 19:36

So yes, there is a sense in which Pilate had been given the rightful authority to crucify an innocent man. In this same sense, we can accept that government has been given the authority to collect taxes. But just because Pilate “had the right” to crucify Jesus, that does not imply that Pilate was free from guilt when he did so. In the same way, just because there is a sense in which governments “have the right” to collect taxes, this does not imply that they are free from guilt when they do so.

The Bible is, of course, extremely supportive of free will generosity (Prov. 22:9; Mt. 5:42; Lk 3:10-11; Acts 2:46; Heb. 13:16). The Bible regularly condemns theft, even among governing authorities, even when theft receives approval from others, and even when theft us used to meet other necessities. There is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that taxes are approved by God. But as Christians, our response is not to rebel against paying taxes. Rather we should be like the Hebrew Christians who “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property, since they knew that they had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34).