Tim Challies asks, provocatively given the subject, whether or not we as Christians pay our taxes joyfully. I should hope so. In Philippians 4:4 Paul exhorts his readers to “[r]ejoice in the Lord always.” Tax time falls under the “always” category. Does this mean, “be happy because it is always a happy moment”? No, because in Romans 5 Paul demonstrates that even when we suffer we ought to rejoice! Thus, whether we think taxes are good or bad, excessive or not, immoral or ethically legitimate, we ought to rejoice. Similarly, because we have peace with our Lord Christ Jesus, we can rejoice through all sorts of trials and tribulations.
Now, Challies is talking about having joy in the midst of tax time and so we will take the opportunity to consider his comments on the issue of taxation. Challies rightly notes that Paul in Romans (where he tells the readers to pay their taxes) was writing to readers who lived under one of the most wicked empires in world history. Challies:
He was writing to people who lived in Rome, people who were under the authority of a government that worshipped idols, that was systematically out to conquer and subjugate the world, that made death a form of entertainment, that promoted slavery, that was utterly ruthless and actively opposed to God. This was the government that was always on the verge of breaking out in persecution against the church. It was the government that had put Jesus to death. Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus, who mocked him, who spat on him, who rejoiced in his death.
And yet the Christians were to obey these rulers, to give them honor, respect and taxes—whatever was asked of them.
It is generally a good idea to consider the payment of taxation in contexts like these, for most people don’t understand the problem when considering whether to pay their taxes under the mental construct of some Utopian and perfect “government” which has never existed in reality. It is important to note that every command to pay taxes or honor the emperor in the Bible took place in the context of an evil ruler. We are not paying taxes simply because the government is good and wholesome. And when we consider the Biblical context, this becomes immediately apparent.
At any rate, the historical record is clear: Paul was encouraging the payment of taxes to a government that acted contrary to God’s moral law, to which all individuals are bound, whether they are members of the government or not.
In all the above, I agree with Challies.
Now, Challies makes a mistake, in the view of the Reformed Libertarian, when he ventures into the nature of taxes. He assumes, as demonstrated by his connection to tithing, that taxes which support the government are fundamentally the same in essence as the portion of one’s income which goes to the church. It is on this assumption that he writes that we primarily pay taxes because the government needs this income in order to do their work. The problem with this is simply that the government’s need for money in order to fund itself does not logically necessitate the idea that taxes are essentially like the tithe. In fact, in a very important way, they are much different.
Consider what might happen if you suddenly stopped paying your tithes. And then consider what might happen if you suddenly stopped paying your taxes. What would the Church’s reaction to your decision be? Compared to the government’s reaction? It is likely that both institutions would care about the fact that you have stopped sending your money. But only the government would come with threats, lawyers, and, ultimately, with guns and “tax collectors” (such as the police). The end game for your relationship of the church would not be jail, but the end game for your relationship with the government would indeed be jail or frozen assets or something else along those lines.
Taxes are not tithes. Tithes are voluntary. Taxes, at their root and by their nature, are not. What we need to realize here is that we are not necessarily (at this point) making a moral argument. We have not yet judged whether the state is ethically just in taxing. Rather, we are considering simply the nature of taxation. We are engaging in an economic consideration about the difference between taxation and every other form of legal wealth transfer in society. Taxation is fundamentally and categorically removed from things like tithing and payments for groceries or to satisfy a voluntarily agreed upon cell phone contract.
Thus, while it is true that our taxes support the efforts (whether “good” or “bad”) of the rulers, it is not true that their support is the essential motivation of our payments to them. Paul’s guidance to pay taxes, then, are to be seen as a command not to stir up trouble, not to revolt against the government, not to redirect the attention of the powerful empire to the infant and underdeveloped church community. This guidance, compared to the tendency among Jews at the time to ignite rebellion and take back the throne. Paul’s direction is motivated by the idea that God’s kingdom is not of this world.
In the United States, we are overtaxed and squelched by a seemingly deified government that considers itself to be above God’s moral law. The government by its various edicts has helped to create the boom and bust economic cycle which eliminates wealth, especially from the middle and poorer classes. The government has actively and proudly prevented businesses from rising up to contribute to society and provide services to their fellow man. The government has waged unjust wars in foreign lands, it has bureaucratized education services and food production and insurance companies. In short, the government in our time uses maybe 2% of its funds on actual justice-related efforts (and remember, the government will often cause global troubles and then seek “justice” against those trying to defend themselves from the US’s imperial efforts, which doesn’t count as Biblical justice).
And yet, Paul’s words remain: God’s kingdom is not of this world. Be patient and long-suffering. Pay to the king so as not to stir up trouble. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. I rejoice in that! For the vengeance that was to be poured out on me for my sins was poured out on someone else who stood in my place! And therefore I have peace with God.
When it comes to the governments of this world, none of this is ideal.
Ideal will wait until eternity in His presence. Come soon oh Lord.