Are Taxes Immoral? Should Christians Pay Taxes?
The question that arose in conversation is whether taxes are appropriate or whether they are theft. Some subsequent conversation is whether Christians should stand against taxes and oppose any form of taxation or dutifully pay our taxes.
There’s one perspective that says: the Bible says theft is sin, taxes are theft, and therefore taxes are sinful.
Though this is a simplification of the position, it is a good summary and starting point for the discussion. This position says that God never ordains taxes and never gives the government authority to impose taxes. Because all authority is derived from God and God never gives explicit authority to impose taxes, taxation is theft. And since theft is a violation of God’s moral law (10 Commandments), any government imposition of taxes is theft and should be opposed.
The questions we have to ask are, “are taxes morally appropriate for the government to levy?” This question is followed closely by “should Christians pay taxes?”
The most in-depth address of taxes in the Bible can be found in either Romans 13 or Matthew 22. In Matthew 22 we find Jesus answering the question about taxes when He was asked if it is lawful for people to pay them. He grabbed a coin, asked whose image was on it, and when they told him Caesar, Jesus said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” This passage has been studied and exegeted for centuries and the majority view in every Christian era has been that Jesus was telling people they should pay their taxes.
Now, to be clear, Jesus didn’t comment on whether He believed taxes were moral or immoral. He simply instructed people to pay their taxes in obedience to the government; which is ultimately an act of obedience to God. So while we don’t have an explicit statement from Jesus concerning the morality of taxes, we do have his explicit statement that people should pay their taxes. The logical conclusion here is that Jesus didn’t have a problem with people paying taxes or with the government imposing taxes. One can only imagine that if Jesus truly thought taxes were immoral He would have said so. Jesus has never encouraged anyone to do anything immoral or anything that violates God’s law. Since Jesus told people to pay their taxes it’s easy to conclude that Jesus did not believe taxes violated God’s law.
In Romans chapter 13 we encounter Paul giving detailed instructions for how Christians should treat the government. Paul first tells us there is “no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” So right away we are told that God ordains government. But then we are told the government is “God’s servant.” After telling us to be obey the government to “avoid God’s wrath,” we are told to “pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God.” And because the authorities are God’s ordained ministers we are to “pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed.” Clearly Paul is telling Christians that we have an obligation to pay our taxes and be obedient to the authorities that God has ordained.
Now, it must be made clear that we can only obey the government insofar as it does not command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. In other words, if the government suddenly decided to make prayer illegal (like the government in Daniels’ day), Christians have a duty to God to disobey that law, to break that law, in order to continue doing what God has commanded (just as Daniel did). But, in the case of taxes we can see that clearly God has no problem with a government imposing taxes because Paul is telling us to pay them! Certainly Paul would not tell us to pay something that was immoral or illegal in God’s economy. The fact that Paul tells us to pay our taxes is an indication that it is right for us to do.
Concerning this reality for Christians, The Reformation Study Bible (ESV) comments:
“Because civil government exists for the welfare of the whole society, God gives it the “power of the sword,” the lawful use of force to administer just laws (Rom. 13:4). Christians must acknowledge this as part of God’s order (Rom. 13: 1,2). A government may collect taxes for the services it renders (Matt. 22:15-21; Rom. 13: 6, 7). But if it forbids what God requires or requires what God forbids, Christians cannot submit, and some form of civil disobedience becomes inescapable.”
The scholars writing commentary for The Reformation Study Bible have faithfully brought out the meaning of this passage in its context and given clarity concerning this difficult issue.
Other scholars have also commented on this topic. The majority view that Christians should pay their taxes because the government has a right to impose taxes has been held for centuries. I don’t think this is an accident. Nor do I think scholars over the last 500 years have simply “missed the point” of these passages. If there were any hint that it was appropriate for Christians to not pay taxes I have no doubt that faithful scholars would have propounded that view without hesitation. The fact that no serious, notable scholar has done so is only one indication that no such view exists. Consider what some notable voices have said:
Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (author, theologian) wrote:
“They posed a difficult question to Jesus: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ This was a poll tax imposed on each adult male in Judea when the Romans conquered them. Many Jews felt it was wrong to pay this tax, because they saw it as affirming the legitimacy of Roman rule. The Pharisees and Herodians were trying to expose Jesus as a revolutionary or a pretend Messiah with plans to deliver Judea from Roman domination. It was a kind of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ question. It was a very clever question – they make Jesus choose between the Romans or the people, and whichever he picks, he would alienate the other. But more amazing than their question, was Jesus’ answer. This is more than a clever answer. Jesus takes a biblical theology of government applying it to the new phase in the history of God’s people he was starting. While it’s going too far to say that Jesus’ statement here established a wall of separation between church and state, or made the state secular, Jesus’ affirmation of paying taxes to the Roman government shows even a pagan state is legitimate.”
John Calvin, one of the most notable scholars in Christian history was said to have stated:
“Calvin believed that every citizen had a duty to obey the government, even when the government was unjust. He understood that it is the duty of citizens to respect what God has ordained, leaving vengeance to him. The second duty of citizens is submission. We are to submit to the laws of the government, pay taxes that are levied, and perform required civic duties such as the bearing of arms in defense of the nation. There are certainly exceptions, but unless the government requires a Christian to do what God forbids or forbids them to do what God commands, we are called to be model citizens.” (Western Reformed Seminary)
R.C Sproul, pastor, author, theologian wrote concerning Romans 13:
“Romans 13:6-7 stresses the importance of paying taxes. Paul covers several points. First, the Apostle assumes that his audience is already paying taxes to the secular authorities. The Greek construction of verse 6 carries with it the idea that the believers’ payment of taxes means they implicitly recognize that the state has the authority that Paul says it has. Second, Paul recognizes that the reason we pay taxes is so that the government can fulfill its role of punishing evil and protecting the innocent. Finally, the Apostle indicates that we owe more to the governing authorities than just our taxes. By virtue of the government’s role as ministers in the civil sphere to promote order and the common good, we owe our leaders respect and honor. This does not mean that we cannot question the government; it does mean that we endeavor to show respect even when we must call the state to account for its failures…God calls us to pay taxes, not to approve of everything our tax money pays for. In Paul’s day, tax money was used to pay the salaries of soldiers and other officials who persecuted Christians and committed other evils. Nevertheless, Paul told the church at Rome to pay its taxes anyway. Paying our taxes is not a sign that we endorse everything the government does with our money; rather, it is one way we fulfill God’s command to submit to the state.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, author, social commentator, wrote:
“To the Romans, Paul was clear — they should pay their taxes. ‘Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.’ [Romans 13:7] In the previous verse, Paul had reminded the Roman Christians that they pay their taxes out of the fear of God’s judgment and the operation of the Christian conscience. As J. C. Doggett rightly explains, ‘Paul gives no support to Christian citizens who might be minded to hold back part of their tax liability because they disapprove of the way in which the government might spend the money or because they doubt its fairness. In happier times than Paul’s, Christians nowadays are free to pursue their objections by political means.’”
It is notable that Paul tells the Roman Christians to pay their taxes. The Roman government was using the money to persecute Christians for their faith, and still Paul tells them to pay the taxes. This provides clear support for paying taxes even when we don’t agree with how they are used or when they are used for un-biblical purposes. Essentially, we don’t have a responsibility concerning how the taxes are used, just to pay the taxes.
Also, it is clear from the examples of Daniel in the Old Testament, Peter and Paul and Jesus in the New Testament, that we are to be respectful to our authorities and government. In each of these examples (as well as others), respect was shown to the rulers even though there was disagreement. Daniel respected the king because of his position because he knew that God had put the king in that position and he had a duty to respect the king. Though he faced being thrown into a den of lions, Daniel did not treat the king with anything but respect. The same can be said for Peter and Paul when they were each brought before the king and told not to preach. While Peter rightfully stated that he would “obey God rather than man,” (Acts 5:29) Peter and the Apostles conducted themselves respectfully towards those in authority. We have clearly been given an example for how we are to treat our government officials, even when we disagree.
Inciting violence against the government is not biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we have support for inciting violence against the government because we disagree with their decisions. Certainly Paul disagreed with the Roman government persecuting Christians simply for living out their faith, yet he never advocated violence to combat the issues. He encouraged respect, honor, and obedience in order to be faithful to God (Romans 13). Anyone advocating violence against the government while claiming it is a biblical response has no biblical authority or support for his or her actions and should be denounced.
It is notable that all of these scholars hold the same view. There’s no benefit for them in saying Christians should pay their taxes, other than being faithful to Scripture and properly teaching the Bible to others. They have, as every Christian should, allowed Scripture to determine their politics rather than starting with a political position and trying to make Scripture fit it. Our theology should never be determined by our political presuppositions. Scripture should always dictate how we view our world, culture, and even our government.
While I will be the first to say that this is not the most exhaustive discussion of this topic, I hope it is helpful. I hope it encourages you to think, pray, and study. I have been challenged in my thinking on this subject and it pushed me to study and seek clarification. I’m thankful for that, as I believe I have a better understanding and can discuss the issue more intelligently and biblically.