Tax Day 2016 is now upon us. While we may have grumbled when filing our taxes this year, did we pause to think that giving the government part of our income is a way we honor the Lord and express our trust in his grand design? Scripture points us to a view of taxation that is intrinsically connected to our obedience to God, and this relationship between the Christian, the civil government and taxes is pointedly addressed by Paul in his letter to the Roman church:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this 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. (Rom. 13:1-7)
This passage distinctly lays out the biblical role of government as one of protection and punishment. It also clearly addresses the general principle and responsibility of Christians to submit to governing authorities (1 Pet. 2:13-17). Paul’s reasoning for Christians to submit to those who rule is because their authority is a derived authority that ultimately comes from God. In general, the civil government is a great blessing from God that he has given to humanity, and Christians can take some solace in knowing that there is no governing institution that has not been granted its authority to rule by God. As hard as it may be to understand, even pagan rulers exercise their dominion as a result of God’s power, and we are to submit to them out of reverence to God, not reverence for the ruler. This means that those who refuse to submit to governing authorities are in outright rebellion against what God has ordained.
When we arrive at Paul’s words on taxes in Romans 13:6-7, we must recognize they fall within the larger teaching on God’s institution of the government’s authority and the Christian’s responsibility to live in submission to that authority. The simple principle presented in 13:6-7 is that believers in Christ are to pay their taxes, and this is regardless of what the state does with the money once it is received. We sometimes may hear the distress of concerned Christians who say that the government uses their tax dollars for all kinds of waste and even evil, such as abortion, which leads them to question whether they are complicit in such acts and should pay their taxes. While such rationale appears to come from a good motive (not using personal wealth to support acts one considers wasteful or evil), Paul says that ultimately such considerations are subservient to the principle of submitting to your governing authorities. Indeed, we can be confident that the Christian who pays such taxes does not have any need to feel guilt that they are complicit with the acts of the state. However, the Christian who refuses to pay, regardless of being well intentioned, is indeed guilty. Simply because the state misuses funds does not release one from the command to pay taxes, nor does it make one responsible for what the state does with taxes once they are paid.
To be certain, the first allegiance of the Christian is to God, not the state. There have been many recent good and thoughtful pieces written on if/when Christian civil disobedience is ever appropriate. While most of us may accept that civil disobedience may be appropriate in certain circumstances when obedience to the government would mean disobedience to God, a rebellion in paying taxes does not constitute that situation. Indeed, even in Paul’s day when he wrote these words, the Roman Empire surely did not fill up its tax coffers merely to spend it on godly resolves. Debauchery, pagan worship, waste and other evils were certainly being financed. Yet, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus, endorsed and commanded the paying of taxes: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
Though we may profoundly dislike sending Uncle Sam our hard earned money and intensely believe the tax structure is unfair or even corrupt, Scripture unequivocally validates the tax system in general and commands Christians to pay the state what it is owed. Nonetheless, if the manner in which our tax dollars are spent disturbs us, this does not simply mean we have no remedy for change. In fact, the Bible compels Christians to seek justice and to take proper action in the face of abuse and evil. In a representative democracy, such as the U.S., in which representatives are chosen by the people to be the voice of the people, citizens have recourse through these elected officials to change legislation, the allocation of resources and shape taxes.
In practical terms, this means electing officials who are in alignment with biblical standards of justice and will attempt to spend tax dollars for worthy causes. This may mean campaigning for candidates who are of that persuasion or contacting the local legislators in your district to try to instill change. God calls Christians to do good works in whatever circumstance they find themselves. The area of politics and trying to shape taxes through our elected officials is not excluded from this, for influencing our government for good is a significant way we can seek to love our neighbors. At a minimum, Christian citizens in a representative democracy should be well informed of the stances elected officials hold and seek to elect candidates and policies that are most consistent with biblical principles of right stewardship.
Certainly the state should repent of misappropriated taxes. Christians should not be silent when the state chooses to waste tax dollars or finance evil with taxes—when they call evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20). Rather, followers of Christ should regularly prophesy against the state when they do evil. This may mean staging peaceful protests and surely means praying for those who govern. But it also includes seeking to influence the government for good by electing officials who will shape taxes and appropriate finances in a way that is biblically aligned. And even if such change does not occur and evil continues to be financed, our taxes should still be paid, for by rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes), and unto God what is God’s (obedience), we are demonstrating our trust in the sovereignty and wisdom of the one who has sought to bless creation through the institution of government.