I have yet to prepare my tax return for 1996. Lisa and I have been planning to set aside an evening for our “Tax Summit,” but we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe that is because we are not looking forward to it very much. For many years I considered paying taxes to be one of the high privileges of American citizenship. Then I became a taxpayer. Now paying my taxes seems like more pain than privilege.
I have several frustrations with the United States Federal Tax Code. The first is the sheer complexity of it all. I know a thing or two about both arithmetic and the English language. Neither seems to help me very much with my taxes, especially now that I am a member of the clergy. Clergy get some tax breaks, of course, but our taxes are more complicated. We members of the Tenth pastoral staff spent part of last spring poring over the tax code, scratching our heads and wondering what things would be like if the IRS had to master The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Another of my frustrations about taxation, frankly, is how much I have to pay. By the time I throw in state and city taxes it comes to something like—what?—15% of my income? Uncle Sam demands more from me than the Lord does, and that just doesn’t seem right.
I also feel uneasy about what the federal government does with my money. How much is wasted on costly overhead? How much international aid for population control goes to promote abortion? What is the CIA up to these days? My gut feeling is that the less I know, the better.
Because of these frustrations I have concluded that there can be no taxation without sanctification. Jesus taught some Pharisees the same lesson. They came to him with some controversial questions:
“Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:17-21).
Jesus’ answer has implications for everything we do as citizens, but especially for how we pay our taxes. Jesus rules out any cheating. Caesar, or the governing authority, has a right to every penny we owe. To pay anything less than the full amount of our tax obligation is to disobey God.
What is remarkable about what Jesus said is that he was talking about the Roman Empire. Subjects of Rome did not have to fill out a 1040 every year, but Roman taxes were exasperating and exorbitant. Consider the way Jesus’ parents were sent packing to Bethlehem in order to register to be taxed (Luke 2:1-3). Or consider the corruption of tax collectors like Zaccheus, who levied a hefty surcharge in order to pad their bank accounts (Luke 19:1-10).
If anything, Roman taxation was an even greater burden during the ministry of the apostle Paul. By then it was apparent that the Romans were out to persecute the church. The taxes believers paid in the days of Nero and Domitian helped pay for things like lion baiting at the Coliseum and human torches in the Emperor’s garden. Christians subsidized the persecution of other Christians.
That is why what Paul writes in Romans 13 is so remarkable: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (v. 1). Every government is established by God. Even the Roman government. So every person must submit to the government, as to the Lord. Wise Christians have recognized this principle in every era of the church. John Calvin wrote his Institutes to show that Reformation Christians were law-abiding citizens.
Next, Paul says that he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted (v. 2). Three times the Scripture says that the governing authorities are God’s servants (vv. 4, 6). So rebellion against the government is tantamount to rebellion against God himself.
In case there is any doubt, Paul spells out the implications of these principles for our pocketbooks.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue (vv. 6-7a).
The government may be misspending some of your money. But, contrary to what you may hear from some politicians, the government is not “stealing” your money. Because the governing authorities are God’s servants your money does belong to them. It is our responsibility to pay for our leaders as well as to pray for them (see 1 Tim. 2:1-2).
There are all kinds of questions we might want to ask about this teaching. What if one’s government is a bloated bureaucracy? What if we could care for the poor more biblically and more efficiently ourselves? What if one’s military sponsors violence against innocent civilians in faraway lands? What if one’s government is persecuting the church? All these questions might well have been asked about the Roman Empire. Or about our own nation, for that matter. Yet the Scripture is content to let the principle stand on its own: taxation is one part of sanctification.
I find it much easier to give to the Lord than to Uncle Sam. The Lord’s demands seem more reasonable; his cause more reputable; his stewardship more reliable. But I need to recognize that when I give to Uncle Sam I am giving to the Lord. I owe my taxes to God, and not just to the government. Where there is taxation with sanctification, paying taxes becomes a privilege once again.
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