I am not a theologian or an economist and have never received formal instruction on the morality of taxation. That, though, is a bit of the point: Little effort is made to educate young Christians about matters of importance or otherwise equip them for the actual challenges they face when they come of age. It might seem odd to propose the development of a theology of taxation. Isn’t a theology on civil government enough?
No, it isn’t, especially when we the people (theoretically) constitute the government. Unfortunately, “taxation” is relegated off as mere “politics,” and in many minds most political issues are considered “spiritually neutral.” The feeling is that a Christian can in good conscience embrace any number of views and be within the revealed Word of God.
Certainly, in ultimate terms Christians understand that the highest concern is the eternal fate of every human soul on the planet. Thus, temporal issues are of limited importance. True, but not of no importance. We must remind ourselves that God created the material world and our physical bodies and called it “good.” Though we will be resurrected with a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), it is still a body. Even Jesus in his resurrected body retained the physical marks of his crucifixion.
Taxation is a subset of a larger issue. As Christians, we know that we cannot be indifferent to the welfare of our fellow man. We know that we should attempt to end or curtail atrocities such as abortion on demand and the Holocaust. We know that we should not look the other way when we see whole nations terrorized by tyrants and tyrannical ideologies. We know that, insofar as it is within our power, we should increase freedom and oppose slavery whenever we can. Slavery has many forms but is marked essentially by the forceful repression of individual human will. Taxation, all taxation, is in some respect and to some degree just such a repression.
Every increase in taxation represents a proportional decrease in human freedom.
How can that be? The easiest way to see it is to look at one of the most extreme examples ever to be manifested in human history: communism. Indisputably, wherever communism went, tyranny and enslavement – and worse – went with it. The grand experiment in mass redistribution of wealth had horrific consequences. However, it may be surprising and unexpected that religious persecution, torment and torture accompanied communism on its long march.
Why is that the case? Simply put, those who tax feel that they have the right, justification and authority to do so. When people believe that there is no higher authority than man himself, then they do not believe they answer to anyone, except of course their fellow man, and these they might be able to control – for the “common good” of course. This describes the communists to a T.
Religion, and Christianity in particular, stands in the way of that attitude, and the communists understood that acutely. The only ones who don’t seem to understand it are Christians.
Can it really be said, though, that all taxation represents a reduction in freedom? The answer to this must be yes, even if we recognize that the effect on freedom might be slight in some cases. To illustrate, imagine a small income tax of a dollar. It might be an easy matter to get by without that dollar, but it is still one more dollar that you cannot spend according to your own priorities. Consider what the impact is if instead the tax is 25 percent of your income!
We also have to ask about those who are doing the taxing. They obviously believe they have the right to take your resources from you. They must believe that they can obtain some good that you, and perhaps few others, would have subsidized if left to your own devices. They must believe that they know how much they can fairly extract from you. They must believe that they have the right, if you protest, to incarcerate you and take your possessions by force if need be. In sum, they are almost indistinguishable from tyrants.
Christians should not support tyrants or adopt their methods and so become tyrants ourselves. If there is a cause we wish to support, we ought to do so from our own resources out of the free expression of our own hearts (2 Corinthians 8).
Where does theology come into the picture? After all, Jesus is on the record saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Clearly, we must pay our taxes. Note, however, that in this passage Jesus was speaking to the people being taxed. What would He have said if he were speaking to the ones doing the taxing? What would He have said to Caesar? In a country such as ours, which is theoretically ruled at the consent of the governed, are we not in some way Caesar?
In light of the foregoing, Christians should carefully test their attitudes about taxation (and governing) against the Scriptures, not merely as those who are taxed and governed but as those who tax and govern.
Remember what Samuel told the Israelites when they demanded a king: “This is what [he] will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses … he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendances. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage. … He will take a tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves” (1 Samuel 8).
Note: Samuel does not think any of these things are good things. In America there is no king – so why do we still see all the things that Samuel warned the Israelites about?
True Christian theologians and economists should sit down and work out a “theology of taxation” and present it before the church. Then we should teach our children that what happens in the world matters and has eternal reverberations (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:24-25). If we don’t teach our children, their secularist humanistic professors will.
Anthony Horvath is the executive director of Athanatos Christian Ministries and the author of the Birth Pangs series. He has posted other articles on the Christian’s approach to economics at his blog.