Should Christians Pay Taxes?

As the ominous tax day approaches, the ethics of paying taxes seems like a timely topic. What should Christians think about paying taxes? Should we pay taxes if our government is doing things with the money we find morally objectionable? These are questions of growing significance.

Fortunately Scripture is not silent on this matter, and it provides us clear answers to the ethical questions about paying taxes.  Most helpful is the account of Jesus paying taxes, which is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matt 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:19–26), but there are other portions of Scripture in play, as well.

In the account of Mark 12:13–17, the Pharisees are attempting to trip Jesus up by questioning him about paying taxes to their religiously and socially hostile government. According to New Testament scholar Robert Stein, by asking this question, the Pharisees are putting Jesus in a dilemma. “If he answers yes, he will lose favor with the people, for they despise the Roman taxation. If he answers no, he will be advocating rebellion against Rome and force the Roman authorities to take immediate action against him.”[1] Jesus evades the religious leaders’ trap by demonstrating that their acceptance of the good provided by the Roman government, as evidenced by their possession of the coin which Jesus uses as an illustration, obliges them to pay taxes when they are required.[2]

The Romans had a history of oppression, including the violent suppression of a revolt in A.D. 6, which was started in reaction by the same tax in question in this passage.[3] Paying the tax was offensive to the people of Israel because the Roman tribute was used to fund their oppressor; the occupying nation who had committed the social and religious atrocity of killing worshippers in the process of performing their sacrifices (Luke 13:1) was being supported by this taxation. A radical faction of the people of Israel, the Zealots, would not pay the tax because it represented Caesar’s unjust rule over the nation.[4] Even among those who paid the tax, there was likely a deep seated resentment at the obligation to support their oppressors.

Jesus’ response to the question was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, ESV) In other words, he was telling them to pay the tax in recognition of their obligation as subjects (not even citizens) of the Roman Empire. This message is consistent with Paul’s admonition to Romans to “Pay to all what is owed them,” including “taxes to whom taxes are owed.”  (Rom 13:7) It is also in line with Peter’s instructions to submit to authorities, including governments. (1 Pet 2:13)

We should keep in mind as we read these instructions in Scripture that the government that Jesus, Paul and Peter were subjected to was not friendly to godliness. These admonitions were written more than two centuries before the Roman government became friendly to Christianity, through Emperor Constantine’s public conversion. In contrast, all three men who commanded submission to the government died at the hands of the government.

So, the answer to the original questions about paying taxes when the government is misusing the money to support evil, even our own persecution, is that even then the payment is required. This is not, however, the end of the question.

In the United States in particular, but really in any democratically organized nation, citizens have a function in determining the use and appropriation of government funds. At the national level in our form of democracy, the input of the citizens in taxation consists of election of representatives and advocacy for just policies. At lower levels of government, particularly the local level, citizens have the right to directly vote on tax levies and municipal budgets. Submission to government by paying taxes does not rule out responsible advocacy to see tax policies changed.

Our submission to government is limited by our submission to God. In our obedience to the government, Calvin writes, we “must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject.”[5] However, based on the examples provided by Peter, Paul, and Jesus, paying taxes to an unpopular, pagan, and violent government does not result in sin.

Here are three conclusions we can draw from this discussion as tax season approaches and as political debates over the rate of taxation and use of appropriated funds continues:

1.      Everyone should pay their taxes in accordance with the laws of the land. Objecting to policies established by the government or the use of the government funds does not, according to Scripture, relieve the Christian of the duty to pay taxes. However, this does not mean that paying as much as possible in taxes is ethically required; using exemptions, deductions and credits in the tax code to reduce your tax bill is consistent with good stewardship.

2.      Participate in the political processes of the land to promote just uses of taxes.  Since we live in a context in which active engagement in the political processes is permitted under the law, we should be engaged in advocacy for uses of tax monies consistent with the Moral Law. In other words, we should politically resist attempts to use government funds to promote vices or punish virtues. This is inconsistent with the biblically recognized role of government, which is to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Pet 2:14, ESV).

3.      Be active in advocating for just forms of taxation. Again, our privilege in living in a democratically organized context gives us the ability to engage in open discussion and political activism regarding the tax code itself. We have to pay our taxes, but if we can change the tax code to make it more just, then that reflects submission to the government, as well. Reasonable, legal means of advocacy for changes to the law in order to promote the common good are well within the ethical bounds for Christians. We should work for laws that are just toward rich and poor alike, and that allow the government to punish evil and praise the good.

[1] Robert Stein, Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008), 542.

[2] Stein, Mark, 545–46.

[3] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 465

[4] William L. Lane, Mark, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1974), 423.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.20.32.