Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Ethics of Taxation

As it has been said for the last three hundred years, taxes seem to be as inevitable as death. Yet the thought has surely occurred to many people as they hand over their money to the state - is taxation right? Should we pay our taxes? Should the government demand taxes, and if so, what limits are there?

Some people, inspired by the historic slogan “no taxation without representation” might think that taxation is simply the money that we decide to give to our government. It is at the discretion of the people how much is wise to give, and it is legitimate because we all get a vote. Yet, does 51% of my community have a right to take my money?

On the other hand, some today argue that taxation is theft. After all, why can the government take our possessions by coercion when this is considered theft if any other person or group does the same? “No one has the right to point a gun at you and demand your help, your money, whether it be an individual or a government.”[1] Christians would agree that the civil authorities cannot do whatever they want and that the eighth and tenth commandments assert a right to private or household property. What you have gained honestly without fraud or coercion is yours. Some Christians say taxation is theft but add that the head tax of Exodus 30:11-16 is an exception given by God as the only legitimate tax.[2]

While I am sympathetic to the position that taxation is theft because it makes some valid points, I do not think it does justice to all the biblical material. I argue that taxation is legitimized by the duty we have to support the civil authorities financially to enable them to fulfill their God-given responsibilities. Taxation for functions beyond their normal responsibilities is slavery. And with regard to the tax burden, less taxation is more freedom and a blessing, while more taxation is more slavery and a curse. Burdensome taxation, especially on the poor, is oppression.

The Bible ties our duty to pay taxes to the fact that the civil authorities have God-given responsibilities. “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…” (Rom. 13:6-7). Taxes are an obligation which we fulfill for the sake of conscience (Rom. 13:5), a debt that we must pay (Rom. 13:7). God gives the civil authorities a right to taxes because they are God’s servants who do His work (Rom. 13:4, 6). This work is not unlimited. Basically, God has given them the duty of restraining bad conduct by executing God’s wrath through the punishment of criminals and the waging of defensive war (Rom. 13:3-4, 1 Peter 2:13, see also WCF 23.1-2). Additionally, this obligation is due only to people with a legitimate claim to civil authority. Usurpers, habitual tyrants, and officials acting illegally are another story, and here the concept of theft might be used to describe their actions (this is a main reason why the American colonies declared independence - they were being taxed by Parliament, which was a body that had no authority over them and in which they had no representation).

Other social responsibilities like education and welfare are not given to the civil authorities but are described as duties of family, church, and community (e.g. Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:1-4, 1 Tim. 5:3-8, Deut. 15, Lev. 19:9-10). When the civil authority begins to use tax money for these functions it is a form of slavery. It is like finding yourself in arrangement where someone takes your money or labor and provides you or your dependents with the things you should have provided for yourself. It is not a sin to be a slave, but it is certainly undesirable, and we have a responsibility to seek freedom when we have the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21-23).

No one has a right to make innocent people slaves, and normally people should not volunteer to be slaves, but there are times when this is necessary. The Bible does speak of the case of a brother who becomes poor enough that he sells himself to a fellow believer for a time (Lev. 25:39-40 Deut. 15:12-15), a brother who becomes poor enough that he must borrow (Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 15:7-11; debt is a form of slavery, Prov. 22:7), and of a brother who for one reason or another choses to remain in permanent slavery (Deut. 15:16-17).

In Genesis 41, Joseph, by the Spirit of God, foresaw the coming famine in Egypt and advised a 20% income tax during the plentiful years to save up provisions (Gen. 41:33-38). In God's wisdom, this temporary burden was apparently the best option for the Egyptians, forcing them to provide for the future. In the end, this measure led to literal slavery for the Egyptians who had to sell themselves and their land to buy back the provisions, resulting in a permanent 20% income tax (Gen. 47:20-26; though interestingly priests’ land did not become Pharaoh’s). God blessed the family of Jacob by making this a temporary dependance, allowing them to remain free after the famine, having been temporarily provisioned with the "free welfare" by Joseph (Gen. 47:12).

Israel later foolishly desired this permanent civil slavery, seeking a powerful king. But when Israel desired a king like the nations, Samuel warned the people that this king “will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants…He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Sam. 8:15–18). This taxation is seen as a curse of slavery upon Israel for abandoning God as their ruler and relying on a powerful king. While an increase in taxes might have been necessary with any king,[3] a “king like the nations” would demand more than the restrained king who abided by Deuteronomy 17:14-17. Israel’s lack of self-government and restraint described in Judges drove them to a position of civil slavery.

When the state begins to use coercion to fulfill duties which ideally belong to the family, church, and community, it takes away our sense of responsibility for one another. It gives us an excuse to not provide for ourselves and our family, to not care for our parents, to not care for the elderly and disabled in our midst. A slave mentality is an irresponsible one that looks to other people for initiative, direction, purpose, and provision. Christians ought to cultivate the mentality of a freeman even when living in slavery (living not as people-pleasers, but as servants of God, looking to Him for reward; Col. 3:22-25). But if opportunity is given to gain greater freedom, Christians should take it.
“Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:21–23)
There are cases where the Bible condemns burdensome taxation as oppression. Taxation had become oppressive under Solomon and even more so under his son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Amos 5:11 condemns the people because “you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him…” The prophets several times condemned civil leaders who devoured the people's wealth (Is. 3:14, Mic. 3:1-3, Zeph. 3:3). Proverbs 29:4 says, "By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down," and here I believe the ESV footnote, "taxes heavily," to be a more accurate translation than "exacts gifts."

Thus, taxation should be judged on its use, its amount, and its impact. The ability to enforce taxation is a power given to the civil authorities. One must have legitimate authority to exercise this power. The people have a duty to pay taxes to the civil authorities. When the tax is serving its proper goal, it is good and proper. It can become undesirably enslaving when it needs to cover for a lack of self-government. It can also become an unjust tool of oppression. While we should pay our taxes, Christians should live responsibly as freemen and seek freedom when given the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21-24). As we care for our households, practice charity to others, tithe to the church, and seek the welfare of our community, we can hope for the blessing of greater freedom in the area of taxes.

[1] Chris R. Tame, “Taxation Is Theft (Libertarian Alliance Political Note No 44, 1989)” (PDF),, accessed 3-17-18.
[2] R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1973), 510.
[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2008), 802-803.

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