Many Christians will try to shut down any conversation about the morality of taxation and laws against victimless crimes (A “victimless crime” is an act that is punished simply because it is illegal, not because there is any individual that can be pointed to that was harmed by the action committed and is seeking some form of restoration and/or justice for the crime they committed) by saying “God commands me to submit to the government” or “Render unto Caesar” or even a more vague “The Bible says to pay your taxes, so its ridiculous that you suggest that taxation is theft.” These aren’t ad verbatim responses that I’ve received, however, I have heard countless variations of these responses, both in face to face conversations and on the internet. But is this a fair, comprehensive way of looking at what the Bible says about government?
What I find very interesting about many Christians who would make simple, one-line responses to criticisms of government’s foundation is that many of them recognize that government is far too big and needs to be curtailed. They are often inconsistent about it for sure, but they nonetheless generally realize that tax rates in excess of 30% are obscene. Many also recognize that there are way too many laws on the books, although few will go so far as to support legalization of drugs, gambling, or any other immoral but consensual activity. Few will call for drastic cuts in the organizations most dangerous to liberty, the military and the police.
If “Render Unto Caesar’ Really meant that everything that Caesar demands is his, than a Christian would have no ground whatsoever to protest high taxes, progressive taxes, or any other form of unjust tax. If Jesus really meant that the money was Caesar’s just because his picture appeared on the coin, he would also have to hold that all money in the United States belongs to the President, since former President’s faces appear on almost all American money (Ben Franklin on the 100 is the only common exception, and to my knowledge is the only exception whatsoever.) It would mean far more than just “pay your taxes”. It would mean that the Bible outright support communism, and rejects private property rights.
This is not, in any way, shape, or form, Biblical.
I cannot possibly go through every single Biblical passage that relates to earthly kings in this article. I can, however, show several passages that show that worldly kings, while ordained by God, are not ruling with God’s permission or blessing. I can also show that, in spite of “Render Unto Caesar”, it is not in fact that case that Caesar really owns our property. And finally, I can show that the Bible does teach that taxation is in fact theft, despite how absurd this may seem at first glance, particularly to anyone who’s knowledge of Bible passages relating to government is limited to “Render Unto Caesar” and Romans 13.
Disclaimer: While I am currently using only my Bible as an aide to write this article, I have read a number of things relating to this topic in the past. Some of the arguments that I’ve read, I have first heard from other people. I don’t remember who all of them were off the top of my head. I do not take personal credit for anything in this post. Ultimately God gets the glory, both for creating me and everything around me to begin with, and also for giving us the 66 inspired, infallible books of the Holy Bible as an absolute standard for all morality. I pray that any Christians who read this, even if they disagree with everything I myself say, can give an “Amen” to this, and as they stand with me on the foundational authority of the scriptures, that they will search them to see if these things are true. I also acknowledge that my interpretation of these scriptures was almost certainly in part inspired by the writings of other Christians, who’s exposition of these things I have found to be helpful.
First, I’d like you to take a look at Deuteronomy 17:14-20. My quotations of Scripture will be in bold, from the English Standard Version (ESV). My comments will be in regular text.
Deuteronomy 17:14-15 When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say “I will set a king over me, like all the other nations that are around me, you may indeed set up a King over you, whom the LORD your God will chose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you, you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.
At first glance, this passage might seem to allow, or even encourage, a monarchial form of government. However, we can see in 1 Samuel 8 that this is not the case. In fact, the text of 1 Samuel 8:5 not only has the elders saying they want a king, but they demand a king for the exact same reason that Deuteronomy 17 says they will. And God gives them the same answer he indicates here. He allows them to have a King, who God chooses. However, 1 Samuel 8:7 makes very clear that God was displeased with this action. He allowed them to do it not because he desired it, but because their hearts were hard, and they had rejected God as their king. It seems to me that God is allowing Israel to make a choice, and suffer the consequences for their actions. This reminds me of Deuteronomy 24, where God seems to permit divorce. Jesus later says in Matthew 19 that this was because “Of hard hearts.” That God permits something because of hard hearts does not mean he approves.
16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
What were horses used for in ancient times? Among other things, horses were used for an army! God did not want the Israelite kings to amass huge armies for themselves. Numbers chapter 1 shows a census of the Israelite people. In particular, Numbers 1:3 describes the purpose of the census “From twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war.” When God commanded Israel to go to war, he did not have them hire a professional army. Instead, God uses all Israelite males who are able to fight, and does not command the foundation of any standing army. Deuteronomy 17:16 (Quoted above) seems to at least strongly imply that the standing army is ungodly. One of the nation’s founders, George Mason, said in 1788 “Once a standing army is established in any country, the people lose their liberty.” Far too many Christians today have not thought about the implications of a standing army, and how it affects their freedom.
Furthermore, the kings were commanded not to take “many wives” and “much silver and gold.” Despite the fact that godly men such as King David did sin by taking multiple wives, the matter of polygamy being wrong is not really controversial, so I’ll pass over it for now. The King was also commanded not to “amass much silver and gold for himself.” The only other case I know of where any person is commanded not to amass much wealth is the rich young ruler. Interestingly, he is a “ruler” himself, although the primary reason he was commanded to give his wealth up was because it was an idol to him. Kings, however, are commanded NOT to amass much wealth for themselves. Congress continuing to vote themselves pay raises comes to mind here. They may not literally be “kings” but they are nonetheless rulers, and this would apply to them as well. The passage does not say why kings are forbidden to amass much wealth. However, based on the rest of the passage, I believe the reason why is because unlike merchants, carpenters, or other legitimate professions, the King does not earn any wealth that he has through honest trade, but through enslavement or involuntary taxation. He makes all his wealth through the labor of other people. Essentially, if the King “Amasses much silver and gold” he will do so through theft.
The next three verses say
18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by[a]the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.
Verse 19 is the climax of my argument here. The King is commanded to do all of the words of the law. That includes the sixth commandment not to murder (Exodus 20:13) and the eighth commandment not to steal (Exodus 20:15). Since I can think of no case where taxation is ordained by God in the Old Testament (There was a tithe, but there was no enforcement mechanism. It is no more a “tax” than giving money to your local church, preaching the gospel, or anything else God commands us to do for the benefit of the church is a “tax”, and the penalty for refusal is divine judgment, not human judgment) it seems clear to me that taxation, being by definition being the forceful redistribution of wealth, is a form of theft. If God meant to exempt the king from the prohibition of theft, surely he would have said so in the text.
The first case taxation is mentioned as being imposed on Israelites by Israelites (As opposed to temporarily by pagan rulers who God allowed to oppress them because of their sins) is in 1 Samuel 8. I’d like to briefly go through that passage:
8 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.
My ESV study Bible points out that Gideon had formerly rejected the idea of hereditary judges. I think Samuel acts without God’s approval here. While standing strong against the idea of an actual human monarchy, Samuel seems to introduce the earliest seeds of it when, rather than waiting for God to choose judges, he chooses his own sons. That seems a little like a monarchy to me, even though it isn’t nearly as bad as what the people request instead.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
Verse 6 gives us the exact same reason that was given in Deuteronomy 17:14-15 for a king! This makes it clear to me that the passage in Deuteronomy is a prophecy that a King will eventually be appointed (Combined with instructions that only Christ can truly follow, and ways to mitigate the damage that will inevitably be caused by earthly kings). It is not a command for Israel to appoint earthly kings anymore than Deuteronomy 24 contains a command for divorce (not at all.) In verse 7, God says that trying to appoint an earthly king is a direct rejection of God’s Kingship.
10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
It seems clear to me that the connotations for all of these things are bad. There is no sign that any of these predictions are in any way a good thing. Two things strike me as interesting.
First, the tax is “a tenth.” That’s 10%. I’ve heard at least a couple Christians, and there are likely many, many more, say that 10% is some kind of an ideal tax rate. And this is a tax rate that Samuel says is tyrannical! At the absolute least, a godly government would have to be far, far smaller than any modern government, and certainly much smaller than the modern United States Government. In New York State, even state sales taxes and state income taxes come out as more than 10% for most people, even ignoring Federal taxes and local taxes. Many American Christians would say that our military is “Fighting for our freedom” and that the police are “Putting their lives on the line for our freedom.” Or even “We live in a free country” or “love it or leave it.” But the Bible says that America’s government is tyrannical, because of its tax rate alone! (Let alone other factors.) Who will we believe? American Christians, or God? Now, this is not in any way meant to suggest that America is as tyrannical as it can possibly be, or that it is necessarily relatively tyrannical compared to other countries. In all honestly, I haven’t been to most other countries, and the ones I have been to, I was not there for very long. So everything I know about foreign countries and their living conditions mostly comes from the experiences of other people. I don’t actually know how accurate what we haear actually is. But it doesn’t matter. As a Christian in America, my responsibility is to call out tyranny in my own government where the Bible says there is tyranny, regardless of whether other countries are relatively more or less tyrannical than this one.
The second concept I found interesting is how Samuel looks at “national service.” I’ve heard Christians say things like “Everyone should put in two years of national service” or other things like that. You’ll find no such comment from Samuel. Instead, Samuel looks at a leader who will force the Israelites to serve him and his country as tyrannical. In addition to this Deuteronomy 20:5-9 makes clear that, despite what many will say, a man’s individual interests clearly outweigh any sort of “national interest.” These verses leave no room for any possible draft or any other form of compulsory service.
Finally, we have Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness, in Matthew 4:7-11
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Jesus was not gullible. If the Devil’s offer was not sincere, Christ would immediately have known it. But Christ did not deny that the Kingdoms of the Earth were Satanic. Instead, he said to worship God and God alone. Jesus knew that Satan is the ruler of the kingdoms of this earth.
Does this mean God does not control them? Of course not. Romans 9:17 shows God raising up the wicked Pharaoh for his purposes. Isaiah 10:5-19 shows the same thing with the Assyrians who destroyed Israel. The fact that Satan rules the kingdoms of this earth from the perspective of the people that live there does not change the fact that God is in sovereign control of all things, good, evil, and even Satan himself.
Jesus had these teachings in mind when he said “Render unto Caesar”. Paul had it in mind when he wrote Romans 13. My personal take on the former is that it was primarily a dismissal of an irrelevant question designed to trap him. Jesus was saying that the focus should not be on whether or not one pays taxes, but on his gospel. As for Paul, his instructions should be taken in context. Immediately before the exhortation to obey government, Paul talks about how to treat our enemies. Although written in somewhat vague terms (Since Paul knew the Roman leaders would be reading his writing) I believe his audience was able to read it in context.
In conclusion, I would like to address any of my readers who may not be Christians. Do you support unlimited government? If not, why not? What absolute standard do you use to judge autocrats and other dictators and oligarchs to be wicked? There is plenty of wickedness in nature, so natural law will not work. Legal positivism is fairly easily discredited by men like Hitler. The inherent virtue of Democracy is fairly easily destroyed by men like Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom arrested people simply for criticizing him. Or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrested people for being Japanese (There are many, many more examples of evil action by these three men and almost any other President you can think of.)
If you don’t believe that you are a sinner who needs a savior, or if you don’t believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible Word of God, let’s get that hammered out first. Politics can wait. Moral questions are impossible to solve without this foundation. And ultimately, without the gospel, the right moral and political views are useless. Without trusting in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, all of this is useless.
God bless all of you, especially my brothers and sisters in Christ.