The phrase, “Taxation is theft” has become a bit of a mantra for more and more Christians. This is partially due to the influence of the libertarian political philosophy in the Christian sphere. Libertarianism has received increasing support from Christians, partially due to the last political cycle and the efforts for increased governmental control in the United States. Although it would be helpful to discuss the philosophy of Libertarianism in general, in this post I am only interested in dealing with the subject of whether or not taxation is theft.
Just to show that this is indeed a contemporary issue, consider some of the recent quotes on this issue:
“The libertarian view of taxes is simply that taxes should not exist in the first place. There should be no tax code because taxation is theft and violates the non-aggression principle.” (Laurence Vance)
“I have already said and illustrated this numerous times in previous articles, but I will say it once again: Taxation is theft, period.” (Norman Horn)
To be clear, not every libertarian agrees with what it means that taxation is theft. For example, one libertarian author argues that although taxation is theft, in some cases theft is justified. Others simply argue that taxation should not exist because it is theft. How should Christians think about this issue?
My goal is not to address specific arguments from libertarian authors, but to provide a positive case that taxation is not theft. Indeed, it is within the rights of the divinely ordained government to impose taxes on the people.
Paul’s View on Government and Taxation (Rom 13:1–7)
Romans 13 begins with a very clear statement that believers are to submit to the governing authorities because each government and authority is put in place by God (vv. 1–2). Therefore, not submitting to government is not submitting to God.
Romans 13:5 goes on to explain that, in light of government’s role, believers are to submit to government “because of wrath” and “also for conscience sake.” The phrase, “for conscience sake” is best viewed as a summary of the concept of knowing God has ordained government as a subsidiary authority structure. In other words, since Christians know what is right (i.e., government is from God) they need to submit to it.
Verse 6 then piggy backs on this idea (“because of this”), and states that Christians pay taxes because government authorities are the “servants of God.” Even the wicked Roman Empire was described as the servant of God, and Paul fully expected believers to pay their taxes to Rome.
If there was any question about the kind of taxes Paul expected the believers to pay, he addresses that in verse 7: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”
The word for “tax” is φόρος, and refers to a direct tax, such as a property tax. The word for “custom” is τέλος and refers to some kind of indirect tax, like a customs taxes or fees. Clearly Paul is identifying that there are various forms of charges the government can levy, and believers are expected to pay them. Believers are obligated to pay their taxes as an extension of their submission to the government.
Jesus’ View on Paying Taxes (Matt 22:15–22)
Conveniently for our discussion, Jesus was asked directly about paying taxes: “Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” (v. 17). The Jews were required to pay three kinds of taxes: (1) the temple tax (cf. Matt 17:24–27), (2) indirect taxes (e.g., customs, sales taxes, etc.), and (3) direct poll tax (head tax). This third kind of tax is what Jesus is being asked about.
This poll tax (κῆνσος) was only required to be paid by non-Roman citizens, was one denarius (about one day’s wage for skilled work), and payable by both men and women. It was very controversial among the Jews, and had sparked a revolt in AD 6 by Judas the Galilean. There was no benefit gained by the payers of this poll tax. It was simply a fee for having been conquered by the great Roman Empire.
Interestingly, in Matt 22:17 when the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is right to “give” (δίδωμι) the poll-tax, the way they frame the questions seems to assume that the Romans have no right to demand it. However, when Jesus ends up answering the question in Matt 22:21, he says, “render [ἀποδίδωμι] to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Notice, Jesus uses a different word which highlights the obligation of the one giving. In other words, they asked Jesus if it was right to give the tax, but Jesus said they were obligated to pay what belonged to Caesar to Caesar. The implication is clear—the tax was what was owed to the Roman government.
Jesus didn’t stop there and continued that there was also an obligation to render “the things that belong to God to God.” The main point is easy enough to deduce. There are simultaneous obligations in the life of the believer—there is an obligation to submit to the local governments and pay their taxes while at the same time there is an even greater obligation to submit to God, knowing that He is ultimately in control of governments (Dan 2:21, 37–38).
Jesus did not sanction avoiding their most egregious tax. Jesus gives the foundational teaching on the believer’s relationship to the government which is expanded on later in the New Testament. Believers understand they submit to their governing authorities because those authorities are ultimately from God (cf. Rom 13:1–7, 1 Pet 2:13–17).
Scripture is clear—believers are obligated to pay taxes. To say that taxation is theft is to imply that government does not have the right to take your money. However, if we use biblical vocabulary, then taxation is not theft and cannot be theft. This does not mean all taxes are morally good. There are times when governments act immorally and function in abusive roles. But that is something that God will judge governments for doing.
Let me be frank. I think the United States tax system is horrible, inefficient, wasteful, and often immoral. I also think it is demonstrable that less taxation leads to a stronger economy, and more benefit as a whole. However, when I am required to pay taxes, I must do so. If for no other reason than the fact that the New Testament clearly teaches this is a way which believers show their ultimate submission to God.