When considering the subject of our duty to pay taxes, the Bible seems plain enough. But a lot rides on where you place the emphasis—where do the italics go? Governments exist by covenant, and governments like ours explicitly claim to exist by covenant. The word federal comes from the Latin word foedus, which means covenant. But covenants have terms and stipulations. They have conditions, just as our text before us has conditions.
“For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom. 13:6-7).
Summary of the Text
The payment of taxes is linked to the reason that went before—“for this cause.” Your conscience is bound to pay taxes to the extent that the magistrate is serving as God’s deacon or minister in the execution of His wrath (v. 4). This is the foremost reason given for paying tribute, because they are functioning as God’s deacons. Paul mentions this for the third time, only this time His ministers are His liturgoi (v. 6), the word from which we get liturgy.
Remember that liturgies are prescribed. Free form interpretive dance is not “a liturgy,” even if you are waving a copy of the Constitution. We pay tribute because the magistrate is “attending continually” to this very task (v. 6). Render your obligations, therefore (v. 7). Render tribute, render custom, render fear, and render honor (v. 7).
What We Are Told to Render
We are told twice to render tribute (vv. 6-7). The word is only used elsewhere in Luke. Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not (Luke 20:22). He answers in the affirmative, but with a striking exclusion. Later, He is accused of teaching that it was unlawful to pay tribute to Caesar (Luke 23:2). We are told to render custom (telos) to whom custom is due. The other place where this word is used in in Matt. 17:24-27, where Jesus interestingly pays a tax that He says is not owed. The last two obligations to render are not monetary. We are told to render fear to whom fear is due, and honor to whom honor is due. Remember that Paul is writing this when Nero is emperor—and even in his relatively good five years of rule, he was no believer.
Naboth’s Vineyard and Land Reform
We need to get the theology of this thing straight first. If governments can steal, as we see with Ahab and Naboth, then they can obviously do so through the tax code. Tax codes can be passed illegally and unjustly. Legislators can be bribed to get them to vote for it. The agents charged with enforcement can throw aside all biblical rules of evidence, and so on. If this can in fact happen, and it clearly can, then there can be circumstances in which a tax dispute between the government and the citizenry is a dispute which exists because the government is cheating on taxes.
In other words, we should not assume that whenever the government says that money is owed, and blood-donating turnip says that it isn’t, that it is the turnip who is cheating. In short, it is quite possible that the biggest tax cheat in America today is the federal government. If you say it is not even possible, then you are missing a basic biblical truth about government, and have forgotten the nature of man. If it is possible, then it becomes important to determine where the line is—because that is the line where conscience leaves off and practical considerations alone make the determination.
There is taxation which is not theft (see our text), and there is taxation which is. Where is the line? In this text, Paul firmly anchors the lawful payment of taxes to the lawful functions of government.
How Then Should We File?
When the government is recognizably fulfilling the functions that God has assigned to it, paying taxes for Christians is a moral obligation before God. We should pay our taxes dutifully, and with gratitude toward God, and we should do so “for conscience sake” (v. 5).
When it starts to become evident that the “powers that be” have corrupted the process, then another round of decisions have to be made—and the criteria here would be pragmatic and tactical. But when this starts to become clear, we should not approach it in an autonomous way—“every man to his tents, oh, Israel!” Remember Calvin’s doctrine of the lesser magistrates.
The old Chinese curse is “may you live in interesting times.” Well, we do, and here we are.
· You bear God’s image and Christ’s name. That cannot be rendered to Caesar lawfully.
· Scripture teaches the appropriate boundaries of government and appropriate responses when they are transgressed. If you don’t know what that teaching is, then set yourself to learn.
· You are citizens, not subjects. Christian history matters.
· You are members of a corporate body. Learning how lawful resistance functions is a question of social theology. Individual cussedness should never be confused with godly individuality. Obedience is rendered to God by ones, but it should be obedience rendered to God and His people, and not to your own opinions.
· Worship God, you and your family, in Spirit and in truth every Lord’s Day. This is the source of all true reformations.