There are often more effective ways of changing the world and combating injustice than resisting legal theft.
The centuries immediately before and after the 100s CE in the Greco-Roman world were increasingly violent.
There were frequent uprisings, attempted coups, assassinations of political leaders, reform efforts and massacres of Jews and other groups led by the Romans. Palestine, the holy land, was being controlled by the ever-expanding Roman Empire. The exiled Israelites sometimes tried to “get it back” through such violent means.
Besides this ongoing struggle, the Romans also brought in new religious threats, political threats and various forms of coercion—not to mention religious and cultural (Hellenistic) agendas. Revolts against this paganization stem all the way back to the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BC (today celebrated as Hanukkah).
You can imagine how much the expectation there was for political and religious liberty. The dispersed people of Israel expected a great leader who would soon overthrow the Roman government and re-establish the Kingdom of David forever.
In contrast to these traditional hopes, Jesus realized both the faux authority and violent nature of governments, armies and political coercion.
When offered the equivalent of the Chair of the Federal Reserve, Managing Director of the IMF and the U.S. Presidency by satan himself (Luke 4:6), Jesus declined. (You can remove your “Jesus for President” bumper stickers now.) He knew just who it was who had “authority.” His own successful birth was outlawed (Matthew 1-2), and in his adult ministry, Jesus critiqued the state and empire itself, not merely those who occupied its offices.
Naturally, Jesus’ life and teaching caused listeners to wonder if paying taxes was really necessary (Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:19-26). Being a good Jew, he viewed taxation—especially enforced by the secular empire—as theft.
There is a long history behind this. Solomon’s kingdom split because of taxes (2 Chronicles 8-11). The Northern Kingdom of Israel was crushed in 722 BC because of refusing to pay taxes. And the tale of ancient history goes on.
Good Bible dictionaries like The New Interpreter’s explain this story in more detail. But, the point is this: paying tribute is a general sign of one’s allegiance, not a “political” issue separable from a “religious” issue. Whether we like it or not, Jesus was ultimately killed on charges of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor” (Luke 23:2). Christians must explain this before explaining Romans 13.
So to go out in the first-century streets and say, “taxation is theft, so don’t pay it,” would mean immediate death and violence.
Every time the issue came up, Jesus had to be a bit sly. He never acknowledged the money as being stolen property (i.e., “give unto Caesar what is yours“), as that would have (a) openly legitimized theft and (b) fanned yet more fire for the flames of violent revolution. But he had to fulfill many other conditions in this tight box: (a) don’t leave people thinking Caesar/the state is Lord, since they are not; (b) diminish the empire’s power; (b) say this without getting crushed; (c) don’t cause anyone else to get crushed. Good heavens, only God could pull this off!
And he did.
Jesus’ trivializing of earthly authorities and embodied ethical life (e.g., free of theft) led again to the question: “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” (Matthew 17:24-27) [Peter] said “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
This response is a lot different than the popular Christian mantra of “pay your taxes.” In fact, even given distinctions between types of taxes, Jesus’ attitude is not anything close to contemporary justifications of taxation. Paying taxes is more like entertaining your crazy uncle than obeying the throne of heaven. Even if it wasn’t, the very fact that paying/not-paying was an issue reminds us about its generally questionable status.
This explains Paul’s instruction to essentially “steady the course” in Romans 13. The authority of the authorities is really not theirs at all; whatever authority exists is God’s alone.
Paul’s larger concern was obviously keeping Christianity alive, and the Romans’ obedience to the new anti-Christian emperor (Nero, who was headquartered in Rome), was necessary to fulfill this mission. In another context, keeping Christianity alive may mean disobedience to the emperor—which is not a foreign idea in church history!
So Christians pay taxes for the same reason everyone else does: we’d be in prison if we didn’t. There’s no choice. If there was, I doubt anyone would choose “yes.” It is a prudential decision to obey, especially as it doesn’t escalate violence. We don’t want to, in Jesus’ words, “give offense.” The way of the Kingdom is not coercion or physical resistance. “For God is…a God of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). There are often more effective ways of changing the world and combating injustice than resisting legal theft.
In the meantime, we get by on this messy planet—even letting others steal from us by choosing to “pay our taxes.” It does no good to legitimize such theft, whether because of popular opinion or a Sadducee-like sycophancy towards the state. Honest and serious study of the biblical narrative leads one to affirm that taxation is theft, not that it isn’t.
Dr. Jamin Hübner (ThD Systematic Theology, University of South Africa) is Director of Institutional Effectiveness and founding Chair of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College, as well as General Editor of Christian Libertarian Review, the academic journal of the Libertarian Christian Institute.