Rights, Romans, Caesar, and Taxes

This is a response to my friend Manny Edwards’s brief argument, “Why God Has the Right to Tax, and Governments Don’t.”  I think he’s dead wrong on this topic, but he does have a lot of useful info on his sites (especially if you’re interested in crisis preparedness; on which topic there will be more in my next post), so check them out sometime.  [I’m semi-hesitant to make that recommendation, because half of you will think Manny’s stuff is the best thing since gun safes, and the other half will think he’s completely bats.  But that’s the price of having a diversity of friends, I guess…]



I like you, but I’m gonna take you to task on this one.  I’m going to 1. challenge your underlying premise, 2. provide biblical support for my position, and then 3. demonstrate why your argument is not self-consistent.

The Purpose of Government

Firstly: Government has the authority to tax because government was instituted by God, and endowed (delegated) with certain kinds of authority by Him.  In America, government has also been delegated and entrusted with certain powers by the people (certain powers, which are constitutionally very limited; all others being “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”).

Government exists to maintain order in society.  It does not exist, as you say elsewhere, to “preserve individual liberty.”  This is a modernist view, post-Adam-Smith, and probably descends from his error of viewing the mobile individual (as opposed to the family, clan, or perhaps even the township) as the fundamental economic unit of production.  The concept of “individual liberties” dates approximately to Locke and the Enlightenment, and has very little in the way of ancient or Biblical support.  The Founders (especially Jefferson) may have believed that, and it really is a useful concept at times; but thinking in terms of our duties, as “neighbors,” to other human beings made in the Image of God, is a much more Biblical and helpful matrix.  I can talk about the “rights” of the unborn or the oppressed, but by its nature, the idea of “rights” always starts with the individual—i.e., me—and assumes entitlement first, responsibility second.  Neither of which is a particularly Christian place to begin constructing morality.

So again: government exists to maintain order in society.  Now, there are other considerations in play, and many constraints on this truth: for instance, government does not get to define “order” however it pleases, and it does not get to enforce it by any means necessary (or convenient).  It is not right or just for government to collect as much in taxes as it wishes, in order to carry out projects that are outside its mandate and its delegated authority.  But it IS legitimate for government to collect taxes for the carrying out of its God-ordained responsibilities.  It’s even legitimate for these taxes to be on income.  (Aside: I do believe that, in this country, the income tax is probably unconstitutional, and so on that ground should be legally opposed.  Regardless, it’s far too high, and should be legally reduced.  But it is not unbiblical or immoral as such.)

Romans 13

Secondly, I must stress that, while libertarianism is advancing some very important freedoms, and reacting against some serious abuses of power, still, the libertarian view on the issue of government and taxation is not the Biblical one.  Romans 13 is very, very plain on this topic.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  That’s a pretty clear command.  Tough to get around that one, in my opinion.

“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  Government has real, legitimate, God-given authority.  But there’s more here: this is also an implicit limitation on how government can think about itself: it’s not absolute, it’s subordinate.  That’s important.

“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  This is based in exactly the same principle as the command to “honor thy father and mother.”  I am to obey my parents (when a child) and to honor them (always) not because they “created” me (they didn’t), nor because they “own” me (they don’t), nor because they have a “right” to the fruits of my labor, nor because they’re bigger and stronger than I am (Hobbes’s “Leviathan” argument), nor even because they’re older and (presumably) wiser.  I am to obey them because God gave them authority over me.  Limited authority, but real.

The libertarian principle of “individual rights above all else” paves the way for absurdities like kids “divorcing” their parents, sexual perversion as long as it’s “in private and between consenting adults,” and the legalized abuse of drugs on the grounds that “I’m only hurting myself”—which is false, by the way.  These kind of rebellions and abuses can and should be kept in check—by appropriate use of force, if necessary.  And because they are communal and social acts, not merely private acts—for even your most private sins make you a weaker and less upstanding neighbor—government has, and should have, the authority to regulate them.

Note: the right to regulate is not the same as the right to define.  Government may oversee and authorize marriage—because marriage is a social as well as a religious, spiritual, and familial institution—but it may not presume to define (or redefine) marriage.  God defined marriage when he ordained it.  Government’s role now is to protect the institution, and to punish those who damage it.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good, for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Paul was writing this under Nero, let’s remember.

“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Did the Roman government really promote full God-glorifying righteousness across the Empire?  Clearly not.  But did they maintain order and punish wickedness?  Well, yeah, to a large degree, they did.  (And as they moved further and further away from restraining wickedness, and more and more towards promoting it, the Empire slid further and further towards decline.)  The vicious tyranny of the Roman emperor is still preferable to the anti-authoritarian anarchy of the mobs of the French Revolution—if only because one tyrant can never do as much damage as a million individual tyrants.

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.”  God’s wrath, it says, not the government’s.

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”  —Meaning the rewarding of righteousness and the punishment of evil.

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Do I owe a bully my lunch money because he demands it?  Legally, no, I do not.  (As a Christian, it’s more tricky: “If someone takes your cloak….”)  If a government official, operating legally in his official capacity, demands taxes from me, do I owe them to him?  Yes, I do.  If he’s demanding a bribe, well, then he’s just a thug, and that’s a separate matter.

In Paul’s day the highest authority was the Emperor.  Eventually, the lords of England (the lords, mind you, not the people at large) eventually changed that pattern by means of the Magna Carta, saying “No, the highest authority in our land is not a king, but rather the Law itself.  The king is not above the law.”  This holds true in America and (ostensibly) most other modern nations.  (Which is why we call them “nations” and not “kingdoms.”)

That’s fine.  That’s a perfectly good arrangement.  But there are still “governing authorities,” just as in Paul’s day, and the people are still subject to them.

This is why we pay taxes.  You said:

The only way you could own what belongs to someone else is if you actually owned that person.  So the government’s underlying justification for forcing the payment of taxes is that it owns you.

But the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  There are at least two other reasons why someone could rightly demand your money:

  1. If he provided something to you, for which he was then owed payment.  Example: you check the “bill me later” box and send in the postcard.  The first issue of the magazine shows up.  Then the bill shows up a few weeks later.  Eventually, if you keep ignoring the letters, the bill collector shows up.  This is the basic situation.  We say “protect us”; government says “ok”; then they send us the bill.  That doesn’t imply that they “own” us.  We just owe them payment for a service rendered.  (So you say, “But I didn’t ask for THAT service!”  Maybe not, but you did ask for the government when you came of age and elected to remain in the country, instead of moving to Antarctica.  But maybe they have some kind of government even down there.)
  2. If a higher authority, who does in fact own you and your possessions, gave him the right to do so.

Delegated Subordinate Authority

Finally, Reason #2 up there, Manny, is why your argument defeats itself.  You say “If God owns you, he can justifiably demand your money. He can also dictate your behavior.”  Ok, granted.  But if God also says “I delegated some of my authority to this person or institution; now obey it, and moreover, fund it so it can do its job”… then where does that leave you?

Now, sure: governments can declare themselves to be the top authority in the universe, worthy of all our honor, service, and worship.  (Nero did this pretty explicitly, as I recall.)  This is government failing to see itself rightly.  This view should be opposed, and when government demands that we do something God has plainly forbidden, or has reserved to himself (“bow down and worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar,” as the obvious example), the proper response is “No.  Kill me if you like, but NO.”  Which is what Daniel’s three friends said.

But you’ll note they did not say “You have no authority over us at all,” nor “Ok, that’s it, you’ve just illegitimized yourself as our authority; we won’t obey you in anything any more,” nor “Enough of this! Let’s start a revolution!” nor “All government is illegitimate: it’s anarchy and individualism for us now.”

Your argument, I have to say, is pretty much the same as the one that Jesus mocked in the Pharisees.  They would say to their parents “Sorry, folks, I want to honor you an’ all, but I’ve just pledged everything I own to God—it’s all corban now—so I really can’t help ya out in your old age.  But aren’t you glad I love God so much?” (My paraphrase of Mark 7:11)  Jesus saw right through this spirituality-gilded selfishness.

Your argument, as near as I can see, thumbs its nose at government in essentially the same way (though I hope not for the same motive).  Yet if God says “honor your parents” and Jesus interprets that to include “provide for their material needs,” then when God also says “be in subjection to the governing authorities,” how can you arrive at “they have no right to tax us”?  It just doesn’t parse.  God has commanded us to obey our public servants and to pay them for their work.  We either do that, or we’re in rebellion.  I know there are gray areas around the edge of this; of course there are—and much more so when authority is being abused.  But the core principle is plain.

A final piece of evidence is Christ’s reply to the Pharisees’ disciples: “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.”  You can argue about what exactly that means, but two things at least are clear: 1. Christ assumes that some things do belong to Caesar; and 2. if he believed paying taxes to Caesar really was dishonoring to his Father, he could and would have said so: he tended not to keep quiet on that issue.

The truth is, Jesus didn’t show tons of respect or approval towards the authorities of his day, either political (Herod, Pilate) or religious (Pharisees, Sadducees).  And when their petty rules got in the way of God’s command, he stepped right over them, with no apology whatsoever.  And yet we cannot call him a rebel, an anarchist, a libertarian, or even a theocrat.  If your basic assertions were correct, Jesus would have fulfilled the Zealots’ ideals of freedom, overthrown the oppressive authority structures, and set up heaven on earth.  Instead he submitted, even unto death.

If we disregard God’s appointed subordinate authorities, we do not honor him, we rebel against him.  Am I going to let my son disobey and dishonor his mother just because I’m the “head authority” in the home?  That’s not enforcing my authority: it’s abdicating it.  A God who doesn’t back up the subordinates he’s appointed is not thereby more authoritative: he’s a slacker; he’s a bad leader.  God is my ultimate authority, yes: he clearly reserves that position for himself.  So you’re on target there.  But the fact that he’s my ultimate authority does not mean he’s my only authority.  He nowhere makes that claim; in fact quite the opposite.

Your Biblical exegesis, and your basic logic, simply don’t hold up to serious scrutiny.  You’re trying to use a single Biblical teaching to justify and support a secular, modernist, individualist, selfishness-based political hypothesis, and it just doesn’t work.  I suspect that I agree with you on ninety-plus percent of the governmental policies and programs you take issue with: there are plenty of abuses happening.  And so I’m very grateful for the work you’re doing to protect and promote liberty.  We need it.  But you can’t base your activism on this kind of reasoning.  It’s not valid, and it’s not Biblical.