Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the U.S. Supreme Court once said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” It is also what we pay for the privilege of being disciples of Jesus Christ.
From its beginning, the Christian faith has commanded us to pay all taxes levied by secular governments and not evade them by underreporting income or fabricating fictitious deductions.
Justin, who was martyred for the faith at government hands around AD 165, wrote a plea for tolerance to the Roman emperor.
Writing about Christians, he said, “Everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him.”
Justin then summarized Matthew 22:17-21 and continued, “To God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men.”
In AD 180, a group of Christian martyrs told a persecuting official that they render lawful honor to Caesar as Caesar and always pay sales taxes out of a religious duty.
Origen, the most influential preacher and Bible scholar of his own day and for centuries to come, also wrote about taxation.
In his “Sermons on Luke” published around AD 233, he told his audience “to pay what is due to other people: tribute to whom tribute is due, taxes to whom taxes, and honor to whom honor.”
He indicated also that no Christian of his day disagreed that Christians must pay taxes to governments.
A year or two later, in a treatise titled “On Prayer,” Origen discussed “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s Prayer.
He repeated Romans 13:7-8 and added that Christians have a responsibility to render taxes to those to whom they are due, just as we are also to render “gentle speech” and other kinds of Christian deeds and dispositions.
This action is in the same category as duties to parents as parents, sons as sons, siblings as siblings, clergy as clergy, church elders as church elders, deacons as deacons, and laypeople as laypeople, he commented in “Sermons on Jeremiah.”
When Peter in Matthew 17:24 asked Jesus about paying the temple poll tax, there followed a discussion to the effect that rulers demand taxes from people in general but never from their own sons, in other words, “the sons are free.”
However, in verse 27, Jesus instructed Peter to pay the tax anyway, in order “not to give offence to” the collectors of the religious tax.
Many early Christians saw taxes as a personal debt, rather than one’s own property that a Christian can give away or withhold at will.
For example, Origen considered taxes as constituting an account payable that Christians have no choice but to discharge.
If we do not follow this commandment of the divine law to pay the tax in full, he said in “On Prayer,” we despise the word of God and remain in debt.
Origen’s “Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,” written between AD 239 and 245, considered it part of Christians “living a quiet and tranquil life” and practicing justice and piety.
Written at a time when the church was intermittently persecuted by the state, Origen’s commentary refuted the argument that Christians are not obliged to pay taxes.
In an exegesis of Romans 13:5-6, he wrote that refusal to pay would “deservedly” bring the government’s forces against Christians.
Failing to pay taxes and revenues would constitute rebellion against the state, depriving it of finances essential for its administration.
Government officials would then be “justified persecutors” of Christians who would be plainly guilty of repeatedly breaking a law which applied to all Roman subjects and which had nothing to do with religion.
Instead of persecuting them for their beliefs, the government would attack Christians for pure rebelliousness.
In those days, taxes were collected for despots who either inherited the government or imposed it by force of arms, with the people having no say in the matter.
These tyrants often spent tax money to oppress their subjects or glorify themselves, again with taxpayers having no say in the matter.
By contrast, in the U.S. it is the people, mostly taxpayers, who have the right to elect representatives who levy and spend taxes and to vote them out of office if they think taxes too high or misspent.
Because tax money is used how the people’s choices decide, the obligation to pay is logically and morally more binding now than in early Christian times.
David W. T. Brattston is a retired jurist living in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. This is a shortened version of an article that has been published previously in Australia and later in New Zealand.