Taxation is rarely discussed in local churches.
It seems that analyzing taxation from a faith perspective has become taboo.
Researching taxation and faith for this article and reviewing what EthicsDaily.com found when filming its faith-and-taxation documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” it seems that ministers have been hesitant to speak on this matter.
Many have likely been criticized for doing so and possibly been accused of political pandering when they attempted to approach taxation from a biblical perspective.
In other words, it seems that the general consensus is that this topic should not be discussed in church.
This trepidation is not far off the mark though, as the topic of taxation and faith is seemingly rare in the writings of Christian theologians and ethicists.
While anecdotal, I pulled a few books from my shelves written by Christian authors who focused on ethics, justice and the social order to look for index references for “taxes” or “taxation.”
In no particular order, there was no mention in James Wm. McClendon Jr.’s “Systematic Theology: Ethics” (1986), Emil Brunner’s “Justice and the Social Order” (1945) or Richard B. Hays’ “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” (1996).
There was a single taxation index reference in a book of essays from 19 authors on Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which simply noted that Niebuhr once advocated for the U.S. government to increase taxes.
In Marcus Borg’s “Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus,” several pages were devoted to an overview of the Jewish and Roman tax systems, but Borg stuck to historical review without commentary on present-day taxation.
Of course, this does not mean that McClendon, Brunner and Hays didn’t address the topic anywhere in their writings, but it reveals that the references weren’t significant enough to merit inclusion in the index.
It is possible that they addressed economic matters without direct reference to taxation, though this would be strange because taxes are the means by which governments operate and provide public services.
I found a notable exception to this trend in the writings of Baptist leader Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918).
“To secure special concessions and privileges and to evade public burdens have always been the objects for which dominant classes used their political power. … It can safely be asserted that throughout history the strongest have been taxed least, and the weakest most,” he wrote in “Christianity and the Social Crisis” (1907). “The same condition prevails in our country. … The interests which thus evade taxation have usually been enriched by public gifts, by franchises, mining rights, water rights, the unearned increment of land, etc., and yet they allow the public burdens to settle on the backs of those classes who are already fearfully handicapped.”
While emphasizing the importance of using taxes wisely and for the common good (not for personal or class gain), in “Christianizing the Social Order” (1912), Rauschenbusch asserted that “taxes are a beneficent social institution; they buy more for us than any other money we spend.”
Rauschenbusch notwithstanding, it is intriguing that Christian leaders, historical and contemporary, have rarely addressed directly the topic of taxation.
After all, while direct biblical references to taxation might be minimal, the Bible speaks often about money and its use, about just and proper governance, about how the rich and powerful should protect (and not exploit) the poor and powerless.
Surely, in light of these focal points and emphases, a just economic system (of which a just tax system must be a central aspect) should become a more regular part of the church’s conversation and public witness.
David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, and Michael Cheuk, a leadership coach, church consultant and EthicsDaily.com board member with a doctorate in ethics, shared their thoughts with me about the Bible and taxation.
Both referenced Roman 13:1-17 in their responses.
This is “a difficult and controversial text” about paying Roman taxes “as an expression of voluntary subjection to the governing authorities,” Gushee observed.
The passage isn’t “really talking about applying to a just tax system,” Cheuk noted. “Romans 13:6 advocates Christians paying taxes to an oppressive, unjust Roman government. Although one can definitely argue, along the lines of Romans 13:4, that the role of government (and the levying of taxes) is to promote the common good.”
“The text is easily misread as claiming that any government leader who exists has been placed there by God, and that no form of resistance to government authority or action is ever legitimate,” Gushee explained. “This is wrong, but the text does call us to pay our taxes, even to a pagan state, and most Christians do.”
“Paying taxes to Rome was offensive to Jewish nationalists who believed Rome had no legitimate authority in Israel,” he observed in commenting on Matthew 22:15-22. “According to Josephus, it was the Roman poll tax that finally triggered the revolt against Rome in 66 AD.”
“What Jesus intends to say here has been long debated,” Gushee continued. “Most Christians have interpreted the text as requiring that we must pay taxes, even to alien, pagan nation-states. But it is possible to hear Jesus as saying, covertly, that God is actually the one to whom all things are rendered, and to Caesar actually belongs no allegiance at all.”
“I read Jesus as saying that anything we owe to Caesar (the state) is always relative to what we owe to God. That may require resistance to Caesar at any point, including on taxes,” he added.
Cheuk suggested Luke 4:18 “as a starting point to think theologically about how it might be applicable toward a just tax system.”
This passage could be used to raise questions such as, “What tax policies might be seen as good news to the poor?” and “What kind of tax system might promote the common good and begin to free the oppressed?”
He also referenced “Old Testament prophets like Isaiah 3:13-15, Amos 2:6-8; 5:10-13 or Micah 3:1-4 that rail against the corruption and oppression in taxation (using poetic imagery)” as a means to engage this topic.
Additional EthicsDaily.com resources related to taxation can be found here.
Death and taxes are two inescapable realities, according to the well-known adage. Christian leaders often talk about grief, death and the hope of life beyond the grave but tend to say very little about a just tax system that promotes the common good.
Government budgets are moral documents, which means that the tax systems funding these budgets are also moral matters.
We need to shift from complaining about taxes and seeing them as a necessary evil. Rather, we need to recognize that pursuing a just tax system is one avenue by which we pursue the common good and advocate with and for “the least of these.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on taxation. The previous articles in the series are:
Faithfully Paying Taxes to Support the Common Good by Lori Walke
Paying Taxes is Our Duty, Not Our Reason to Rant by Bob Browning
Graduated Income Tax Creates Fair System for Everyone by Ralph Martire