Should Christians pay tax? Short answer: Yes, even though it isn’t God’s ideal for us.
When Jesus said, Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21), he was not promoting two kingdoms. Jesus did not believe the physical world should be run by humans, with the spiritual world run by God. God’s Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).
So, if we’re giving him our allegiance, should we be paying tribute to other rulers also?
That’s the question Jesus put to Peter in Matthew 17:25-27. Earthly kings and their families don’t pay tribute; they receive it. The king of kings is under no obligation to pay tribute in recognition of anyone, and neither are his family members (in this context, Peter). Jesus said they’re exempt, but told Peter to pay anyway. Why?
Matthew 17:26–27 (NIV)
26 “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
The point of the miracle is that all creation (the physical world) is under Jesus’ kingship. Jesus followers rely on the one who truly rules the world for the provision we need to pay taxes to those who claim to run the world. We do that because refusing to pay would become a barrier to the message of the kingdom of God, a distraction from (rather than a promotion of) the good news of his kingship.
That’s the reason Jesus gave us for paying taxes. Of course, if the world was functioning as the kingdom of God with each person loving their neighbour, we’d have a grass-roots kingdom overflowing with appropriate community care for everyone. We wouldn’t need the impersonal dependencies and expensive bureaucracies inherent in human government (1 Samuel 8:10-17).
Jesus was making that very point when he described himself as the gentle and humble leader whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light (Matthew 11:30). He is unlike the original son of David who ended up splitting the kingdom because his yoke was so heavy and his burden so great (1 Kings 12:4).
Beyond Jesus’ teachings, the tax question is almost absent from the New Testament. There’s just one text calling us to pay our taxes, because the existing authorities are God’s servants (Romans 13:6-7). They are, but it was never God’s original ideal to have humans serving each other (Genesis 1). It was in response to the violence that corrupted God’s world (Genesis 6) that God authorized human government in order to limit violence, with his commitment that he would never give up reigning over us (Genesis 9). He knew that putting power in human hands would be a double-edged sword. It’s necessary in a world where people are not honouring their heavenly sovereign, but human leaders introduce further injustices: enslaving brothers (Genesis 9), constructing kingdoms through war (Genesis 10), grasping for absolute power (Genesis 11).
So, yes, God has authorized the nations, so their rulers are (in that sense) his agents, called to limit violence in a world that is not living in submission to his sovereignty (not living as God’s kingdom).
In some cases, we can see our taxes being spent on caring for people: welfare for people who’ve fallen on hard times, medical care for those who’ve fallen sick, education to empower children and adults, police and courts to hold people accountable and limit violence in the community. These are imperfect systems, and they’re constantly abused, but they’re better than nothing.
At times we see our tax dollars spent in ways that compromise our beliefs. I shudder to think how much Australia has spent on “defence” in my lifetime. Regardless of where you stand on the question of war, the reality is that most of this has been spent not on defending our country but on aggression in other countries — from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite these failures, God’s people are to pay taxes, regardless of how it is spent, regardless of what level of taxation we think would be fair or appropriate. We pay our taxes even if we’re living under an autocratic Stalin, a war-mongering Hitler, or a kingdom-of-God violating Nebuchadnezzar.
But our hope is not in human governments. We pay our taxes and respect to our leaders, so as not to cause offence and distract from our message. The good news we announce is the God-appointed leader who can and will save the world, the leader who shouldered the burden with us, whose yoke is not taxing on his weary people.
Our lives are devoted to modelling citizenship under his reign. We love our king by loving the people of his reign.
Loving God is not about singing worship songs. The gospel is not, “For God so loved the world that he sang us some lovely songs.”
Loving God means responding to the God whose love is active:
1 John 3:16–18 (NIV)
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
That’s the kingdom of God in action. That’s how God always intended life on earth to be. Human authorities enforcing justice — that’s merely a stopgap measure until the world comes under Jesus’ kingship.
So, right now, pay your taxes to the best of your ability. But spend your life on what really matters: the good news of the king who liberates the world from every bondage. Seeking his kingship and his justice is incompatible with accumulating wealth, for we cannot live for two masters (Matthew 6:19–33).
That’s what we are in the present: the visible embodiment of life in the governance of God’s anointed.