Christians should pay taxes in gratitude | WORLD
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Christians should pay taxes in gratitude

Rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar requires reflection for believers

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Christians should pay taxes in gratitude

Today is affectionately referred to as “Tax Day,” the filing deadline for Americans to pay what they owe in federal taxes. You know the joke, as Mark Twain would quote it, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

It is a common sentiment that no one likes paying taxes. “Taxation is theft” is a phrase I’ve heard more times than I can repeat. The idea that one’s hard-earned money would be forcibly taken from them and distributed to a nameless, faceless, and wasteful bureaucracy is no small source of anger, cynicism, and distrust.

I know the feeling. It is one I’ve harbored for most of my life. I used to have immense resentment toward paying taxes because I know how to use my money better than the government does. And that’s true. And hear me: I’m not wanting to pay more than what I owe, but my attitude toward taxes is an arena where I have seen the Lord change my heart in how I think. Taxes are one tangible way we are called to live together under the broadest construction of the common good, believing that we are all in this project that we call “America” together. If you’re anything like me, you might need Biblical reminders on paying taxes.

Jesus insists that government has legitimate authority and jurisdiction to require persons to pay taxes (Matthew 22:21). In the most famous New Testament passage on the ordination of government, the Apostle Paul lists paying taxes as among the responsibilities of Christians: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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” (Romans 13:6–7). Jesus paid taxes (Matthew 17:24–27). The government, in turn, is responsible for taxing fairly and justly (Luke 3:12–13) and not cheating its citizens (Luke 19:1–10).

Apart from the government levying taxes to pay for services essential to its operation, no centralizing authority would be available to adjudicate the necessary disputes that arise when sinners dwell in the same land together. The government’s ability to oversee the conditions for the political common good is jeopardized by insufficient taxation. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

The abuse of a necessary system doesn’t justify its negation.

Taxes are thus necessary to provide services essential for social cooperation and coordinating scarce resources. Consider just a few examples: Think of the police officers in Nashville and Louisville in light of their response to mass shooters. Our communities would be unsafe without our taxes supporting their livelihood and work. America’s military power funded through taxation deters hostile powers from coming ashore. If our homes are ablaze, we don’t consider whether we’re up to date on a private firefighter subscription service. No, we call 911 and an amazing crew shows up to serve selflessly.

When we step outside our homes, the only thing that keeps unchecked evil at bay is an essential trust that our interactions are backed up by the bond of a government authority. Economic mobility and day-to-day life would be severely hampered without roads to drive on comfortably. Libraries exist under the democratic ideal that the availability of knowledge is necessary for self-government.

Taxes are the cost of citizenship.

Now, some important caveats must be made. None of this suggests that the current tax system doesn’t need serious reform. It does. It is painfully cumbersome and too difficult for the typical citizen to complete in all its byzantine complexity. I pay an accountant to do my taxes, and even then, questions surface that tax professionals are not entirely clear on how to answer. I submit my taxes in fear and trepidation that there could still be an error despite my best intention to pay what I owe out of patriotic duty to my nation and reverence for God. It’s a problem when the government’s taxing system is so complex that law-abiding citizens are concerned that they are unintentionally breaking the law.

Additionally, none of this is written to suggest that the government’s method of taxation is unquestionable or without waste. It is. I think consumption taxes should replace income taxes. I believe in the public funding of education but not the government’s delivery of education. There are federal departments that I think we could eliminate and do just fine without. Wastefulness and pork projects done in quid pro quo self-dealing are sources of frustration that alienate citizens from their authorities. But the abuse of a necessary system doesn’t justify its negation.

As I tell my students, Christians can debate the technicalities of taxation—such as rates, what should trigger taxation, and the methods for collecting them. What we cannot debate are taxes themselves. As we pay our taxes, we should do so unbegrudgingly even as we expect smart and efficient delivery of those goods and services that we fund.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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