Exile and Political Engagement: Submission and Taxes

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and Outline, Post 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political Engagement)

Part 2: Kinds of political engagement

We must now turn to practical matters. Having established some guiding principles, what types of political engagement should Christians participate in and how should they go about participating?

Obedience to the law

“Obedience to the law” may not necessarily be a form of political engagement but it does form the basis for many other types of engagement/non-engagement. For Christians, obedience to the law should be the norm, even in response to a government that is hostile towards Christianity. Romans 13 states “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities… whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (v1-2). Likewise, 1 Peter 2 says “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (v13-14).

Mere begrudging obedience is not enough. We are also called to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16) and give them the honor and respect which is due to the civil authorities (Romans 13:7). Christians are also called to pray for “kings and those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:2).

Even though Christians have another citizenship and have a higher allegiance, under most conditions, we honor God by honoring the authorities he has placed in our lives and we honor those authorities by obeying the law of the land.

Paying taxes

One of those laws which we are specifically called to obey is the law of taxation. Romans 13:7 states “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes. If revenue, then revenue.” Jesus Himself was challenged on the question of taxes. In an effort to trap Jesus the Pharisees asked the question: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (Mark 12:14) Pointing out whose face was on the coin Jesus responded “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17).

So we have two clear instances of specific instructions to pay taxes to the civil government in accordance with the laws of the land. But there is something behind the root of the objection to pay taxes that goes beyond self-interest. In paying taxes you are offering material support to a government that, in all likelihood, is doing something rather immoral with that money. The Romans were an oppressive government towards the Jews, and later towards the Christians. Much of that tax money went to pay the salary of soldiers who oppressed the very people paying taxes. Today, many might object to things the American government funds (personally, I object the government funding Planned Parenthood). Others may object to funding government wars or foreign intervention. Yet, even towards the oppressive Roman government Paul and Jesus instruct the people of God to pay the taxes that are due.

This highlights an important moral distinction. Even though tax money might be used in an unjust way, the Christian does not bear the guilt of how that money is used. Instead, the action of paying taxes is commended because it is a way of submitting to the authority which God has instituted.

I spoke with someone once who argued that there was no difference between a robber stealing from your house in the middle of the night and a politician collecting taxes. Both were taking what they did not earn and doing so under threat of coercive force. I can sympathize with the argument but the difference is that one is an authority established by God, and the other is not.

Tomorrow’s post: Serving in the Government