Some people question whether the government has a right to collect taxes. Others wonder whether we should pay taxes if we don’t like the way the public treasury is being spent. Still others feel that giving money to a government that supports war, nuclear arms, deficit spending, abortion, religious pluralism, atheism, or a lack of good land and resource management is the same as directly supporting those practices.
The first-century Christian and Jewish communities from Rome to Jerusalem had similar problems. Taxation was a sensitive issue in Roman-occupied Judea. The matter involved not only the burden of taxation but also the question of whether it was right to use Jewish money to support a pagan Roman Caesar.
It is in this context that the religious leaders asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14).
What makes the question even more intriguing is that it came from representatives of two opposing groups who had come together to test Jesus. The Pharisees were champions of Jewish religious tradition and resented Roman rule with its paganism and confession of Caesar as lord. They also resented the idolatrous inscriptions on Roman coinage. One side ascribed divinity to the ruler; the flip side called the emperor “highest priest.”
So when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they had a mutual agenda against Christ. If He said that Jews should pay taxes to a Caesar who was the focus of the Imperial cult, they would accuse Him of supporting Roman values and blasphemy.
The Herodians brought another angle to the question. They focused on the political issues rather than the spiritual implications. They felt that the Jewish people should support the Roman-appointed, largely non-Jewish Herodian dynasty, which ruled over the Israelites at the pleasure of Rome. The Herodians, therefore, would accuse Jesus of treason if He said that Jews should not pay taxes.
The teacher from Nazareth, however, displayed wisdom that put both sides off balance. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” He said, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
Jesus showed how the people of God can live out their dual citizenship. Instead of choosing between God and Caesar, He acknowledged Caesar’s rightful role as governor under the higher rule of God.Caesar therefore was owed taxes. But God alone deserved worship and ultimate loyalty.
Should we pay taxes even if the government uses the money for unjust or immoral causes? In his book God & Caesar, law professor John Eidsmore stated:
The Roman government of Paul’s day deified Nero, ran a welfare state, and sponsored many pagan practices. Rome certainly did not use its tax money as Christians would desire. The tax collectors of Jesus’ time, who usually were paid no salary but rather became rich by overcharging and cheating people, certainly did not employ fair methods of taxation. Yet Jesus and Paul both spoke very clearly on the subject: the Christian ought to pay his taxes (p.37).
The apostle Paul left little doubt about our responsibility to pay taxes. He wrote: “Because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:6–7).
Some dissidents put forth arguments for withholding taxes that sound patriotic or even spiritual. But there are far stronger reasons for followers of Christ to pay what the government requires. The Bible cannot be rightly used to support a tax revolt any more than it can be used to promote anarchy or disrespect for political leaders who do not support our beliefs or values.
Can we make our country a God-centered nation? No matter how many Christians may live in a country, it is not the present-day equivalent of ancient Israel. Nor has the church been entrusted with providing law and order for society. Our calling is to be a unified body that provides salt and light in every nation (Matthew 5:13–16). Our mission is to influence society rather than control it.
When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He acknowledged that He is a king (v.37). But He also taught that until He comes back again, His kingdom will not be a visible institution. Rather, it is the invisible rule of God in the hearts of those who willingly submit to Him (Luke 17:20–21). Upon His return, He will establish a visible kingdom (Matthew 24:30–35; 25:31–46; 26:29–64), but for now, He calls people of all nations to give Him the throne and rule of their hearts (28:18–20).
We are not called to make the law of God the law of the land by forging moral voting blocs or political coalitions. Rather, we are to influence our society by our radical love, authentic example, and advocacy for those who need help.
The spirituality that Christ calls us to cannot be compelled at the point of a sword or by the weight of combined votes. The social morality of Christ can only grow voluntarily one heart at a time, as each individual gratefully learns that we owe Him our hearts. This is best accomplished as we demonstrate the characteristics of salt and light in our day-to-day behavior.
Both the Old and New Testaments give us examples of how the people of God influenced the pagan governments of their day.
• Joseph rose to a position of great power in Egypt (Genesis 39–50). Without changing the religious policy or idolatry of the land, God used him to save many lives during a severe famine (50:20).
• Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, exiles from Judea, rose to prominence in the Babylonian empire. Yet they refused to bow and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image (Daniel 3).
• Daniel, an exiled Jew, gained respect as a wise administrator and a man of unshakable character during the reigns of several kings. He was not afraid to speak out on God’s behalf (4:27).
• Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia (464–424 bc), gained the king’s help to rebuild Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1–6).
• The apostle Paul appealed to Roman law for protection when he was unjustly whipped and imprisoned without a trial, though he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22–30).
In each of these examples, we see people who were clearly involved with their earthly governments, some in very significant ways. But in each case their earthly allegiances were secondary to their heavenly allegiance.
Should followers of Christ support their own country at the expense of other nations? As we have seen, the Bible teaches that we have dual citizenship. We serve our earthly leaders with honor and respect even as we give our allegiance to the King of kings.
By giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, we affirm the rightful authority and rule of both earthly governments and Christ’s kingdom at the same time. No one could legitimately accuse Joseph of being an idolater, because he was loyal to the Pharaoh and the Egyptian government (Genesis 39–50). Daniel faithfully served in the administrations of the powerful Babylonian and Persian empires, yet he carefully abstained from any false worship.
But, some ask, what about the issues of war? Should a follower of Christ be a pacifist or a conscientious objector to war? A few basic principles form our starting point for determining what it means to follow Christ in times of armed conflict.
Followers of Christ have generally held one of two positions when it comes to participation in governmental armed conflict: just-war theory and pacifism.
Just-war theory focuses on the moral aspects that determine when it is justified for a follower of Christ to participate in armed hostilities when their lawful civil authority compels them to do so. Historically, just-war theory demanded that certain conditions be met in order for a war effort to be considered the proper course of action.
1. Just cause. Is this particular conflict for a righteous cause?
2. Right intention. What does the government wish to achieve through its actions?
3. Proper authority and public declaration. Does the government have the authority to declare war in this situation, and has it made its course of action and reasons known to the public?
4. Last resort. Are there any other options available that will preserve and uphold human life?
5. Probability of success. A lost cause would be a needless waste of human life and valuable resources.
6. Proportionality. Does an armed response make sense in view of what is being defended or protected with violence?
Pacifism focuses on Jesus’ teachings on peace as applied to the lives of individual believers. It asserts that, in light of Jesus’ teachings, believers should always abstain from involvement in violent activity as a means of peacemaking or peacekeeping (Matthew 5:9,38–42; see also Luke 6:27–36; John 13:34).
Both sides agree that war is never an ideal situation. In a perfect world, there would never be a cause worthy of war. But we live in a fallen world. War is an inevitable symptom and consequence of human greed and self-centeredness. And we must not assume that the absence of violence equals the presence of peace.
The Bible indicates that there are times for nations to take military steps as part of their responsibility to “bear the sword.” This should be done to resist aggression and protect its people (Romans 13:4). But the ideal of Scripture is to work hard for peace between both individuals and governments (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:17–21).
With logical arguments on both sides, how can we know what to do? We must also recognize that just-war theory and pacifism are fundamentally different philosophies. Just-war theory is a philosophy for peacemaking and peacekeeping in a fallen world where war, unrest, and oppression are the norm. Pacifism is a way of life that chooses to identify with and provide protection for the suffering in a nonviolent way. Ultimately, believers must be careful not to war with each other over their honest disagreements.
Are human governments the tools of spiritual warfare? The Bible describes Satan as “the god of this world.” It was in Jesus’ presence that Satan claimed to have control of the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8–9). The devil told Him he would give Christ the kingdoms of this world in exchange for His worship (v.9). Significantly, the Lord did not contradict him.
Whether the devil was claiming to have control of human governments or that he would give all of them to Jesus without an additional fight is not clear. But what is plain is that governments, like individuals, can promote or resist the purposes of God. In that light, each of us must decide what belongs to God and what we owe to Caesar.