Did Jesus Want You to Pay Taxes? Scripture and Scholarship Say “No.”

Christians must criticize taxation.

by Ian Huyett

 

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Did Christ command his followers to pay taxes? If you’re a Christian who supports smaller government, you’ve likely been reminded that Christ instructed us “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

This command is often quoted by secular progressives who wish to accuse conservative Christians of hypocrisy – as well as by some misguided Christians who wish to defend the scope of government from fellow believers. In both cases, Christ’s words are being abused.

While the expression “render unto Caesar” is commonly known, its context is rarely discussed. Christ was responding to a question from hostile Pharisees: “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”

Luke tells us precisely what the Pharisees hoped to achieve by asking this question. In Luke 20:20, he writes that the Pharisees “watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.”

coinBy trying to corner Christ with this question, the Pharisees did not simply wish to make him look bad: they specifically wanted to solicit an answer that would lead to Christ’s imprisonment by the government. In attempting do so, they asked him for his opinion on taxes. We can deduce, then, that they wished for him to explicitly condemn the paying of taxes. In fact, when Christ was eventually arrested, the charges against him included “forbidding the paying of tribute to Rome.”

If Christ really wanted his followers to pay taxes, he could have responded with an answer akin to “Yes, pay your taxes.” Instead his reply was – in the words of Matthew 10:16wise like a serpent.

Luke continues: Christ “perceived their craftiness, and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius [a coin]. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.”

Notice how Luke tells us that “he perceived their craftiness” as if this were relevant to the answer that Christ was about to give. If Christ wished to advocate the paying of taxes anyway, then the Pharisees’ question would not have been crafty at all – and there would have been no need for a crafty reply.

renderChrist establishes that Caesar’s image and name is on the denarius, and then tells us to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Yet nowhere does he clearly establish that even this denarius is actually Caesar’s. There is a reason for this. Perhaps the strongest reason, in fact, to think that Christ was an opponent of taxes is his addition of the words “and to God the things that are God’s.”

Taken purely linguistically, Christ’s answer seems to suggest that one category of things belongs to Caesar and that a separate category of things belongs to God. Yet Christians know that such a dichotomy does not exist: everything belongs to God. Romans 11:36, for example, reads: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”

We must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet there is nothing that is Caesar’s that is not also God’s.

Religious studies scholar Reza Aslan gives us a different reason to think that Christ was a critic of government. “The word apodidomi, often translated as ‘render unto,’” says Aslan, “is actually a compound word: apo is a preposition that in this case means ‘back again’, didomi is a verb meaning ‘to give.”

“In other words, according to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be ‘given back’ the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it… by extension, God is entitled to be ‘given back’ the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land.”

Christ’s wise reply is especially relevant today: our own government has seized the role of God, and the functions of the church and family, for itself. If we are to return to God the things that are His, then Christians must seize them back.

[about_ian]


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51 comments

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51 Comments

  • Layla Godey
    April 25, 2014, 9:12 am

    Very interesting. I never thought he was explicitly saying to pay taxes or not to pay taxes, but I’ve never seen it laid out this way. (And I cringe when someone says “What would Jesus do?”—How the he!! should *I* know what Jesus would do in any given situation?? Ask Jesus, not me-I’m just doing the best I can.)

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  • Hayekguy
    April 25, 2014, 12:22 pm

    A very good point. The bible supports individual liberty and limited government.

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  • Alex858
    April 25, 2014, 1:22 pm

    At the very most Christ supports a flat tax. 10% tithing

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  • Kevin Craig
    April 25, 2014, 1:47 pm

    It is a sin to “tax” people. It is not a sin to be taxed. It is a sin to invade a nation and put them under tribute and compel the people to carry a soldier’s provisions for one mile. The Bible says pay the tribute (Romans 13:6-7) and go a second mile (Matthew 5:41). Our goal is to witness to jackbooted thugs and IRS agents and pray they will repent of their sins.

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  • Kerry M Adams
    April 25, 2014, 2:33 pm

    It really depends on your view of kingdom theology. There is two kingdom theology, which teaches that God rules the left-handed kingdom through the secular and the right handed kingdom through the heavenly. Their is the other side, theonomy – which teaches that there is one kingdom and that it must be ruled by the church via Old Testment law. In 2K theology, taxes and government belong to the Secular (Caesar in this case). We are to obey government so long as they do not command what God forbids, nor forbids what God commands. So we are to pay what is necessary to their existence (and are not responsible for the misappropriations of those funds). Jesus was not anti-government. He was cautious of the state, and we are warned not to trust the state, but Jesus had connections to the Zealots (which theonomists who sought to overthrow the Roman Empire). If Jesus was anti-government (and our purpose as Christians were to be against the government) then He had more than enough opportunity to show it, yet at every point He had his Disciples (the ones who were Zealots), stand down. Jesus paid His taxes – and this to Emperor Nero – by far the worst, most oppressing ruler in human history. There is a fine line for Christians to walk here, and it’s not as cut and dry as some want to make it. Oscar Cullman writes a very interesting book that highlights the tenuous nature of government in the New Testament and how Christians are to treat government, called The State in the New Testament.

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