Monday, March 28, 2011

The Bible on taxes and government; the New Testament.

In a comment on this post, my dear brother Joe suggested I take a look at what the Scripture really says about taxation and government.  It's a good suggestion, so let's have at it.

First of all, you've got the fact that at least one tax collector promised to repay the money he'd stolen when he came to Christ.  This is unremarkable until one considers that the major part of the compensation of tax collectors was whatever they could gouge out of the taxpayers; in other words, if tax collectors in Rome were to be honest, there would be a lot less demand for that job--and most likely far fewer taxes collected due to a different kind of person collecting them.

Along the same lines, John the Baptist told Roman soldiers to be content with their pay.  Just as tax collectors got rich by theft, so did soldiers become wealthy by pillage--the "salarius" they were ordinarily paid was a ration of bread and salt, so being content with their pay more or less meant they would no longer be about the business of pillage.  Obviously, this also would have huge implications for Roman government, which lived on the fruits of pillage.  When expansion stopped as the Visigoths and Huns were able to stop Roman legions, the flow of money, food and goods upon which Roman society relied stopped as well.

Hence, we can infer from the historical context that as people followed our Lord, critical parts of Roman society would have quickly collapsed.  Now this is, to be sure, descriptive--the only prescriptive passages for government in the New Testament I'm aware of are Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, along with Christ's command to pay Caesar his due (there's that tax collection question again). 

It's worth noting, of course, that the primary justification Paul and Peter give for obeying government is that the government is responsible for punishing the wicked and commending the just.  Understanding the limitations of arguing from what a text doesn't say, it's worth noting that the Scriptures neither commend nor condemn the Roman welfare state.  That said, it's also worth noting that the welfare state of Rome more or less ended with the city limits of the capital, and that Paul told the Thesssalonians that if a man would not work, neither should he eat.

From the New Testament, then, we can conclude that public safety is a Biblical purpose of government, and also that the practice of empire--especially paying soldiers by plunder--does not appear to be consistent with the Gospel.  We might also infer that any welfare for able-bodied people is contrary to what Paul told the church.


MainiacJoe said...

Thanks, I appreciate your taking to time to look into this.

The passages that I had in mind when I suggested that Jesus' attitude towards taxation was apathy and changing the subject were the "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" and the temple tax found in the fish's mouth. Please comment on these passages, also.

Bike Bubba said...

Joe, the trick on those passages is that they simply leave the question open; both affirm the legitimacy of at least certain portions of government, just like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, but leave open the question of what the legitimate role of government is.

So I'd answer that there our Lord is not necessarily ambivalent, but He simply isn't asked the question, hence He doesn't answer it.

MainiacJoe said...

I think "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not" is a pretty direct question. And that is the one that as you agree Jesus doesn't answer--the one about whether the current secular government in Israel is legitimate or not in God's eyes.

In any case, in our context, it is a long stretch to apply how the Bible supports secular government in general to particular issues in our current government. I'm not saying I disagree with your assessment of what should be trimmed from the budget, since my complaint earlier had been with style not substance. I'm just saying that this post doesn't do much of anything to support your position about the budget IMO.

Bike Bubba said...

Not as much of a stretch as you would think; if indeed Rome was supported by pillage and immoral tax collectors, and one of the things they did to keep the populace in Rome from revolting was bread and circuses, Jesus' and John's instructions to tax collectors and soldiers would have administered the coup de grace to their welfare state.

That said, it's important to remember here to keep the entire counsel of Scripture in context--what it says and what it doesn't. I'll be trying to wrap that up in its basics today.