What Is the Bible’s View?
What Do Christians Owe the Government?
ANSWERING a catch question about the payment of tax, Jesus Christ stated the principle: ‘Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.’ (Matt. 22:21) The Christian, therefore, has a certain obligation toward the ruling authority. However, Jesus Christ’s bringing “God’s things” into the picture indicates that discernment is required to determine just what Christians owe the government and why.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote the following about a Christian’s obligations toward the ruling authorities: “Render to all their dues, to him who calls for the tax, the tax; to him who calls for the tribute, the tribute; to him who calls for fear, such fear; to him who calls for honor, such honor.”—Rom. 13:7.
Since the ruling authorities render vital services to ensure the safety, security and welfare of their subjects, they are entitled to compensation. Christians are to regard payment of taxes and tribute as the payment of a debt. Just how the ruling authorities will thereafter use the monies received is not the responsibility of the Christian. Misuse of tax or tribute receipts on the part of rulers does not entitle the Christian to refuse paying his debt. Under the present arrangement of things, the Christian cannot get along without governmental services and, hence, should, in good conscience, pay what is required. When it comes to paying off a debt to an individual, that person’s misuse of monies would not cancel one’s debt. Similarly, regardless of what the ruling authority may do, the Christian is not relieved of his responsibility to pay taxes and tribute.
There is also good reason to show a wholesome fear for the governmental authority. The apostle Paul stated: “Those ruling are an object of fear, not to the good deed, but to the bad. Do you, then, want to have no fear of the authority? . . . it is not without purpose that it bears the sword; for it is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.” (Rom. 13:3, 4) So a Christian should conduct himself in a way that would not get him into trouble with the law. He needs to be careful not to ignore the authority over life and death that rests with the governmental authority.
The giving of honor or respect to rulers and lesser officials is also right and proper. Yet someone may ask, How can a person honor or respect someone who may be morally corrupt? The point at issue is not the moral standing of the ruler or official, what he is as a person. It is, rather, the position that he occupies. The honor or respect shown should be commensurate with the office held by the individual.
The manner in which the apostle Paul dealt with Roman officials well illustrates that what rulers are as persons has no bearing on the type of honor shown. Roman procurator Felix was described by the ancient historian Tacitus as one who “thought that he could do any evil act with impunity,” and who, “indulging in every kind of barbarity and lust, exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave.” Nevertheless, out of regard for the position Felix occupied, Paul respectfully opened his defense with the words: “Knowing well that this nation has had you as judge for many years, I readily speak in my defense the things about myself.” (Acts 24:10) Similarly, the apostle Paul treated incestuous King Herod Agrippa II with respect, saying: “I count myself happy that it is before you I am to make my defense this day, especially as you are expert on all the customs as well as the controversies among Jews.” (Acts 26:2, 3) Furthermore, Paul addressed idol-worshiping Governor Festus as “Your Excellency.”—Acts 26:25.
There may, however, be times when governments make demands upon a Christian that, if met, would mean failing to give “God’s things to God.” (Mark 12:17) What then?
The Hebrew prophet Daniel faced such a situation during the rule of Darius the Mede. Darius signed a law that decreed the death penalty for anyone who would make “a petition to any god or man for thirty days” other than to the king himself. (Dan. 6:7) For Daniel to comply with this statute would have meant ceasing to pray for thirty days. What did Daniel do? He disregarded the law that stood in opposition to proper worship of God and thereafter experienced a miraculous deliverance.
Likewise the apostles did not bend to the demands of the Jewish supreme court, the Sanhedrin, to stop all declaring of the “good news” concerning Christ. The apostles replied: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
Still this does not mean that Christians have a right to involve themselves in revolutionary activity or to defy laws that, though restrictive, do not prevent them from carrying out the requirements of pure worship. The words of Ecclesiastes 8:6, 7 provide helpful guidance in this regard. We read: “There exists a time and judgment even for every affair, because the calamity of mankind is abundant upon them. For there is no one knowing what will come to be, because who can tell him just how it will come to be?”
The discerning person appreciates that for “every affair” there is a proper time and judgment or manner of dealing. This prevents him from acting defiantly. Life already is filled with enough “calamity” without adding to the problems through rash action. Furthermore, no one can be certain as to what the future will bring. Even the rule of a tyrant cannot continue indefinitely. Keeping in mind that the future is uncertain and that tremendous changes can take place quickly helps one to be patient in putting up with an unpleasant situation.
The person who realizes the importance of acting at an opportune time and with good judgment will heed the sound advice of the Bible proverb: “With those who are for a change, do not intermeddle. For their disaster will arise so suddenly, that who is aware of the extinction of those who are for a change?” (Prov. 24:21, 22) Yes, why bring disaster to oneself in behalf of a cause that can provide no guarantee of a secure future, as can God’s kingdom by Christ?
In harmony with the Scriptures and the example of first-century Christians, God’s servants today are under obligation to pay all taxes imposed upon them as well as to grant rulers and officials the fear and honor that their position deserves. This includes addressing them by their titles of honor and in no way obstructing the performance of their duties. However, should the demands of the ruling authorities infringe upon true worship, the Christian will obey “God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.