“If You Owe Taxes, Pay Taxes”
“IN THIS world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” So said 18th-century American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin. His words, so often quoted, reflect not only the inevitability of taxes but also the dread that they invoke. For many, paying taxes has little more appeal than dying.
Unpleasant though the paying of taxes may be, this is an obligation that genuine Christians take very seriously. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christian congregation at Rome: “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:7, New International Version) And Jesus Christ was referring specifically to taxes when he said: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.”—Mark 12:14, 17.
Jehovah has permitted governmental “superior authorities” to exist and requires that his servants be in relative subjection to them. Why, then, does God insist on his worshipers’ paying taxes? Paul mentions three basic reasons: (1) the “wrath” of the “superior authorities” in punishing lawbreakers; (2) a Christian’s conscience, which will not be clean if he cheats on his taxes; (3) the need to pay these “public servants” for providing services and maintaining a degree of order. (Romans 13:1-7) Many may not like to pay taxes. Yet, they would undoubtedly like even less living in a land with no police or fire protection, no road maintenance, no public schools, and no mail system. American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it this way: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
Payment of taxes is nothing new for servants of God. Residents of ancient Israel paid a form of taxes to support their kings, and some of those rulers burdened the people heavily through unreasonable taxation. The Jews also paid tributes and taxes to the foreign powers that dominated them, such as Egypt, Persia, and Rome. So Christians in Paul’s day knew well what he was talking about when he mentioned the paying of taxes. They knew that whether the taxes were reasonable or not, and regardless of how the government might spend this money, they had to pay whatever tax they owed. The same applies to Christians today. However, what principles might offer us guidance while paying our taxes in these complex times?
Five Guiding Principles
Be orderly. We serve and imitate Jehovah, who is “a God, not of disorder, but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:33; Ephesians 5:1) Being orderly is crucial when it comes to paying taxes. Are your records complete, accurate, and organized? Usually, an expensive filing system is not needed. You might have one folder labeled for each type of record (such as receipts itemizing your various expenses). It might suffice to group these in larger folders for each year. In many lands it is necessary to keep such files for a number of years in the event that the government decides to examine past records. So do not throw anything away until you are certain that it is no longer needed.
Be honest. Paul wrote: “Carry on prayer for us, for we trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things.” (Hebrews 13:18) A heartfelt desire to be honest should guide every decision we make when paying our taxes. First, consider taxes to be paid on reportable income. In many lands, additional income—from tips, odd jobs, sales—is subject to taxation as soon as it exceeds a specified amount. A Christian with an “honest conscience” will find out what constitutes taxable income where he lives and will pay the applicable tax.
Second, there is the matter of deductions. Governments commonly allow taxpayers to deduct certain expenses from their taxable income. In this dishonest world, many see no harm in being “creative” or “imaginative” when claiming such deductions. One man in the United States reportedly bought his wife an expensive fur coat, then hung it in his place of business for a day so that he could deduct it as a form of “decoration” for the workplace! Another man claimed his daughter’s wedding expenses as business deductions. Still another tried to deduct the expenses of having his wife travel with him for months in the Far East, although she was really there mainly for social and recreational purposes. There seems to be no end of such cases. Put simply, calling something a business deduction when it really is nothing of the kind is a form of lying—something that our God, Jehovah, utterly despises.—Proverbs 6:16-19.
Be cautious. Jesus urged his followers to be “cautious as serpents and yet innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) That advice could well apply to our taxpaying practices. Particularly in developed countries, more and more people these days pay an accounting firm or some professional to prepare their taxes. Then they simply sign the forms and send in the check. This would be a good occasion to observe the caution recorded at Proverbs 14:15: “Anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word, but the shrewd one considers his steps.”
More than a few taxpayers have encountered trouble with the government because they ‘put faith in every word’ of some unscrupulous accountant or inexperienced tax preparer. How much better to be shrewd! Consider your steps by carefully reading any document before you sign it. If some entry, omission, or deduction strikes you as odd, have it explained—repeatedly if necessary—until you are satisfied that the matter is honest and legal. Granted, in many lands tax laws have grown exceedingly complex, but to the extent possible, it is the course of wisdom to understand anything you sign. In some cases, you may find that a fellow Christian who is familiar with tax law can offer some insight. One Christian elder who deals with tax matters as a lawyer said succinctly: “If your accountant proposes something that sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!”
Be responsible. “Each one will carry his own load,” wrote the apostle Paul. (Galatians 6:5) When it comes to paying taxes, each Christian must shoulder the responsibility of being honest and law-abiding. This is not a matter in which the congregation elders supervise the flock under their care. (Compare 2 Corinthians 1:24.) They do not involve themselves in tax matters unless some case of serious wrongdoing, perhaps involving scandal in the community, comes to their attention. In general, this is an area wherein the individual Christian is responsible for using his properly trained conscience in applying Scriptural principles. (Hebrews 5:14) This includes being aware that signing a tax document—regardless of who prepared it—may well constitute a legal statement that you have read the document and believe that what it contains is true.*
Be irreprehensible. Christian overseers must be “irreprehensible” in order to qualify for their office. Similarly, the whole congregation should be irreprehensible in God’s sight. (1 Timothy 3:2; compare Ephesians 5:27.) They therefore strive to maintain a good reputation in the community, even when it comes to paying taxes. Jesus Christ himself set the example in this regard. His disciple Peter was asked if Jesus paid the temple tax, a small matter of two drachmas. Really, Jesus was exempt from this tax, since the temple was his Father’s house and no king imposes a tax on his own son. Jesus said as much; yet he paid that tax. In fact, he even used a miracle to produce the needed money! Why pay a tax from which he was properly exempt? As Jesus himself said, it was “that we do not cause them to stumble.”—Matthew 17:24-27.*
Maintain a God-Honoring Reputation
Jehovah’s Witnesses today are likewise concerned that they do not stumble others. Not surprisingly, then, as a whole, they enjoy a good reputation worldwide as being honest, taxpaying citizens. For instance, the Spanish newspaper El Diario Vasco commented on widespread tax evasion in Spain, but noted: “The only exception [is] Jehovah’s Witnesses. When they buy or sell, the [property] value they declare is the absolute truth.” Similarly, the U.S. newspaper San Francisco Examiner remarked some years ago: “You might regard [Jehovah’s Witnesses] as model citizens. They pay taxes diligently, tend the sick, battle illiteracy.”
No true Christian would want to do anything that might taint this hard-won reputation. If faced with a choice, would you risk being known as a tax cheat for the sake of saving some money? No. Surely you would rather lose money than sully your good name and cast your values and even your worship of Jehovah in a bad light.
In truth, maintaining a reputation as a just, honest person may well cost you money at times. As the ancient Greek philosopher Plato noted some 24 centuries ago: “When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.” He might have added that the just man never regrets paying the price for being just. Even having such a reputation is worth the cost. This is certainly true of Christians. Their good reputation is precious to them because it honors their heavenly Father and can help to draw others to their way of life and to their God, Jehovah.—Proverbs 11:30; 1 Peter 3:1.
Most of all, though, true Christians value their own relationship with Jehovah. God sees everything that they do, and they desire to please him. (Hebrews 4:13) Therefore, they reject the temptation to try to cheat the government. They recognize that God takes delight in honest, upright conduct. (Psalm 15:1-3) And since they want to make Jehovah’s heart rejoice, they pay all the taxes they owe.—Proverbs 27:11; Romans 13:7.
This may present a challenge to Christians who file a joint tax return with an unbelieving mate. The Christian wife would make a conscientious effort to balance the headship principle with the need to obey Caesar’s tax laws. She should be aware, though, of the possible legal consequences of knowingly signing a falsified document.—Compare Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 11:3.
Interestingly, Matthew’s is the only Gospel to record this event in Jesus’ earthly life. As a former tax collector himself, Matthew was no doubt impressed with Jesus’ spirit in this matter.