Taxes—Must You Pay Them?
FEW people enjoy paying taxes. Many feel that their tax money is wasted by inefficiency, misappropriation, or outright fraud. Some, though, object to taxation on moral grounds. Explaining their decision to withhold payment of their taxes, residents of one Middle Eastern town stated: “We will not finance the bullets that kill our children.”
Such sentiments are neither isolated nor new. The late Hindu leader Mohandas K. Gandhi expressed his conscientious stance this way: “He or she who supports a State organized in the military way—whether directly or indirectly—participates in the sin. Each man old or young takes part in the sin by contributing to the maintenance of the State by paying taxes.”
Similarly, 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau cited moral grounds to defend his refusal to pay taxes used to support war. He asked: “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?”
This issue concerns Christians, for the Bible clearly teaches that they should maintain a clean conscience in all matters. (2 Timothy 1:3) On the other hand, the Bible also acknowledges the authority of governments to collect taxes. It states: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities [human governments], for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. There is therefore compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath but also on account of your conscience. For that is why you are also paying taxes; for they are God’s public servants constantly serving this very purpose. Render to all their dues, to him who calls for the tax, the tax.”—Romans 13:1, 5-7.
For this reason, first-century Christians were well-known for readily paying taxes, even though a substantial amount went to the support of the military. The same is true of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern times.* How can this apparent conflict be explained? Must a Christian suppress his conscience when the tax man calls?
Taxes and Conscience
Significantly, a portion of the taxes that first-century Christians were instructed to pay went to the military. This is the very issue of conscience that later moved Gandhi and Thoreau to withhold taxes.
Notice that Christians obeyed the command in Romans chapter 13 not merely because they wanted to avoid punishment but also “on account of [their] conscience.” (Romans 13:5) Yes, a Christian’s conscience actually requires him to pay taxes, even if these are used to support activities that he personally rejects. To understand this seeming paradox, we must recognize a key fact about our conscience, the inner voice that tells us whether our actions are right or wrong.
Everyone has such an inner voice, as Thoreau observed, but it is not necessarily trustworthy. In order for us to please God, our conscience must conform to his moral standards. We often need to adjust our thinking or viewpoint to align with God’s because his thoughts are superior to ours. (Psalm 19:7) We should therefore endeavor to understand God’s view of human governments. What is his view?
We note that the apostle Paul called human governments “God’s public servants.” (Romans 13:6) What does that mean? Basically it means that they maintain order and perform valuable duties for society. Even the most corrupt governments often provide such services as mail delivery, public education, fire protection, and law enforcement. Although God is fully aware of the defects of these man-made authorities, he tolerates their existence for a time and mandates that we pay taxes out of respect for his arrangement, that is, his permitting such governments to rule mankind.
God’s allowance of rule by human governments, however, is only temporary. It is his will to replace all of them with his heavenly Kingdom and ultimately undo all the damage that human rulership has inflicted upon mankind through the centuries. (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:10) In the meantime, though, God has not authorized Christians to engage in civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes or by any other means.
What if, like Gandhi, you still feel that paying taxes that support war is sinful? Just as our view of an area is improved if we climb to higher ground, we can more readily adjust our thinking to match God’s by reflecting on how much higher his viewpoint is than ours. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”—Isaiah 55:8, 9.
The Bible’s teaching on the paying of taxes does not imply that human governments can claim absolute authority over their subjects. Jesus taught that God grants only limited authority to these governments. When asked whether it was proper in God’s sight to pay taxes to the then ruling Roman government, Jesus responded with this profound statement: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.”—Mark 12:13-17.
Governments—represented by “Caesar”—mint or print money and help establish its value. So in God’s view, they have the right to ask that it be paid back in the form of taxes. Yet, Jesus showed that “God’s things”—our life and worship—cannot be claimed by any human institution. When human laws or requirements clash with God’s laws, Christians “must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
Christians today may be disturbed by how some of their taxes are spent, but they do not attempt to interfere with or influence government actions by resisting them or refusing to pay taxes. That would betray a lack of trust in God’s solution for mankind’s woes. Instead, they patiently wait for God’s due time to intervene in human affairs through the rule of his Son, Jesus, who said: “My kingdom is no part of this world.”—John 18:36.
Benefits From Following the Bible’s Teaching
You can gain several benefits by following the Bible’s teaching regarding the paying of taxes. You will avoid the punishment reserved for lawbreakers as well as the fear of being caught. (Romans 13:3-5) More important, you will keep a clean conscience before God and honor him by your law-abiding conduct. Even though you may experience some financial loss compared with those who withhold payment or even cheat on their taxes, you can rely on God’s promise to care for his loyal servants. The Bible writer David put it this way: “A young man I used to be, I have also grown old, and yet I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”—Psalm 37:25.
Finally, understanding and following the Bible’s command to pay taxes will give you peace of mind. God does not hold you responsible for all governmental actions supported by your taxes, just as the law does not hold you responsible for what your landlord does with the rent you pay. Before learning Bible truth, a man named Stelvio sought political change for years in southern Europe. Explaining why he abandoned his efforts, he said: “I had to admit that man is unable to bring justice, peace, and brotherhood into the world. Only God’s Kingdom can truly bring about a different and better society.”
Like Stelvio, if you loyally ‘pay back God’s things to God,’ you too can enjoy that assurance. You will see the time when God brings righteous rule to all the earth, undoing the damage and injustice brought by human rulership.
For information on the record of Jehovah’s Witnesses as taxpayers, see The Watchtower, November 1, 2002, page 13, paragraph 15, and May 1, 1996, page 17, paragraph 7.
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We need to adjust our viewpoint to align with God’s because his thoughts are superior to ours
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By obediently paying taxes, Christians hold a good conscience before God and demonstrate that they trust him to meet their needs
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“Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God”
Copyright British Museum