I enjoyed a twitter debate earlier today with a couple of friends on the issue of whether Christians should avoid paying taxes. Here’s my conclusion:
Should Christians avoid paying tax?
It really depends on what we mean by avoid. In some senses the answer is ‘yes’ in others ‘no’.
1. Yes because the government encourages us to pay less tax by, for example, offering tax-breaks to encourage us to save for retirement through personal pensions and tax-free savings investments such as ISAs.
2. Yes because it raises more money for gospel work. For every pound we give to the church the Government gives back the tax!
3. Yes where expenses are legitimately incurred that are tax deductible
4. No where an unintended tax loop-hole is being exploited to avoid paying tax especially if this is being aggressively exploited to avoid paying any tax.
5. No where we simply don’t like the way our taxes are being spent.
What did Jesus mean when he said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” in Matthew 22:21?
R.T. France notes that the verb Jesus chooses to use for ‘to give’ is the verb ‘give back’ apodote in v.21b. It is a different verb from the one his accusers use in v.17.
Jesus’ word ‘give back’ ‘indicates either the return of something borrowed or the payment of what is due. The tax is thus presented not as an arbitrary imposition but as due payment for the benefits received from the imperial government, which they have acknowledged by using the imperial currency.
Craig Blomberg makes the same point about Jesus’ choice of the verb ‘give back’ and his conclusion is that according to Jesus’ teaching ‘Reasonable taxation is a legitimate function for all governments, even totalitarian regimes; how much more so with more democratic governments! ‘
What does it mean for the Christian to recognise that the state is a servant of God?
It must mean being a dutiful citizen as part of our worship of God. Blomberg argues that Jesus’ teaching makes clear that ‘Christians who avoid taxes, or who avoid paying the full amount of their taxes,sin against God even just as surely as in more obvious ‘moral’ arenas.’
For Montegomery Boice ‘they should obey the speed limits, pay their taxes honestly…’
For the Christian is there then a fundamental distinction between tax avoidance (where unintended but legal loop-holes are exploited) and tax evasion?
It seems to me therefore that Jesus would say (and see also Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17) a deliberate attempt to get around the law and avoid paying taxes –even through legal means – is sinful because it is immoral for two reasons. It is a failure to love God who has put government in place for our good. It is a failure to love our neighbour who has to meet the shortfall in tax created by my dodge.
A deliberate attempt to evade paying taxes – through illegal means – is both a crime against the state and a sin against God.
I received a letter from my bank manager asking whether I could meet with him last week. Seeing your bank manager is like taking a trip to the dentist, you’re sure they’re both going to find a big hole and that they will come up with some pretty painful and expensive way to try and fill it.
When you read the gospels you find that Jesus has a surprising amount to say about money. It’s pretty high up on his agenda. But Jesus isn’t primarily concerned to tell us we’ve got too much money or too little, nor to advise us to spend it, save it or even give it away. He focuses in on money to show us that money and our attitude to it reveals something much more fundamental about ourselves.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus says:
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
Jesus wants you and me to recognise that money and the thought of what it might buy us has a certain power over us. One survey in the US asked people what they would do for a million dollars. Forty-two percent said they would be willing to spend time in jail, never see their best friend again, move permanently to a foreign country, or throw their pet off a cliff!
1) We all serve someone
The words are so familiar it’s easy to overlook the big surprise in Jesus’ words. He doesn’t say you can either serve God or you can go out and have a good time. Jesus insists that your life is a life given in service of a master.
Such an idea runs counter to how we think of ourselves and how we would describe our lives. We prefer the language of personal freedom. We like to say we’re in control and yet here is Jesus saying, to quote one friend of mine, ‘if you will not let yourself be owned by God you will be owned by something else’.
In describing life as a decision to choose who we will serve, Jesus is saying every human being serves someone or something in the hope that it will bring a reward. The think we serve becomes to use the language of Tim Keller our functional god. It’s the thing that has first place in our hearts, has the greatest call on our time, is the very thing that we are ready to sacrifice for (maybe even our pet for!).
What Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount is that for many people money is the thing we serve. Money has a power over us and that means money calls the shots. It has an authority over our decisions, it dictates our priorities, it rules our hearts and governs our emotions. So much so that we lose sleep when we don’t have enough, no matter how much we have we need more and we are even prepared to hate those who have more than we do.
Psychologist Oliver James’s book Affluenza highlights just what has happened to us as a result of serving money. He writes;
The great majority of people in English-speaking nations (Britain, America, Australia, Canada, Singapore) now define themselves through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity,
Materialism is to place our trust in money. To ask it to provide for us, to protect us, to make us happy and in return we promise to serve it.
But here’s the second surprise from Jesus. Not only do we all serve one master but it’s impossible to serve two masters.
2) We can’t serve two masters
Someone has to have the final say. Someone has to come first and Jesus says whatever that is is your God. That’s why Jesus says no-one can serve two masters – it’s not that it’s quite a hard thing to do it’s because it is a logical impossibility.
You might be able to hold down two jobs, you can have two hobbies, you can share you’re love between two children but no-one can Continue reading »
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