Today, residents in Clark County, Indiana (the county Sovereign King Church is located in) will vote on a $95 million Public School levy. This tax referendum is a proposal to fund building and renovation efforts for three schools with most of the work being done at Silver Creek High School located in Sellersburg. This proposal, which school board member Brian Guernsey described as “wasteful spending,” will raise taxes on the private property of people in the region. On property valued at $100,000, taxes will raise by around $240 annually. Those in support of the levy argue that it is necessary because of increase of number of public school students at these schools. Those opposed are worried about the increase of their taxes and say that the increase is not needed. How should Christians in Clark County vote on this issue? Is this even a matter for a church to talk about? Does the Bible have anything to say about private property, taxes, and schools?
All of the Bible for All of Life
At Sovereign King Church, we believe that God’s word is the standard for all of life. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” The Bible is the very word of the creator God. And it will equip the man of God for EVERY good work, not just some good work but every good work. As Jesus said “Man shall not live on bread alone but on EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” God’s word will equip us for every area of life. Furthermore, Jesus has been give ALL authority in heaven and on earth. He is the Sovereign King and all people should adhere to his commands. Christianity is not a religion that you keep in the privacy of your home and church building. It makes demands on every area of life, including politics. Christ has commanded the Church to make disciples and teach them to obey all of his commands. Putting all of that together, yes the Bible should inform and guide our decisions and even our votes. Yes, the Church should instruct on what the Bible has to say about this matter. So, what should Christians think about taxes, and private property taxes in particular?
New Testament on Taxes
There is an old saying that the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. I’d like to add to that school levy proposals. When it comes to thinking about taxes in the Bible, immediately a few New Testament passages come to mind, Romans 13, Matthew 17, and Matthew 22. Let’s look quickly at each passage and see if we can glean some principles for Christian thinking about taxes.
Romans 13:6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
When we usually think of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we think of his detailed exposition of the gospel of grace alone through faith alone but Paul also gives a lot of instruction for Christian living. In chapter 13, Paul gives the Christian view of civil government. In verse 7, Paul tells us to pay our taxes. In verse 6 and the preceding verses, Paul tells us why. We are to pay taxes because civil rulers are to be servants of God devoting themselves to this very thing. What is the very thing? In verses 3 and 4, Paul tells us that they are servants of God to punish evil. Paul calls the civil magistrate a minister of God who is an avenger to bring wrath on those who do evil. In other words, the civil government exists for one primary purpose, to punish crime. The task of the civil government is to protect the rights and peace of the people by punishing crime. In order to do their job, God has authorized civil government to collect taxes. The declaration of Independence talks about protecting the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The original draft by Thomas Jefferson says life, liberty, and property. While certainly not inspired scripture, this declaration has a good grasp on the purpose of government. To summarize this passage on taxes, the civil government exists to punish crime and that is why we pay taxes.
Matthew 17 24 When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” 26 When Peter said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are exempt. 27 However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.”
In this passage, Peter is approached by tax collectors and asked if Jesus will pay the tribute. This tax was based on the tribute tax for the temple. It was a set tax for every individual to pay for temple needs. When Peter enters the house, Jesus asks Peter a question, “Peter, do the kings make their sons pay taxes or just strangers?" Peter says the strangers, of course. Jesus responds by saying that the sons are exempt. The implication is that because this tribute was for the temple of His father, Jesus the Son was exempt. Yet so as not to cause an uproar, Jesus pays the tax by way of performing a miracle to again show he is the Son of God. What do we learn from this passage about taxes? Jesus voluntarily submitted to pay taxes when he was under no obligation to do so. The reason was he did was so that he would not cause offense. Jesus paid the tax because he was prudent and wise. He would not have been sinful to not pay the tax but because of wisdom he paid it.
Matthew 22: 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. 16 And they *sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They *said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He *said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
Unfortunately and far too often, this passage is used as a proof-text to affirm any and all taxes. It is used to guilt Christians into voting for all kinds of tax increases and to justify all types of government abuse. Notice that this passage begins with people trying to trap Jesus. They aren’t asking an honest question about taxes but are trying to trip up Jesus. Rob Slane gives a good description of this passage :
“Picture the scene. Jesus, the Son of God, is standing in the Temple of God a few days before his execution. The Pharisees and Herodians come along and, after attempting to flatter him, ask him a question of profound difficulty: Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar? Answer “no” and Jesus gets reported to the Romans as a revolutionary. Answer “yes” and the whole of Israel will hear of his treason. But of course Jesus gives a different answer entirely. An answer that is as astonishing now as it was then. Not only does he get himself out of the trap that they have just set for him, but by the time his words sink in, he is standing on the edge of the trap, looking down at his flailing opponents who have just fallen in themselves.”
This passage is not primarily about the legitimacy of taxes. It is about who side Jesus is on. Is he on the side of the pagan rulers or the side of those wanting to overthrow everything? Rob Slane explains:
"One thing that we often miss is the high irony of this incident. Yet it is irony on steroids. When they ask him the question, Jesus specifically asks them for a coin. He has no real need to do this. He could have just made his point by mentioning the fact that they already use Caesar’s coin. So why does he do this? I think he does it to make a point. When the coin is produced, there is a juxtaposition of immense proportions going on. The coin is brought out and Jesus asks them whose is the image and inscription on the coin. We all know it was Caesar’s, but what is less well known is the inscription: “AUGUSTUS TI CAESER DIVI AUG F” meaning “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. On the flip side of the coin, there was almost certainly a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” – High Priest. So picture the scene. There is the Son of God, the great High Priest, being asked by his enemies who hate him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to one who blasphemously pretends to be Son of God and great High Priest. The Pharisees understand the blasphemous pretentions to divinity of Caesar. What they don’t understand is their own blasphemies. They ask a question about paying tribute to little Caesar on his tiny coin, but the irony is they refuse to pay tribute to the eternal Son of God and High Priest who is standing in front of them."
Jesus answers their trick question with a brilliant answer. He says give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. Now this leaves the Pharisees with the heavy lifting to do. They are put in the hot seat. What belongs to Caesar? Well Caesar is going to claim everything. What belongs to God? Everything. It is now the Pharisees who have to work out these two competing claims.
What are the implications for us from this passage? Well, we too have to answer the question: What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? We know that all things belong to God. Therefore, the civil government doesn’t get to claim all things. This passage does not give carte blanche to every tax scheme. Nor does it authorize civil magistrates to do anything they want to do.
Summary of Passages
Having looked at just a few of the passages, we see that rather than scripture giving civil government an all-encompassing power to tax everything for any purpose, the civil government does have the power to tax but it is for a specific purpose. It has been authorized to tax so that it can do its job of punishing crime. Caesar does not have the right to lay claim to everything but instead his authority is limited to what has been delegated to him by God. We also see that Christians should pay their taxes because God has authorized civil government to tax. In the case where civil government demands taxes that may not be authorized by God, we should be prudent and wise. Rather than operating in open rebellion by refusing to pay taxes, we should consider the wisdom of Christ in not causing offense. Our paying these types of taxes does not make them legitimate nor does it mean that we can't work to eliminate them.
In short, government can collect taxes for a limited purpose. Christians should pay legitimate taxes and use wisdom in paying illegitimate taxes. There is much more to be said about taxes because we haven’t even looked at the Old Testament on taxes. In the Old Testament law, we see what the ideal tax should look like. To quickly summarize that material, tax in the law of God was a flat rate paid by everyone. It was a very small amount. Whenever the kings demanded too many taxes their kingdom languished. So what about Christians voting for tax increases and public schools? With a proper understanding of taxes, can we answer how Christians should think about voting for tax increases?
Love, Private Property, and Theft
In our system of government, we don't have a king who gets to issue edicts and establish taxes by his say alone. On the federal level, congress has the power to tax. On a very local level, we have often have elections for special taxes. In the case of the Clark County School Referendum it is the people of Clark County who are acting as the civil government in deciding to tax. As Christians, when we vote we need to honor God and his commandments. We need to remember the purpose of civil government. It is to punish evil. We also need to ask ourselves what type of tax is being proposed and is it legitimate. Does the tax itself undermine a biblical truth?
The second of the greatest commandments is to Love your neighbor as yourself. We are commanded to love.
1 John 5: 2-3 says “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”
Love in the bible is defined as keeping God’s commandments. If we Christians are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we just look to God’s law to see how to love. God’s moral law is summarized in the 10 commandments. One of the commandments is thou shall not steal. Another commandment is thou shall not covet. Enshrined in two of the ten commandments of God is the right to property. Private property rights are upheld all throughout scripture. When someone owns property, they are given rights to that property by God. They are not to have that property taken from them by anyone involuntarily. Verse after verse through the bible upholds private property.
The Westminster Catechism describes our duties under the 8th commandment not to steal:
“The eighth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever doth or may unjustly hinder our own or our neighbor's wealth or outward estate.”
And it also describes what is forbidden by the 10th commandment to not covet:
“The tenth commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.”
If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we cannot deprive our neighbors of their property or their right to do with their property as they please. This is what makes private property taxes most heinous. Unlike the flat-rate poll tax instituted in the Bible, property taxes undermine the very notion of private property enshrined in scripture. When the civil government places a tax on private property it is laying claim to that property. It is in effect saying, “you don’t own your property, the civil government does.” When we get together as a community and vote to raise private property taxes, we are saying “ you don’t own the property, the community does.” A vote to raise private property taxes is a vote that undermines what God has protected in his word. It is what someone has called “Legalized plunder.” As a Christian, to vote for more taxation on private property is to vote for a tax that undermines the protections of private property. Put out your mind any notion of you voting give of your money, you are voting to take property from your neighbors.
Futhermore, we need to ask ourselves if taking money from people who homeschool, send their kids to private school, or do not have children to fund the education of other people’s children a legitimate purpose of government. In other words, does this school levy pass the Romans 13 test for legitimate taxes? Remember God’s word says we pay taxes so that the civil magistrate can punish evil and protect good. Our taxes are to help the civil government punish crime and provide for defense of life, liberty, and property. While some kids may think school is like punishment, public school does not fall under the legitimate responsibility of the civil government. This will drop led balloon for many people but no where in scripture is the civil government authorized by God to provide education for children. This is a responsibility left to the parents of children. Furthermore, nowhere are Christians authorized to take from their neighbor to pay for the schooling of their children.
Vote No on More Taxation
This school levy undermines the principle of private property found in scripture. It is not a legitimate form of taxation found in scripture. Christians may out of prudence and wisdom pay property taxes that have already been established but they should not be found trying to increase them. Instead, Christians should work to establish alternative ways to pay for education of children and furthermore they should consider that the civil government has not been given that responsibility. Christians in Clark county should vote no for this tax increase because it does not further a legitimate function of government and because it involves a tax that undermines the private property rights of others.