How to use the Bible in Politics 3

Some ask questions like these: Should Christians pay taxes? Are there justifiable reasons for Christians not to pay taxes? And what does the Bible say about paying taxes? Others don’t even think to ask such questions.

Jesus was once asked about paying taxes, which was a question that got Jesus into the political world. Many have read that text (Mark 12:13-17) as well as his comment on the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27) as indicators of how Jesus understood the relation of church and state. Richard Bauckham, in his new book, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, ponders this Jesus and the taxes question with hermeneutical finesse, and he provides for us a good example of how to use the Bible when it comes to politics.

Bauckham begins with the temple tax passage (Matthew 17, see after the jump). This is a temple (half-shekel) tax for every adult male, regardless of economic status, and considered to be anchored in Exodus 30:11-16 by most (some disputed this justification of the tax). Thus, this is a divine duty: demanded by God.

Jesus’ response is an analogy: God’s relation to his people is like a king’s relation to his own children, not a king’s relation to his subjects. That is, God’s relation is more like a father than a king. “Thus Jesus’ objection is to theocratic taxation, taxing God’s people in God’s name, because it is inconsistent with the way Jesus understands the rule of God” (75). The discovery of the coin in the fish then shows that God provides for his children; God’s relation to Israel is not like a king who taxes subjects.

Jesus’ attitude toward taxes is negative, and this is understandable because of the oppressive experience of taxation. The temple authorities were wealthy, and this aggravated the temple tax for the ordinary person. Taxes were perceived as helping the rulers and not the ordinary person; they saw it as exploitation. Jesus dissociates God from that form of exploitative taxation. Jesus’ protest in the temple finds its origins in this context too. Thus, the big point: the temple authorities made the temple look like a Roman form of exploitation instead of like a fatherly God.

The second tax passage (see Mark 12 below) is about tribute to Rome, and it was collected in Judea and not Galilee. Does Jesus now accept Roman tax, or is he more lenient, than taxes for the temple? It was believed by Zealots that any tribute to Rome is a form of allegiance to Rome and denial of Israel’s sovereignty. The opponents wanted Jesus to line up with the Zealots.

But Jesus’ response is anti-Zealot. As God has a claim on God’s people, so Caesar has a claim on Caesar’s subjects. That coin represents legitimate ownership. Jesus is appealing to the Chronicler (see below), where we find a distinction between things of God and things of a king. Jesus hereby places Rome’s right to tribute in parallel with Israel’s kings’ rights.

Jesus’ point: God’s rights do not exclude Caesar’s rights.

These texts are about theocratic politics: God relates as a father, but God’s rights do not exclude Caesar’s. A Zealot government would be a Jewish form of Roman exploitative taxation. Theocratic rule exploits God. The issue for Jesus is not if Jews or Romans rule; the issue is if God rules. A change of government for Jesus would have made no difference. The challenged was to let God rule.

Jesus’ rule then establishes an alternative vision within the systemic political vision. Bauckham: “… set critically against the political systems of the day” (84).

Theocratic politics are dangerous. But Christians are to seek to implement God’s ways into the king’s ways. We live in a fallen world and approximation is what we strive for.

His conclusion: “But where taxation is seen to benefit not the ruling classes but all, and especially those in need, where it is assessed in a recognizably equitable way, and where, in a democratic system, its administration is responsible to the people, then it need not be a form of social exploitation but can approximate to a form of social love” (84).

Matthew 17:24-27

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

26 “From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Mark 12:13-17

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

1 Chronicles 26:30-32; 2 Chronicles 19:11

30 From the Hebronites: Hashabiah and his relatives—seventeen hundred able men—were responsible in Israel west of the Jordan for all the work of the LORD and for the king’s service. 31 As for the Hebronites, Jeriah was their chief according to the genealogical records of their families. In the fortieth year of David’s reign a search was made in the records, and capable men among the Hebronites were found at Jazer in Gilead. 32 Jeriah had twenty-seven hundred relatives, who were able men and heads of families, and King David put them in charge of the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh for every matter pertaining to God and for the affairs of the king.

11 “Amariah the chief priest will be over you in any matter concerning the LORD, and Zebadiah son of Ishmael, the leader of the tribe of Judah, will be over you in any matter concerning the king, and the Levites will serve as officials before you. Act with courage, and may the LORD be with those who do well.”

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  • JohnM

    Without agreeing entirely with Bauckham’s conclusion (for one thing, what does democracy have to do with it?)I agree, pay your taxes is the rule. Acknowledge the rule before you start thinking about any exceptions. Ever justifiable reasons for not paying taxes? Don’t know, have to think on it, interested to see other’s thoughts.

    I don’t know that I would speak in terms of Caesar’s rights either. Any human rights that exist belong to the people, individually or collectively. On the other hand, rather than rights what Caesar has are God given responsibilities, and the authority to carry them out. Thinking of it that way is how I try to steer between the extremes of authoritarianism and libertarianism.

  • T

    I think the first key for me is that Jesus ends up telling his followers to pay both taxes. That’s foundational to me, especially since, as a tax lawyer, I actually get this question from time to time, usually from someone who has fallen prey to some kind of almost cult-like group who teaches that income taxes are unlawful.

    And, yes, it does seem that Jesus, before paying the temple tax, tries to teach Peter something about being a “son” of God vs. a mere subject. But he still pays the tax to avoid “offense.” So I don’t see this as giving much ammunition to modern folks who want to not pay taxes.

    I have made this application with folks though, and I think it’s justified: “Whose face is on the dollar bill? . . . Then give to Washington what’s Washington’s, and give God what’s God’s.”

  • Robin

    Here is Russ Moore talking about social security, it follows along the same lines.

    I think it is important to note that Jesus commanded his followers to pay the tax even though they financed atrocities.

    The tax for the romans financed wars, slavery, the execution of hundreds of Jews, and the colisseum. So yes, I have moral qualms about paying taxes to a government that will use that money for things that I abhor, but I think Jesus would have also abhorred what Rome did with his shekel, yet he paid it anyway.

    To the more general point, taxes being used for exploitative purposes…that is still firmly the case today. Around 1/3 of the federal budget can easily be seen as a transfer from the general treasury to powerful interest groups who are savvy enough to get Senators to hand out corporate welfare. I guess the only consolation is that while it is spent on goodies for the wealthy, it is also mostly collected from people with higher incomes as well.

  • Amos Paul


    While encouraging them to pay, I hope you don’t actively dissaude them from campaigning against the income tax anyway ;).

  • Rodney

    Bauckham is brilliant and his analysis is usually spot-on, but I’m wondering if the context of Jesus’ response to the controversy of the Roman poll tax has more to do with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Herodians who posed the question (esp. according to Mark’s version). Before Jesus responds, the narrator notes that Jesus “knowing their hypocrisy” asked for a denarius. They were in the temple when they posed this question; there wasn’t supposed to be any Roman currency in the temple if the money-changers had done their job. Evidently, the Pharisees/Herodians produced the coin, which revealed their hypocrisy. Even though they were trying to impose the idea of economic purity, their practice spoke otherwise.

  • T


    Yes; big difference! I make a big, big distinction b/n verbal and/or voting protest and critique vs. protest via non-payment.

    Speak and vote against taxes as much as you want, but obey the law, however it falls year to year. Further, don’t stop paying taxes and bathe it in some kind of virtuous, fighting-the-good-fight garbage, especially not in the name of Christ. He, though he was more entitled to everything, submitted to human authorities that were less just than ours, IMO, regarding money and much more.

    Even if we come to regard US tax authorities as demanding more than they are entitled to (I wonder if any Jews felt this way in Jesus’ day about tax collectors?), would our Lord’s advice not be to give them more than they ask for, to walk 2 miles if demanded to go 1? I find that far more defensible a course of action, if the action is in Christ’s name, than the opposite.

  • I think it’s important to recognize the different economic systems between Rome and the U.S. before we decide to make direct parallels, understanding the context of Jesus’ actions is probably important. We should also listen to the people U.S. imperialism is affecting more significantly. We all (I’m assuming we are U.S. citizens) benefit from paying our taxes so we are in a privileged position discussing whether or not we should pay taxes. The people who don’t pay taxes are using civil disobedience to help persuade people of various reasons not to support the government, I feel this is completely legitimate. Civil disobedience has played a huge part in nonviolent movements including the civil rights movement so it’s something we shouldn’t discount.

    Also if voting changed anything it would be made illegal. So we need to look to other means to subvert or speak out against the powers and authorities of this world, something I think Jesus was really into.

  • Amos Paul

    Are the people who don’t pay taxes accepting the judgement of the law for doing so? In the wise words of MLK Jr. —

    “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

    Or Plato/Socrates —

    “And the laws and the government come and interrogate me: ‘Tell us, Socrates,’ they say, ‘What are you about? are you going by an act of yours to overturn us–the laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?’ What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words?”

  • RobS

    The “social love” idea lost me a bit. The Bible clearly teaches that we should give to others. It never commands that we should take other people’s money and give it to others. I’m not a perfect idealist or anything — I really don’t believe charity alone would suffice to help support even the legitimate social ills of the country.

    But I do question the political powers that be that widely throw money at large programs that often helps drive the re-election opportunities of the politicans.

    So to be fair to his statement, I would lean toward the system now as one that does benefit the ruling class. Such big programs are certain to be frought with waste, fraud, and abuse.

    In giving directly to someone in need, I can 100% eliminate all those elements (ruling class, “in need” questions, suitability, and I can add education & love) — probably why the Bible teaches on that idea very clearly though.

  • Patrick


    I agree with your view. The Bible speaks to us, not the state. If one supports a state function, that’s fine, but, it is not a solution to answering God’s call to we believers, that’s on us.

    Anyway, I think the Matthew 17 dialectic is about the kingdom of God, the King and His children do not pay taxes in their paradigm on earth and Christ is King and we are His children in the heavenly perspective, so from that view to me Jesus showed no hostility to paying the temple tax, He was making a point in His unique style.

    He also showed, IMO, no hostility to paying the Roman taxes. He realized that was part of our earthly responsibility.

    For the first time, I disagree with Bauchomb’s assessment on something.

  • “But where taxation is seen to benefit not the ruling classes but all, and especially those in need, where it is assessed in a recognizably equitable way, and where, in a democratic system, its administration is responsible to the people, then it need not be a form of social exploitation but can approximate to a form of social love”

    That is a stretch from the text. Seeing the image our systems in the Bible, I think.

  • Patrick

    Since Jesus is Yahweh , it surprises me any theologian would assume Jesus takes a negative view of the tax/tithe to the theocratic state of Israel since He made the rule up in the first instance.

  • Steve

    Brilliant! Thanks for introducing Bauchman to me/us.