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The Christian and the Payment of Taxes Used for War
-Willard M. Swartley
The basic sources of authority through which Christians learn the will of God are scripture, church, and Spirit. This study seeks to understand how one of these sources, scripture, directs Christians on the morally agonizing question: should Christians who seek to follow the Prince of peace support a war-oriented federal budget? Can we be Good Samaritans and support a systemic spiraling of weaponry that maintains "the balance of terror" and portends cosmocide?
In order to ascertain the directive of scripture I shall first briefly summarize (1) the nature of biblical ethics, (2) the political character of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection-exaltation, and (3) the early church's view of political government. In the fourth and major part I will discuss at length the New Testament texts which speak to payment of taxes. Fifth and finally, I will suggest a hermeneutical path from the text to our present situation.
- The Nature of Biblical Christian Ethics.
In the Old Testament, God's people learned how to think and behave from their relationship to God in the covenant. As Clinton Gardner points out: the demands of the covenant required that all of Israel's life, even its political and economic structure, be conformed to the will of God.1 Biblical ethics and Christian ethics are covenant ethics. The values of God's people are rooted in their jealous allegiance to their covenantal God.2
Israel's primary ethical values were righteousness and justice, related directly to God's holiness (Isa. 5:16; 6:1-5).3 The burden of the prophets was hence twofold: to call the people into covenant obedience to God and to thunder forth the ethic of social righteousness. Amos declared: "Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:24). Or, hear Isaiah: "Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). And in Micah's summary: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
The New Testament extends the ethical logic of the Old Testament. The imperative grows out of the indicative. Because we belong to God, we then do that which is fitting for God's children (Eph. 5:4). The Christian walk is one worthy of the calling to which we have been called. Throughout the Gospels and Epistles believers are called to follow the ethic of love (Matt. 22:37-39; Rom. 12:19-21; 13:8-10; James 2:8), since God, to whom we belong, is love (1 John 4:16).
Scripture thus roots the moral imperative in God's own being, God's claim upon the covenant people, and the people's response to be and do what is fitting or becoming as God's people.
- The Political Character of Jesus' Life, Death, and Resurrection.
The contemporary scholarly debate pro and con of a revolutionary Jesus makes it impossible to easily dismiss the political dimensions of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. According to the Gospels' portraits, Jesus was born "king of the Jews" (Mt. 2:2), the one who "will put down the mighty from their thrones" (Lk. 1:52). His baptism called him to kingship (Mk. 1:11b echoes Ps. 2:7, a royal Psalm). The temptations posed alternate ways to kingship (Mt. 4:1-10). He preached the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God (Mk. 1:15) and the Jubilean ethic of social justice (Lk. 4:18-19). He chose disciples who were Zealots: Simon (Acts 1:13), most likely Judas, and possibly also Peter, James, and John.4 He accepted Peter's confession that he is the Messiah (Mk. 8:29), a truth Jesus himself did not deny before the chief priests at his trial (Mk. 14:61-62; cf. Jn. 4:25-26). The Jews turned Jesus over to Pilate on the charge that he was a political subversive who told people not to pay their taxes and claimed himself to be a king (Lk. 23:2). He died the Zealot's death of crucifixion. His cross bore the inscription, "The King of the Jews" (Lk. 23:38). And upon his resurrection, he was acclaimed royal Messiah and imperial Lord (Acts 2:29, 2:36).
On the other hand, Jesus' birth also prompted the angelic chorus,"Peace on earth, good will among men" (Luke 2:14). His baptism called him to the work of the prophetic suffering servant (Mk. 1:11c echoes Isa. 42:1. a suffering servant song). In his temptations he refused the popular Jewish expectations of political messiahship. Among his disciples was also Matthew, the tax collector, a Roman collaborationist (Mt. 9:9, Acts 1:13). His kingdom-preaching keynoted by its Jubilean platform opposed the narrow messianic vision of vindicating Jewish rights and surprisingly welcomed the outcasts, even Samaritans and Gentiles, into God's love and grace (Lk. 15 and Jn. 4). He taught his disciples to love not only their neighbors, but also their enemies (Mt. 5:43-44). He called Peter's political power-view of Messiahship Satanic, because the Son of Man-Messiah must suffer and die (Mk. 8:31-37). During Jesus' trial Pilate declared three times that he found Jesus innocent (Lk. 23:4, 23:14, 23:22). On the cross Jesus said: "Father forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). And upon his resurrection, Jesus was acclaimed saving Messiah and forgiving Lord (Acts 2:36-38).
Certainly Brandon is quite wrong in his almost complete identification of Jesus with Zealotism,5 but it would be just as wrong to imagine a Jesus who was politically innocuous. What we should learn from the biblical portrait of Jesus is that commitment to God's kingdom and his love for all people will mean costly discipleship. It is not abnormal if the way of faithfulness to God's kingdom brings us into political conflict with the kingdoms of this world.
- The Early Church's View of Political Government.
The New Testament gives us three different views of the church's attitude to political government. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17, 1 Tim. 2:1-4, and Titus 3:1 present a positive view of government, calling for Christian subjection since the authorities are God-ordained. Revelation 13; 1 Corinthians 6:1-6,2:6-8, Mark 10:42-43, Matthew 4:3-10 (Luke 4:5-8); and Ephesians 6:12 present a negative view in which government is either ignorant of God's will, resists God's purpose, or deifies itself. Because of these opposite emphases, both views must have been conditioned by the times in which they were written. The early church fathers continue these two differing views. The Apologies convey generally positive attitudes toward government, whereas the martyr accounts often give negative portraits of the authorities, notably the Emperors.
The more predominant and, I propose, normative New Testament view of the Christian attitude toward government bases itself upon Christ's victory and lordship over the principalities and powers (Col. 2:10, 2:15; Eph. 1:19-23; 3:10; 1 Pet. 3:22; 1 Cor. 15:24-25). This truth reduces all governments to a temporal status with the precise function of restraining evil and promoting good until Christ's lordship is fully acknowledged. The believer who already confesses Jesus as Lord derives his direction for life and conduct not from the secular authorities, but from Christ, the commander-in-chief of God's army of overcoming love.
The key points emerging from this brief survey of biblical ethics, the Gospels' portrait of Jesus, and the early church's view of government are:
- Ethical values are rooted ultimately in God. The behavior of God's people is determined by their relationship to God.
- Jesus' own life, death, and resurrection both challenged and transcended worldly political claims.
- Believers derive their political ethical direction not from political governments but from Christ's lordship.
- New Testament Texts That Speak to Payment of Taxes.
- Matthew 17:24-27, The Temple Tax.
When they came to Capernaum the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, "Does not your teacher pay the tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?" And when he said, "From others" , Jesus said to him, "Then the children are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast 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 me and for yourself."
Though many might cite this text to support payment of taxes, it has little relevance to this discussion. The tax under question was not a tax that directly benefitted Rome, but Judaism itself. It was the half-shekel temple tax, instituted in Exodus 30:13. Jewish law required every Jewish male over 20 years of age to pay this tax annually. It is more accurate to call this tax the annual temple tithe. Even the Zealot who opposed Rome's rule with dagger and sword had no problem in paying this tax.
The punch line of the text comes not with the decision to pay or not to pay the tax (and certainly not in the method of securing the tax money) but in the subtle declaration that Jesus is the son of the Lord of the temple. His words "Then the children are free" mean that Jesus is the son of the temple's ruler and thus exempt from payment. Then in order to avoid offense, Jesus ordered the payment. But, clearly, the punch line is on Jesus' sonship, not on the payment of tax.
- Mark 12:13-17. Tax to Caesar.
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians to entrap him in his talk. And they came and said to him. "Teacher, we know that you do not regard the human position, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it." And they brought one. And he said to them. "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said to him. "Caesar's." Jesus said to them. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at him.
Before focusing on the meaning of Jesus' oft quoted "Render unto Caesar..." statement. I make four observations about the historical context of this scripture:
- The goal of this encounter was to entrap Jesus. The crafty opponents are specified: "some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians." The Pharisees resisted the tax in principle but compromised in practice in order to make life possible under Roman occupation. The Herodians, a party we know little about except that they favored King Herod and the Herodian rule of Palestine, cultivated good favor with Rome and hence supported payment of this tax. Both parties must have suspected Jesus' position to be otherwise, else the question would not be a trap from their point of view.
- The tax denoted in the text was a specific tax (not "taxes" as in RSV6 ). It was a poll tax, a tax instituted in A.D. 6. A census taken at that time (cf. Lk. 2:2) to determine the resources of the Jews provoked the wrath of the country. Judas of Galilee led a revolt (Acts 5:37) which was suppressed only with some difficulty.7 Many scholars date the origin of the Zealot party and movement to this incident.8 Blood had already flowed because of this tax and Jesus' anticipated answer to the question was calculated to be grounds for his arrest (see Mark 12:12).
- The Sicarii or Zealots categorically refused payment of this tax. They regarded this tax as "an introduction to slavery and an affront to the sovereignty of God."9 The land of Palestine belonged to God. God gave it to Israel. No other nation had a right to it. A head tax levied by Rome was utterly abhorrent. Such was the Zealot view. In this incident particularly, one wonders whether the Pharisees and Herodians suspected Jesus of Zealotism and were seeking therefore to publicly expose him as a
tax resister, a position that would inevitably lead him to the Zealot death penalty, crucifixion on a cross.
- Rome required that the poll tax be paid with the denarius, a silver coin worth about twenty cents. During Augustus' reign (27 B.C.-14 A.D.), several hundred different denarii were issued. But during Tiberius' reign (14-37 A.D.), only three types of denarii were struck, with only one circulating widely, from Lyon to India.10 The Zealots would not have been caught alive with this coin in their possession.
On its obverse side the coin showed "a bust of Tiberius...adorned with the laurel wreath, the sign of his divinity."11 The legend read: TI(BERIUS) CAESAR DIVI AUG(USTI) F(ILIUS) AUGUSTUS, meaning "Emperor Tiberius august Son of the august God." On the other side was the title PONTIF(EX) MAXIM(US), meaning high priest' with Tiberius' mother, Julia Augusta, sitting on the throne of the gods.12 The coin was "the most official and universal sign of the apotheosis of power and worship of the homo imperiosus (the Emperor) in the time of Christ."13
Within the context of these considerations, Jesus' first word of response "Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin," touched the moral anguish of the Pharisees and Herodians. But the agony of the moment intensified when Jesus asked, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" I expect the Herodians, sooner than the crushed Pharisees, replied: "Caesar's.' In that one word lay the despair of the nation.
Then comes Jesus' stunning response: "Render unto Caesar...and render unto God." What does belong to Caesar and what does belong to God? The difficulty of arriving at an assuredly correct interpretation is illustrated by the following typical textbook commentary:
(1) Some see it as a clever evasion. The answer 'was primarily intended to be non-committal.' Jesus was really anti-Roman, but he refused to get caught on either side of the question before him.... (2) Jesus clearly asserted that the tax should be paid. Coins with Caesar's image on them belonged to
the emperor. He had a perfect right to demand them. (3) Others see the answer as advice which caught the testers. They had Caesar's idolatrous coin in hand. Of course they were obligated to return it to him. It was his property. (4) Still others view the answer as an endorsement of the Roman head tax comparable to the advice Jesus gave Peter to pay the Temple tax (Mt. 17:24-27). Some think Jesus simply reaffirmed the Jewish position of loyalty to God and the government except when the latter demanded apostasy.... (5) Others argue that Jesus approved the double obligation to God and government, but he left to the individual the determination of the proper claims of each.14
While one might advance arguments supporting each of these various interpretations, three considerations illumine interpretation of the text.
- The historical and literary contexts favor the interpretation that Jesus' answer condemned the position of the testers. The preceding parable, spoken against the wicked tenants of the vineyard (Mk. 12:1-12), condemned the position of the religious leaders, those who questioned Jesus' authority (11:27-28). The test question about the resurrection posed by the Sadducees (12:18-27), which follows the tax question, received an answer which also condemned the position of the questioners. The same point applies to the scribe's question regarding the greatest commandment (12:28-34), though in a milder manner. Hence if this interpretation of the passage is correct, Jesus' reply would have sounded as follows: (with irritation) "(Then) render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and (with strong affirmation) to God the things that are God's."15
Jesus thus forbade the payment of the tax for those who are faithful, implying that once one has compromised so much as to possess the idolatrous coin, then the tax matter has already been settled in principle.
- Mark 2,3:1-3:6 records five additional encounters between Jesus and the religious authorities. Like the three in Mark 12, all five have the same questioning, accusing intent from the adversary (vv. 2:7, 2:16, 2:18,2:24, and 3:2) and each ends with a succinct, incisive reply from Jesus (2:10, 17, 19-22,27-28, and 3:4).16 Significantly, this series of episodes ends with the Pharisees seeking counsel from the Herodians in order to determine "how to destroy him." These two groups do not appear together again in the Gospel until 12:13; then comes the tax question--the plot planned to destroy him.17
Jesus' answer, "Render unto Caesar...," is also very similar in type to the answers given in 2:1-3:6. In these cases we observe that (1) Jesus' position opposed that of the Pharisees and (2) his answer transcended the mentality of his questioners. By applying these principles to Jesus' answer to the tax question, we must conclude that Jesus.' answer opposed the Pharisee's position. But this does not necessarily classify Jesus with the Zealot's position of tax refusal, although it appears that the Pharisees did in fact so accuse Jesus (see exposition of Luke 23:2 below).
- A further consideration enters the case. In Mark 3:4 Jesus responded with the typical rabbinical formula: "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" The Pharisees could not
answer. Then in 12:14, having now collaborated with the Herodians, the Pharisees phrased their question also with the rabbinic formula: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
The phrase, "Is it lawful... ," merits more attention. In Mark 2 Jesus answered not on the level of legality, but pointed beyond the letter of the law to the basic morality and religious authority upon which the law rested. Clearly, the Pharisees regarded Jesus as a law-breaker. Hence when Jesus in 3:4 responded, no doubt with tongue in cheek, "Is it lawful...?", it would appear to indicate that (1) the Pharisees were still committed to their law above everything else, (2) they planned to use the
power of their law against Jesus on a very sensitive issue (i.e., they came "to entrap him"), and (3) they knew that the tax question was so politically volatile that if Jesus hedged in any way in his response, they would have a case for the cross.
In light of these considerations, in our effort to derive contemporary moral guidance from this text, we must be careful that we do not simply adopt the position of the Pharisees; i.e., that law is the final word on moral issues. Significantly, Jesus' reply pointed beyond the rights of Caesar to the rights of God. God's claim and Caesar's claims must never be put on the same level. The text may not be interpreted in such a way as to equalize God's and Caesar's rights.18
What guidance, therefore, does this text give to the question of paying taxes used for war? (1) In view of the hypocritical and accusing intent of the questioners as well as the cryptic nature of Jesus' response, we should acknowledge that Jesus and the opponents of Jesus held differing views on this sensitive issue. (2) We must not allow ourselves to take the Pharisees' side in making law the sole judge of moral obligation. (3) We should see clearly that Jesus' answer does not tell us to give Caesar whatever he asks for.
- Luke 23:2. Charges against Jesus.
And they began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar and saying that he himself is Christ the king."
The Jews accused Jesus of forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar. How do we assess this accusation? Two observations are relevant:
- In view of the historical and literary contexts of the question in Mark 12, this charge appears to have some foundation. The Pharisees and Herodians identified Jesus with the Zealot cause and proceeded accordingly. Like other Zealots, his doom was the cross.
- Yet Luke carefully shows that Pilate found Jesus innocent of the charges (Luke 23:4,23:14,23:22). How do we resolve this apparent contradiction?
One might resolve the problem by holding that Mark and Luke simply present different perspectives. Such response fails, however, to go to the heart of the matter, since a careful reading of Luke 23 shows that Pilate's declarations of innocence are not based on any evidence that clears Jesus of the charges. In the face of Jesus' equivocal answer to Pilate's query whether he is the king of the Jews (23:3) or silence before Herod (23:9), Pilate pronounces that he finds nothing worthy of death in Jesus. The charges are never factually cleared or confirmed. In fact. the Jewish leaders' rephrasing of the charge in their persistence to nail him, i.e. "He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee to
this place" (23:5), is precisely what Luke accented as a main feature and effect of Jesus' ministry (4:14-15, 28, 31; 5:1-3, 15; 6:11, 16; 7:17; 11:29; 12:1; 13:22, 14:25; 16:14). The effect of Pilate's pronouncement, rather than denying the charges, ironically vindicates Jesus by allowing Luke to thus portray Jesus as a righteous sufferer fulfilling the work of the servant in Isaiah 53 (Luke 22:37; 23:47) and a prophet rejected by the people. Like Moses and Elijah, who were also accused of perverting the
people--with identical terms used in the Septuagint (Ex. 5:4; Kgs. 18:7),
Jesus upset the tenuous and unjust peace of the existing social order.19
The reliability of these three charges against Jesus is thus never established; nor are they proven false.
Instead, three different perceptions emerge: the Jewish religious leaders', Pilate's and Luke's.
As believing readers of the Gospel, we are expected to identify with Luke's view of Jesus which shows Jesus as a righteous prophet whose radical loyalties to the kingdom of God could not be grasped by the political mentalities of either the Jewish leaders or the Roman procurator. His crucifixion leaves the political verdict: Zealot--political insurgent. But the Gospels tell us more; a righteous prophet, rejected by God's people, died a martyr's death. Oscar Cullmann's analysis of Jesus' political standing is helpful in this writer's judgment:
1) Throughout his entire ministry Jesus had to come to terms with Zealotism; 2) he renounced Zealotism, although he also assumed a critical attitude toward the Roman State; 3) he was condemned to death as a Zealot by the Romans.20
The crucial and hard learning in this for us is that we must recognize that our prophetic witness to kingdom priorities may and likely will be misunderstood as a challenge of, even attack against political power. Whether in conscientious objection to war or war tax resistance, we must accept the liability that political forces will brand both our resistance and nonresistance as dangerously revolutionary. Religious people may consider it as perverting the people or stirring them up. But it might well be that such discrepancy between their perception and our self-understanding is the critical test of our faithfulness to the ethic of Jesus.
- Romans 13:6-7
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Of all the NT texts that speak about paying taxes, this is the clearest and most relevant to the contemporary discussion. Five aspects of exegetical inquiry enable us to understand the text and to ask the appropriate questions for our use of the text in the contemporary situation.
- The structure of the text shows that Paul's counsel to pay "all of them their dues" is the main point of Romans 13:1-7. As Victor Paul Furnish notes, the main "topic in 13:1-7 is not 'the state' and the main appeal of these verses is not to 'be subject' to it."21 While the admonition to 'be subject' does occur in verse 1 and again in verse 5, this is preliminary to the main appeal of the text in vv. 6-7.
Perry Yoder's analysis of the structure of these verses substantiates this same point.22 "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" is the thesis of the text, followed by supporting theological and practical arguments in vv. lb-2 and 3-4 respectively. Verse 5 restates the thesis and is again followed by theological and practical considerations ("to avoid God's wrath" and "for the sake of conscience"). But all this stands in support of vv. 6-7, which, as we shall see, is addressed to a specific problem facing Christians in Rome.23
- Literary context. Two observations are crucial. First, in its description of the new life in Christ and the call not to be conformed to this world, chapter 12 provides Christian ethical norms. Christians are not to be conformed to the values and practices of the world (v. 2). Verse 9 calls for love that is genuine; vv. 14 and 20 apply that love to relationships with persecutors and enemies. Verse 21 challenges the believers not to be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good. Immediately after 13:1-7, verse 13:8 calls for a life that is debt-free, except to love. Finally, verses 13:10-13:13 focus upon the impending ultimate eschatological event.
By observing this literary context of moral concern, we learn that the new life in Christ with its moral imperative of love provides the perspective for answering specific questions about proper Christian
response to specific political demands and laws. The government itself, while it has authority and passes laws of all kinds, does not provide moral guidance. Some laws may be compatible with the Christian morality of agape-love and some may not be: Christians must decide their responses
in accord with the call not to be conformed to worldly evil and to pursue the way of love (12:2).
Second, the larger literary context of Romans indicates that Paul plans to visit Rome, and possibly make Rome his base for missionary work in Spain (15:22-29). As elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:1-4), Paul's counsel on the Christian's response to government is influenced by missionary considerations. To resist payment of taxes would jeopardize the presence of Christianity in Rome, possibly triggering another edict of expulsion as happened eight years earlier. At this point the literary observations call for comment about the historical context.
- Historical Context. From Acts 18:1-2 we learn that Priscilla and Aquila had left Rome because the emperor, Claudius, had expelled the Jews (including Christians) from Rome. The Roman historian, Suetonius, reports concerning Claudius: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."24
Between AD 49, the year of Claudius' edict, and AD 57, the approximate time when Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, Christians returned to Rome. Further, in AD 54 a new Emperor, Nero, began his reign. The pattern of imperial response to Christians (and Jews), while it depended upon the
patchwork pieces of the past, was in a new state of formation. By AD 64, with Nero's fierce persecution of Christians, we know what pattern formed; but in AD 57-58 the stitches were not yet drawn and knotted.
Another Roman historian, Tacitus, tells us that Nero faced a growing tax revolt in his early years of emperorship. The government had levied two types of tax: the direct or fixed "poll" tax (Latin, tributa; Greek, phoros; RSV, "taxes") and the indirect or commission tax (Latin, portoria; Greek, telos; RSV, "revenue"). The direct tax was collected by government officials; the indirect was hired out to agents for the highest bid, a system which led to extortion and exploitation of the people. This generated a tax revolt. In his desire to please the people at the beginning of his reign, Nero was about to rescind the commission tax when,
His impulse, however, after much preliminary praise of his magnanimity, was checked by his older advisers, who pointed out that the dissolution of the empire was certain if the revenues on which the state subsisted were to be curtailed: "For, the moment the duties on imports were removed, the logical sequel would be a demand for the abrogation of the direct taxes."25
When Paul wrote, "pay all of them their dues," he was likely telling the Roman Christians that they would pay the direct tax (phoros) to the government officials and the commission-tax (telos) to the contracted tax agents.26
- Paul's theological and cultural heritage. In both Judaism and Hellenism, it was commonly held that rulers receive their authority from God (or the gods). Since, especially in Judaism, they do not possess it as an inherent right, they are accountable to God. This order (tagma) is the basis for Paul's thesis with its arguments of support in Luke 13:1-5.
Particularly within several Old Testament traditions, prophets severely criticized governing leaders for their failure to govern justly or trust Yahweh (as, e.g., Elijah's confrontation with Ahab in 1 Kings 21,
Isaiah's oracle to Ahaz in Isa. 7, and Jeremiah's judgment upon Zedekiah in Jer. 21). In the NT as well, Christian believers were sometimes critical of and even disobedient to the laws of government (Acts 4-5; 22:25; 24:25; Revelation, cf. also Luke 13:32; Mark 6:18, 13:9ff.)
While Paul says in verse 1 that the "authorities" (exousiai) are under the authority of God, he elsewhere emphasizes that all such authorities have been stripped of ultimate power because of Christ's
victory and Lordship (Col. 2:10, 15; Eph. 1:20-23; 3:10; 6:12; 1 Cor. 2:6-8; 15:24-25; Rom. 8:38-39).
To keep within Paul's and the Scriptures' larger emphases, we must not use Romans 13 to support unconditional obedience to government and as a derivative, an unqualified mandate for payment of all taxes. What is said in this specific situation cannot be hardened into a "Christian law"; the abiding law, rather, is found in verse 8: "owe no one anything except love."
- Analysis of key-words. The command "to be subject" in Romans 13:1 is based upon the Greek word (hypotasso) which connotes recognition of "order." Paul uses the same term for mutual subordination (Eph. 5:21), wifely subjection to the husband, and children's subjection to parents (Eph. 5:22-6:4).
While the term appears to be interchangeable with the Greek word "to obey" (hypakouo) in a few instances (compare "submit" in Titus 2:9 and 1 Peter 2:18 with "obey" in Eph. 6:5 and Col. 3:22), a distinction in meaning should be maintained. For these instances of interchange apply only to the slave-master relationship and the different words occur in different writers. The most that can be said is that while the writer of Ephesians and Colossians used the word "obey" (hypakouo) to describe the slave's response to the master, the same writer does not use that word to describe the response of other subordinates (political and domestic), nor do the writers of Titus and 1 Peter use the term "obey" for the slave's response. The conduct expected of Christians in response to an "order" (tagma) in
the social structure is not absolute obedience. Absolute obedience is reserved for God alone (note Daniel's refusal to drink and eat of the king's provisions, Acts 5:2927, Rev. 20:4). The word "subjection" carried within it the possibility of "not obeying" but remaining "subject" to the authority by suffering the penalty for disobedience.
The phrase "attending to this very thing" (v. 6) should likely be translated as a temporal participle, reading "when they attend..."28 This means that Paul tempers his admonition with the principle of discrimination. Certainly Paul would not regard every ruler in whatever act done as a servant of God; sometimes rulers act against God's purpose. In such cases, only in the same sense that Satan or evil may be designated as "serving" God in some ultimate sense, could it be said that evil rulers are servants of God. Paul, likely, was not thinking of such theodicy in this text; his counsel is framed by the situation at hand where he discerns good intent on the part of the rulers. But with a temporal participle he acknowledges that it may not always be so.
In accord with this interpretation, verse 7 also contains language of discrimination. John Howard Yoder comments on this verse as follows:
We are not called to submit to every demand of every state. When Paul instructs the Roman Christians (Romans 13:7) to give "tax to whom tax is due, toll to whom toll, respect to whom respect, and honor to whom honor," this is the opposite from saying that tax, toll, respect, and honor are due the state. He is saying, as the similarities to Matthew 22:21 and 1 Peter 2:17 confirm, that we are to discriminate and give to each only his due, refusing to give to Caesar what belongs to God.29
On first thought, Yoder's interpretation contradicts the findings from the reconstruction of the historical background. Those findings would indicate that Paul took a rather categorical position, telling the Roman Christians to pay both kinds of taxes. But, on closer analysis, the little phrase, "their due," calls for moral discernment on the part of those paying the tax.
Here, precisely, is where the moral imperatives from the literary context of Romans 13:1-7 must be considered:
- Do not be conformed to this world (i.e., the evils of the world).
- Let love be genuine.
- Overcome evil with good.
- Owe no one anything except love.
Only as these imperatives were fulfilled in the payment of the taxes were Paul's words in v. 7 truly heeded. Similarly, only when these moral imperatives are fulfilled through our response to the present dilemma of paying taxes used for military build-up will we truly hear Paul, Jesus, and the biblical intentions for our morality. Further, let us remember the missionary consideration: which course of action will better further the gospel and the cause of the kingdom world-wide?
- From Text to Present
Though we might wish it otherwise in order to get direct biblical counsel on payment of taxes for war, the text gives no indication that the moral question concerning the use of the tax for the Roman military or other political oppression of the pax Romana entered into the discussion. Nor do the secular contemporary sources connect the tax revolt to protest of Rome's military policies. In other words, Paul was not asked nor did he answer the question: what is the Christian moral obligation on tax payment when the tax is majorly used for military defense and war? One might argue that Paul did answer the question by his categorical statement (vv. 6-7), since he knew what taxes were used for, having seen Rome's military presence all over the empire in his travels. But to include this agenda in Paul's explicit discussion on the basis of logical extension would parallel the argument used in the 1800's that Paul endorsed slavery as an institution because he prescribed Christian conduct for slaves and masters. To use biblical texts this way results in misuse of the Bible. It makes the biblical writers say something different than they explicitly said.
How then should peacemaking Christians in the USA respond to the dilemma? On the one hand, specific scriptural references are readily interpreted to mandate payment of all taxes; on the other hand, the moral imperative of love for all, nonconformity to the world's values, and concern for the worldwide missionary cause raise major reservations, and for some, decisive directive not to pay taxes used for war.
To be sure, for those Christians who see Paul's command to be subject to the authorities as requiring participation in military service, the issue of this paper is irrelevant. But this study has been undertaken by and for those who have understood the Bible to forbid the Christian's participation in war in any form. What is at stake in the holding of these different positions, both appealing to scripture, are several crucial principles of biblical interpretation. Priority is given to the New Testament over the Old, thus relegating Israel's practices of warfare to a level of non-normative morality. The life and teachings of Jesus are central for moral guidance. Paul's specific counsel to "be subject" to the authorities does not mean indiscriminate obedience; nonresistant/pacifist Christians do (will) disobey government rather than participate in the military, given only these two alternatives. But when Paul's specific counsel was to pay taxes (and, although the text doesn't say it, we know that such resources were majorly used for the military), should not his counsel settle the question for us? Yes, in that our usual response will be to pay all taxes. But no, if that response violates the moral principles which framed Paul's specific counsel in 13:1-7.30
To use the example of slavery again: one hundred years ago many Bible-believing Christians used numerous specific scriptural texts to argue the rightness of slavery. 1 Timothy 6:1-6 and Philemon were widely quoted as specific biblical counsel and command in support of slavery. But citing these texts to support a system of slavery had the practical effect of repudiating the basic moral principles that Paul and the gospel promulgated.31
Similarly, we repudiate basic biblical principles of morality when we use Romans 13:7 to indiscriminately support payment of taxes used for war. The specific counsel legitimates a practice which repudiates the basic moral principles out of which the original specific counsel arose. The difference in the historical cultural situations and the questions addressed account for this problem; changed circumstances and questions call for different specific counsels even though the basic moral principles remain the same. For example, the basic principle behind holy war in the Old Testament, viz., trust in Yahweh, carried through into the New Testament, but specific teaching on warfare changed because of changed historical realities, including unfolding revelation from the Old to the New Testaments with redefinition of the boundaries of God's peoplehood.
This means that the Bible cannot be used in a proof-text way as a code book for contemporary moral issues. It does give directives and answers; but God's people must discern how to consistently and faithfully translate those basic moral principles into specific counsel for contemporary moral action.
Personal Response to the Issue
In an effort to follow the basic moral principles of the New Testament--submission to governmental authority, nonconformity to the world, owing nothing but love, overcoming evil with good, and promoting the missionary cause of the gospel--I have made the payment of a per cent (30-60%) of my annual tax a matter of resistance-witness, resistance to the government's use of the money for military budgets and witness to the call of the gospel to peace, trust in God, concern for the poor, and the way of love. I've written letters to Internal Revenue Service, my representative and senators, the House Ways and Means Committee, and to my telephone company regarding the telephone tax to express my position and the peace church's concern on this matter. Responses have been understanding but firm in the requirement to pay. When I do pay the tax, I make a second check payable to Public Health Service and ask IRS to forward it in the enclosed addressed and stamped envelope. Two times so far the amount has actually gone to a specific public health organization (several years later, however, IRS levied my bank account to collect the amount sent to PHS, not accepting that payment as an IRS payment); usually, however, IRS endorses and cashes the check.
I have felt right in using this approach. My hope and prayer is that the witness given through the letters and interviews accompanying such action will both speak a word faithful to the gospel and sensitize others to kingdom values and the gospel's critique of national priorities.
I welcome counsel and dialogue on this article, especially to test and ascertain in the spirit of Christian discernment the way of faithful response to this moral dilemma.
Send correspondence to Willard Swartley, AMBS, 3003 Benham Avenue, Elkhart, IN 46517.
1The Church as a Prophetic Community ( Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), pp.111-112.
2 This is the basis for Israel's refusal of a king. See Judges 8:22-23 and compare I Sam. 8:4-9.
3 The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, (London: Epworth Press, 1944), pp. 52-53.
4 Oscar Cullman, The State in the New Testament (New York: Scribner's, 1956), pp. 14-18.
5 S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York: Scribner's, 1967).
6 D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penquin Books, 1963), P. 314.
7 Josephus Antiquities XVIII, I, I, Wars II, 8, 1.
8 Some scholars, however, hold that the followers of Judas were called Sicarii (dagger-carriers), but not Zealots. They argue that Josephus does not use the latter term as such until A.D. 66, when Menahem heads up the Zealot party to defend the temple. For this view, see Morton Smith, "Zealots and Sicarii, Their Origins and Relation," Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971), pp. 1-19. It is interesting to note that the headquarters for this revolt was Sepphoris, only three miles north of Nazareth. At this time, Jesus would have been about ten years old.
9 William Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 423.
10 Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (London: SCM Press, 1955), p. 124.
12 Ibid., p. 125.
13 Ibid., p. 127.
14 C. Milo Connick, Jesus: The Man, the Mission, and The Message (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, rev. ed. 1973), p. 335.
15 Mark however, lacks the introductory "then" which this interpretation almost requires. Luke does begin Jesus' answer with "Then" (20:5). Matthew begins Jesus' answer with "Render therefore..." Either Luke's or Matthew's version would strengthen this proposed interpretation.
16 See my fuller discussion of this segment in Mark: The Way for All Nations (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1979, pp. 49-57.
17 For fuller analysis of Mark 12, see Swartley, Mark, pp. 171-174.
18 Donald Kauffman, What Belongs to Caesar? (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1969, pp. 41-42.
19 I am indebted to Daryl Schmidt's helpful essay on Luke 23 for these insights, "Luke's 'Innocent' Jesus: A Scriptural Apologetic" in Political Issues in Luke-Acts, ed. By Richard J. Cassidy and Philip Scharper (New York: Orbis Press, 1983), pp. 111-121. My article in the same volume, "Politics and Peace (Eirene) in Luke's Gospel, "pp. 18-37, supports also the view, contra much Lukan scholarship, that the peace of Jesus' gospel is not a political pact with Rome but a new social reality transcending both Judaism and the politics of the empire. In the final analysis Pilate too stood judged by "the king" because he could not comprehend Jesus; like the Jewish religious leaders, he was judged by Jesus even though they cried, "Crucify" and he pronounced, "not guilty." This Jesus' cry, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" (23:34) extends equally to both peoples involved in this failure of justice.
20 The State, p. 48.
21 The Moral Teaching of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), p. 126.
22 From Word to Life: A Guide to the Art of Bible Study (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1982), pp. 73-75.
23 Seen in this light, Romans 13:1-7 has had an undue influence in generating discussion about the nature and authority of the state, often leading Christian people to an indiscriminate passivity and obedience toward government. Paul was not spelling out a normative theory of the authority of the state, but using traditional beliefs (Jewish and Hellenistic) to substantiate practical counsel.
Note The Living Bible paraphrase of 13:1: "Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power." What an interpretation!
24 Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Book V, XXV, The Loel Classical Library, Vol. 148 (Latin Series), trans. By J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, harvard University Press, 1959), p. 53. Chrestus is a variant form of Christus; whether this refers to Jewish Christians or disputes between Jews and Christians is uncertain.
25 The Annals of Tacitus, Book XIII, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. 153 (Latin series), trans, by John Jackson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 38. On historical reconstruction of the events lying behind Romans 12-13, especially the tax issue, see J. Friedrich, W. Pöhlmann, and P. Stuhlmacher, "Zur historischen Situation und Intention von Rom 13. 1-7, "Zeitachrift für Theolgie und Kirche 73 (1967), 131-166.
26 Nero did reform the collection of the commission-tax, requiring "a check . . . to be placed on the cupidity of the collectors" and the rates of tax to "be posted for public inspection." Several collectors faced charges of alleged acts of cruelty, but were acquitted by the Caesar. Annals, Book XIII, vol. 153, pp. 89, 91.
27 The specific Greek verb used in Acts 5:29 is peitharchein which carries the meaning of "being persuaded towards a given position," thus heeding or obeying that respective source of authority. The verb, hypakouo, describes obedient response to a spoken command. The word for subjection (hypotasso) literally means "to tie under," thus denoting the accepting of a position in the societal order.
28 See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 207-209.
29 "The Thing That Are Caesars: (Part I)," Christian Living (July 1960), p. 5. C. J. Cadoux points out that numerous church fathers took the view of "double obligation," in which taxes are Caesar's due, but respect and honor are God's due. The Early Church and the World (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1925), pp. 258, 351, 369-370, 371, 539. Some modern commentators have followed the same view, suggesting that Paul's counsel followed the same view, suggesting that Paul's counsel follows Jesus' words of rendering to both Caesar and God. But Yoder doubts this interpretation, noting that 1 Pet. 2:17 assigns honor to the emperor; discrimination is required, rather, in each area: tax, revenue, respect, honor.
30 If Paul's specific command to pay taxes in the Roman situation of AD 55-58 A.D. is not consonant with the basic moral principles enunciated in Romans 12-13, then two options follow: Either 13:1-7 is a later non-Pauline interpolation (held by a few scholars) or Paul makes a pragmatic concession.
31 For further study of the hermeneutical issues involved in this study, I refer the reader to my book, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983), especially chs. 1, 3 and pp. 215-234, and my article, "How to Interpret the Bible: A Case Study of Romans 13:1-7 and the Payment of Taxes for War, "Seeds, 3, 4 (June 1984), 28-31.