I spent a lot of time pondering the first few verses of Romans 13 last week, verses that speak about authority. Paul is writing to the church at Rome and telling them that each one of them is to actively obey the governing authorities in every situation. He makes no exceptions; he simply commands them to obey all the time–“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” It’s interesting to think about what Paul was commanding here.
He was writing to people who lived in Rome, people who were under the authority of a government that worshipped idols, that was systematically out to conquer and subjugate the world, that made death a form of entertainment, that promoted slavery, that was utterly ruthless and actively opposed to God. This was the government that was always on the verge of breaking out in persecution against the church. It was the government that had put Jesus to death. Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus, who mocked him, who spat on him, who rejoiced in his death.
And yet the Christians were to obey these rulers, to give them honor, respect and taxes–whatever was asked of them.
I had to sit for a while and ponder the value of taxes. This was obviously an urgent issue to people in those days since both Jesus and Paul had addressed it. These people were paying taxes to a government they did not believe in and paying taxes that would go to the soldiers who took advantage of them. Yet Paul and Jesus agreed: pay your taxes. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
I believe that there are at least two reasons that we are to pay taxes to the authorities. There is practical value in paying taxes and there is also a kind of important symbolic value.
Practically, we pay taxes to support the rulers in their work. Without our taxes, they cannot be set aside to do this work of governing us. If we believe in authority, if we believe that God has raised up governors to rule us, we see the need to pay them so they can do the work of ruling. I suppose this is similar to what we find in the church. If you believe in the value of pastors, you’ll be willing to give money to the church to support the pastor in his vocation.
There is also a kind of symbolic value to paying taxes. By paying taxes we affirm that we understand the intrinsic value of authority. Paying taxes is one very practical way that we prove our obedience to God and prove our understanding of the authority he has given to government. It’s a way in which we put our money where our mouth is.
Simple enough. But here’s a way I had to apply this. I had to then ask myself, when I pay my taxes, do I pay them joyfully? It seems inconceivable that I’d be commanded to do something and then be allowed to do it hesitantly and with complaining. And I sure complain a lot about taxes.
As a Canadian I carry quite a heavy tax burden. You may have heard of Tax Freedom Day, the day that the average person has theoretically worked enough that he has paid his taxes and from that point until December 31 will be working for his own benefit. That day keeps falling later and later in the year. It’s currently at June 6 in Canada, which means that all I earn from January 1 until June 6 goes out of my hands and straight to the government. That hurts. In the United States that day falls in mid-April. That still hurts.
So do we complain about it? I know I do. Actually, I love to complain about taxes. I love to mumble about it, to grumble about it, to resent it. If there is a respectable sin in the Christian world, surely it is complaining about government. I hate that the government demands a pretty good share of the money I earn. Yet with all the authority of God behind him, Paul tells me to pay my taxes and to do so with honor and respect. I have no right to grumble, no right to gripe or complain. Yet too often I react like a toddler who has been told to put away his toys–I do it, but my whole demeanor, my whole heart attitude, screams that I hate doing it, that I’m doing it only because I fear the consequences of not doing it. So I pay my taxes, all the while harboring a deep resentment.
I was convicted by God that if I am to give what is owed to those who govern me, those who have been given authority by God, I must learn to give them the money they ask, but also give them the honor and respect they deserve.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.