Every Instance Of Taxation Is A Claim To Ownership

Gordan Runyan comments
| Politics

Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, said this:

“I don't know what to do or where to turn in this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don't know where the book is, and maybe I couldn't read it if I found it.”

Without meaning to single out Mr. Harding there, it must be said: That is a really depressing quote.

That quote means that we had a man placed in the highest position of civil authority in our land who was clueless, admittedly so, about the topic of taxation. Additionally, it means we had a man in that position who was too ignorant to even know where to turn to fix his cluelessness. It gets worse, though, when we realize that he was only one in a very long line of men in that same position, in the same state of abject ignorance. We’re not picking on Mr. Harding. There were many, many others. It would boggle the mind to ask about that ignorance, not only in Presidents, but in Congressmen, and Senators, and Supreme Court Justices. How many of them, throughout our short, national history have been just as mentally vacuous in that regard?

Yikes. One begins to see how we got where we are.

“Somewhere there must be a book that tells about it.”

Well, to his credit, Harding’s instincts were right at this point. There is, in fact, such a book. Very likely that book sat right under his nose. I’d bet a lot of money that he had a copy of it within arm’s reach of his presidential desk, if only for appearances.

He certainly could have read it, despite his stated doubt. In fact, I believe he did. Otherwise, it’s tough to imagine where he got ideas like this: “Inherent rights are from God, and the tragedies of the world originate in their attempted denial.”

That book which he could and should have read to get the answers to taxation, is the Bible. We can hardly chastise him though. Most pastors in most pulpits do not know that the Bible has something to say about taxation. Or, if they know, they ain’t sayin’.

The Bible gives wisdom, concepts, and even commandments concerning taxation, in both the Old and New Testaments.

Now, if you’re inclined to stop reading right here, please read the next sentence before you quit; as it’s the takeaway line. According to the Scriptures, every instance of taxation is a claim to ownership.

Let’s look at two instances of compulsory payments that God commanded to be made in the Old Testament, in the Law given through Moses. I don’t believe either one of these was properly a “tax” as we know it, since neither was paid to the civil government, but they are close enough to be useful. If they are not taxes in any sense, as some smarter teachers than myself would claim, then it must be concluded that the Law did not authorize any taxation at all. This is significant because the Law of God, similar to the U.S. Constitution, was a “limited powers” document. That is, it spelled out explicitly and specifically what the governing powers could do. If it didn’t give to the king Power X, then Power X did not belong to the king, and it would be wrong for him to assume Power X just because he had the military might to do so.

This is what it means when the Law of God warns the future kings of Israel that they were not allowed to govern at variance from the Law, either to the right or to the left (Deuteronomy 17:18-20.) The first leader of Israel after Moses was given the same, strict obligation, to do what the Law says, without turning one way or the other (Joshua 1:7-9.)

Our first instance of compulsory payments is found in Exodus 30, quoting here verses 13-15 from the ESV:

Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD's offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD's offering to make atonement for your lives.

It is interesting to note that the amount of the “tax” here is flat in the absolute sense, not merely flat with regard to rate. Everybody paid the same amount, not the same percentage.

However, that’s not the point we need to see with regard to my thesis statement above: Every instance of taxation is a claim to ownership.

Here, the lawfully compulsory payment is made to whom? “To the LORD.” And why? Because it is “the LORD’s offering.” He claims it as it His own. He owns it. He gets to do that, being God and all.

Note also, this offering is said to “make atonement” for the lives of the Israelites. Are we talking about paying money to be saved here? If so, we better exhume ol’ Tetzel and apologize for that whole, messy Reformation business. But no. Leave him in Sheol. Money no more paid for their sins than the blood of bulls and goats in their sacrifices did. (See Hebrews 10:4.) However, just like those offerings, this one was meant to publicly remind them of their need. They had been redeemed from Egypt, and brought into covenant with the Lord, but their hearts still beat with rebellion and sin. They needed a greater atonement than the Law could provide and this payment showed them that, if they had eyes to see. It wasn’t just that this offering belonged to God, but the people paying it did as well.

So, in sum let’s ask it again. Why could God demand this compulsory payment of every fighting-age male in Israel? Because they were His people. He owned them.

Our next text in the quest to prove that taxation implies ownership, is found at Leviticus 27:30-34. This is a classic text on the topic of the tithe, or the “tenth,” which was to be paid on the increase of a man’s goods. It was not voluntary, but mandatory. In fact, to fail to pay it is prophetically labeled as “robbing God” much later, in Malachi 3:8-10. But in our text here, the verse to highlight from Leviticus is 27:30, which says,

“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD's; it is holy to the LORD.”

Why pay the tithe? Because it “is the LORD’s.” It belongs to him.

The New Testament agrees with the idea that taxation is a claim to ownership. For the sake of brevity here, I refer you to my recent sermon on the topic, found here.

Common sense and common experience also agree that taxation implies ownership. If you own your own home, what happens if you stop paying your property taxes? Eventually, the taxing authority takes your home away from you. Many have seen that what this boils down to is, when you pay those taxes, you’re paying rent to the real landlords.

Daniel Webster, of dictionary fame, famously argued before the John Marshall Supreme Court that the power to tax necessarily involved the power to destroy. Another part of his argument there, was (in my paraphrase) if I have the power to collect a 10% tax from you, what stops me at 10%? Why not tax you 40%, or 60, 80, 90%? If I have the right to ten percent, then the necessary implication is that I can take it all if I desire, unless you forcibly stop me.

One might even say that the act of theft is really an ownership issue. You own something I want. I decide to transfer its ownership to me without your consent. No doubt Lysander Spooner had something like this in mind when he wrote in Liberty: Not the Daughter But the Mother of Order, Vol 3:

“If taxation without consent is robbery, the United States government has never had, has not now, and is never likely to have, a single honest dollar in its treasury. If taxation without consent is not robbery, then any band of robbers have only to declare themselves a government, and all their robberies are legalized.”

In conclusion, I have one request. If you should ever come into possession of a time machine, pop back to the Harding era. Take the Bible off his desk, put it into his hands, and say, “Take and read. Taxation is a claim to ownership.” (And then do the same with every other President!)


Gordan Runyan

Gordan is a husband of 31 years, and the father of 3 daughters. He is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He and his wife host the Worldview Media Podcast, where they analyze movies and other entertainment through a Covenantal lens. He is the author of the book, Resistance to Tyrants: Romans 13 and the Christian Duty to Oppose Wicked Rulers, and the young adult action/adventure novel, The Groaning Man.

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