The Law of God, far from being expendable, is the mortar that holds a just order together.
To the extent that we minimize God and His Law, we necessarily ally ourselves with the false order of messianic statism described so long ago in 1 Samuel 8. Instead of being content with our Lord as judge, lawgiver, and king (Isa. 33:22), we continually show ourselves as malcontents, looking for greener pastures, for better modes of government. We seek refuge in the Potemkin village of socialism, where grand men promise the moon but never really deliver, and the people find their freedom curtailed and their wealth siphoned off to be enjoyed by others.
This forcible redistribution of wealth, regardless of the intentions behind it, is nothing more than legalized theft and it is one of the indispensable tools of the pagan messianic State. At the end of the day, the Land of the Free, while freer than many nations, is nevertheless not free according to the only definition that matters. Our government, whether manned by Republicans or Democrats, steals from us constantly, and God’s judgment is inescapable unless we repent and right this ship in faith.
Taxation as theft
The stark Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”, is found in Exodus 20:15 and, though it applies to us all,—even our civil authorities, this irrevocable command is anathema to messianic statists across the political spectrum. Magistrates transgress the Eighth Commandment in countless ways, but to speak simply, they steal through illegitimate taxes. These taxes aren’t always levied directly, like a property tax. Some of them are extracted indirectly with the consequences obscured, like our incomprehensible federal regulations, our tariffs, and the most insidious and surreptitious of them all, the inflation that stems from our nation’s monetary policy.
If extracting a tenth of the peoples’ grain, vineyards, and flocks was once tantamount to slavery (1 Sam. 8:10-18), robbing a man of his freedom, and no subsequent Scripture has annulled this benchmark of tyranny, then this passage must have enduring relevance as God’s revealed threshold of oppressive tax burdens. To be more precise, taxation is theft when revenue exceeds what is required by God for the maintenance of justice.
How far has America fallen?
There was a time when our Christian forefathers, flawed though they were, would have rightly chafed at the crippling yoke Americans gladly shoulder nowadays. One of the preeminent economic historians on Colonial America, Alvin Rabushka of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes of our colonial forefathers, “While the methods of assessment and the rates of tax varied among the New England colonies, the evidence suggests that effective tax rates on land and other real assets were below 1 percent. Government expenditures were low, which minimized the need to impose high rates. In addition, the colonists evaded, avoided, and resisted even these low rates by trying to conceal assets and have land classified as least developed.” Elsewhere, Rabushka tells us that, even as recently as 1929, the federal and state government, altogether, only consumed 10 percent of the nation’s income, with a paltry 3 percent of the nation’s income being taxed by the federal government.
Technically, even these latter tax levels are too high by Biblical standards, but, regardless, isn’t it remarkable just how far have we fallen in only ninety years? As of 2015, the average wage earner in the U.S was saddled with a total tax burden of 31.7 percent of his pretax earnings, more than three times what God requires of us.
But what about rendering unto Caesar?
Some might retort that I can’t be right, because, after all, we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21) and to pay “taxes to whom taxes are owed” (Rom. 13:7), are we not? Whatever chunk of flesh Caesar requires of us, some argue, we must pay with joy, knowing that magistrates have been instituted for our good by our God. Moreover, we deserve something far worse than high taxes and Big Government: we deserve eternal death.
I agree that we do deserve worse and that we should pay our taxes, but I think we also mustn’t forget that even Caesar is to render to God the things that are God’s, and that, when Caesar acts as a thief and oppressor, he is in rank rebellion against God and deserves to know when coals are being heaped upon his head and the dam of God’s wrath is about to break against him and the nation.
Therefore, as we pay our taxes, we should understand that such oft-quoted passages are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and do not serve as God-breathed rubber stamps, providing moral validation for every covetous whim of Caesar. And then we should not neglect to press on to do the more important work of educating each other as to the evils of dreadful policies and asphyxiating tax burdens, so that we aren’t satisfied with our enslavement and gradual disinheritance.
Zacchaeus was one such magistrate, the chief tax collector in Jericho, who was guilty of abusing his authority to swindle the people. This is why Christ commends him for making a fourfold restitution, in accordance with Exodus 22:1, for having defrauded the people of Jericho (Lk. 19:8). Just because magistrates might have legal warrant from men to extort from other men, it doesn’t mean that they have such warrant from God.
Many of our magistrates nowadays are every bit as guilty as Zacchaeus and should repent for much of the same.
If extracting a tenth of the peoples’ grain, vineyards, and flocks was once tantamount to slavery, and no subsequent Scripture has annulled it, then this passage must have relevance as God’s revealed threshold of oppressive tax burdens.—@attentivesons
So, what civil taxes has God established? Depending on whom you ask, it’s most likely either one or none.
To some, like Dr. Robert Fugate, the only tax that was “instituted and endorsed by God” was the tax described in Exodus 30, the head tax. This tax was a flat fee of a half shekel of the sanctuary that was levied on every male who was 20 years and older for the purposes of civil atonement in wartime and the occasional maintenance of the tabernacle.
The problem with its continuing applicability is that it was inherently ecclesiastical and tied to the Temple system and this system has obviously been fulfilled and superseded by Christ, which is why the perspectives of Dr. Joel McDurmon and Dr. Gary North strike me as a little more persuasive. They argue that because there is no revealed law regarding civil tax collection, that, then, there is no precedent or minimum requirement for civil taxation at all. There’s a clear maximum, but no minimum.
McDurmon writes, “What type of tax is best? There is no biblical law regarding any taxation for civil government. This leads me to believe there should be none. Nevertheless, we are given the ecclesiastical precedents of the tithes as a model for which type of taxation is best in the event that a sinful society demands one. There were only two types specified by law: a tithe on increase of produce, and a small flat head tax. The particular flat tax, however, specified in Exodus 30:11–16, was explicitly priestly in nature, and was only paid by males over 20 years old who were numbered in the army. It was specifically called ‘ransom money’ to protect the lives of God’s holy soldiers. It was specifically for atonement. It was only collected when a army was raised for a battle. It was thus not meant to be pattern for a general stream of revenue. It should thus not be looked to as a good measure for civil revenue either.
The other type seems more suited for the purpose of general revenue: this was the general tithe on increase of produce. The tithe was ten percent and was payable after harvest at a central location during the appropriate semi-annual festival. It could be paid in produce itself or in monetary form, depending on the taxpayer’s convenience (Lev. 27:30–33; Deut. 14:22–29). In a modern monetary economy, we would simply call this an income tax. In Deuteronomy, the ten percent was God’s requirement for the ecclesiastical institution—not the civil State. The funds were to be used for feasting and making merry, as well as taking care of the widows and fatherless, and the priests and Levites. (Thus, welfare was an ecclesiastical function as well).
The Bible gives no such ten-percent requirement for the civil government. It in fact gives no percentage at all for civil government.”
Our God, who specified that His altars be made only of unhewn stone (Exod. 20:25), that His priests’ robes be decorated only with pomegranates and golden bells (Exod. 28:33), and that His ark needs to be no less than two and a half cubits long (Exod. 25:10), somehow failed to reveal his specifications for how civil government was to be funded. What if He didn’t fail at all, though, but made this absence as a feature of His Law of liberty?
Which taxes are illegitimate?
Well, nearly all of them.
I can say this with considerable confidence because God has revealed all that we need in order to do justice and be “complete for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We are told that God’s Law is “perfect” and “righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-9), which explains why both adding to and taking from the Law is forbidden (Dt. 4:2), indicating that God has no need of our pharisaical embellishments or anarchistic revisions in order for justice to be done. Therefore, we can trust that the lack of Scriptural support for our smorgasbord of taxes renders them of questionable ethical validity, but I’d argue further that, because our just and holy God hates legal partiality of all stripes (2 Chron. 19:6-7), regardless of whether the laws are designed to favor the pitiable poor, the regal rich, or the mighty majority, God’s requirement for righteous impartiality brings the immorality of our tax system into even greater focus.
“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exod. 23:2-3).
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15).
“People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry, but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house” (Prov. 6:30-31).
Frankly, much of our nation’s tax system, court rulings, and economic policies wouldn’t survive a run through this divine gauntlet, even one as short as this.
A perfect example of this partiality is seen in our progressive income tax. And while a small, flat income tax or sales tax might be allowable from a Biblical standpoint, a progressive tax of any kind most certainly is not. Progressive taxes not only tilt the scales of justice in favor of the poor, effectively weaponizing envy and engendering class strife, but they fly in the face of clear Scripture. Moses is warned not to give way to this alluring temptation to relieve the poor of paying their head tax and expecting the affluent to make up the shortfall. “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel…” (Ex. 30:15).
This law, though, is merely reflective of the broader impartiality of God’s Law, “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 24:22). Even as Paul exhorted the wealthy Corinthians to be ready and willing to shoulder more burdens than poorer Christians, he didn’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting “that others should be eased and you burdened” (2 Cor. 8:12). This principle of righteous impartiality, mind you, was repeatedly upheld by Paul (Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9, 1 Tim. 5:21) and must assuredly did not topple into obsolescence with the pillars of Herod’s temple.
Our public schools, public parks, salaries for our municipal employees, and even our roads are financed by property taxes. Honestly, some of the beneficiaries of property taxes shouldn’t even exist, like our ungodly public schools, while others can and should be privately owned and operated, like roads and parks.
Regardless of who stands to benefit, though, property taxes and estate taxes are one such tax that is entirely indefensible from Scripture. No magistrate, Biblically speaking, has the authority to levy taxes against the land because it is God who owns the earth, not the State. To tax the land is to rob God of what is His and His alone. Neither does the magistrate have the right to penalize recipients of a generous inheritance. We find in Ezekiel 46:16-18 that the prince is not to throw his subjects out of their rightful inheritance, much like the wicked Ahab did to poor Naboth (1 Kings 21:3). “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property. He shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people shall be scattered from his property” (Ezek. 46:18). This is an unsurprising consequence given the prohibition against moving property lines, which all men, even kings, were to honor (Dt. 19:14).
Civil asset forfeiture
The State makes a habit of moving landmarks, though, taking property beyond the ordinary usurpation of the property tax. Our government’s civil asset forfeiture laws and its right of “eminent domain” attest to that.
Civil asset forfeiture, simply put, allows law enforcement to rob people who’ve merely been suspected of criminal activity. Oftentimes, those suspected and cleared of wrongdoing never have their belongings returned. Local police departments will, instead, keep 80 percent of these forfeiture revenues while sending the remainder to the Justice Department’s equitable sharing fund for other police departments to enjoy. Between 2001 and 2014, some $29 billion was seized from people in this way.
As Radley Balko writes, “Civil asset forfeiture is basically a license for police to steal from the poor. No, not all police departments do it. But it provides a strong incentive for it. Low-income people are more likely to be targeted, more likely to be seen by law enforcement as potential drug offenders, more likely to have cash taken from them in amounts too small to merit the trouble associated with getting it back, and less likely to have access to legal assistance to get it back even if they wanted to.”
Then there’s the right of eminent domain, which falls under our nation’s Fifth Amendment, allowing the State to acquire private land for development projects benefitting the public and offering “just” compensation to its owners. Just compensation is a misnomer, however. Professor Gideon Kanner reveals the hidden costs and injustices inherent to eminent domain: “…the true standard of compensation is not indemnity, but rather fair market value so artfully defined as to exclude factors that sellers and buyers in voluntary transactions would consider; and that the government need pay only for what it acquires, not for what the owner has lost. Thus, in spite of the flowery language in court opinions, expounding ideas of fairness, justice and indemnity said to be the constitutional due of property owners whose property is taken, it turns out that American condemnees are harshly treated and routinely undercompensated.”
What’s more troubling is what happens when owners don’t want to sell their homes. It’s here that they will discover their insignificance before the State and learn that their property rights are, in actuality, secondary to the government’s rights. Should they reject the government’s initial offer, the government will oftentimes reappraise their property at a fraction of the value in a vengeful effort to intimidate the owners into reconsidering, a move that is common enough to be affectionately dubbed “sandbagging.” Should the owner continue to decline the State’s table-scraps, then the State will sue and seek to evict the owners from their home, or what supposedly was their home.
Far from repudiating the thievery of Jezebel and Ahab, we have, instead, enshrined their schemes into law. And, as wonderful as our Constitution can be in parts, it must be remembered that it is only great insofar as it reflects God’s Law. Our Constitution has profound deficiencies, though, and the right of eminent domain is undoubtedly one of them. It allows the will of the collective to coerce innocent individuals out of their rightful property, and that is always abominable and never to be countenanced, even when it costs us a shiny new sports stadium.
This article orginally appeared at Learning How to Live Biblically.