Sunday, November 11, 2012

Processing Jesus on Taxes and Government Assistance

... 1 John 3:17 may sum it up the best: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

1 John is obviously talking about individual giving. To what extent should churches give? What role should the government play in giving? These are questions that generate strong feelings on all sides.

There are clear instances of Christians coming together to pool their resources to help others in the New Testament. The most significant is the collection Paul took up for the Jerusalem church from the churches he had planted around the Mediterranean (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). This may have been in response to Peter and James’ instructions to Paul to remember the poor (of Jerusalem) as he founded churches around the Roman world (cf. Gal. 2:10). Here again, we see the principle that the broader church has a responsibility to take care of other parts of the church that are in need.

What about governments? There is a strong sentiment among many Christians today that the government should not be in the business of helping the needy, that God and the Bible assign this duty to individual Christians and the church. How does this sentiment actually line up against the Bible?

In general, this argument has much more to do with the debates of our world than it does the biblical world. With regard to the New Testament, it is largely an argument from silence. The early Christians were in no position to be instructing the Romans to take care of the needy, so it is no surprise they don’t say much along these lines. Paul does say in Romans 13 that Christians should pay taxes (13:6-7) and that governments are meant to do things for our good (13:4). Nothing here prohibits a government from helping the needy with those taxes.

Whether we believe today that the government should help with the needy is thus an argument we will need to have on the merits of whether we think government will tend to help or hurt those to whom it gives assistance. You will certainly not find any prohibition of the government helping. Indeed, Psalm 72:12-13 honors the king who delivers the needy and pities the weak. We might debate whether the government actually does good, but the Bible simply does not in any way forbid a government from doing good with taxes. If any biblical writer thought a government was truly helping those in need in a reasonable way, it would praise it.

I write this chapter in the wake of Hurricane Sandy which ravaged the coast of New York and New Jersey. Since the government was highly criticized after Hurricane Katrina several years ago in New Orleans—and since America was in the last days of a presidential election—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved in swiftly to help. Churches and other aid organizations like the Red Cross also sprang into action.

No doubt the assistance has not been perfect. Over a week has gone by and there are still individuals without power in the cold. But the question arises—could churches and non-profit organizations have helped those in need nearly as well and as speedily as the federal government? It’s hard to see how the answer could be yes. The help that individual Christians, churches, and non-profit organizations can give in the wake of earthquakes in Haiti or tsunamis in Indonesia is a drop in the bucket next to what a government like that of the United States can do speedily and extensively.

It is hard to imagine any scenario in which Jesus would not be pleased to find that a government had helped in this way, in addition to the assistance that individual churches and Christian organizations give. In fact, of all the things that taxes might go for, surely Jesus and Paul would be most pleased about this one. Jesus and Paul are solidly on the record behind Christians paying their taxes and this despite the fact that massive amounts of money in the Roman tax system simply lined the pockets of greedy individuals. Our system is far more just than theirs was...


::athada:: said...

One wonders how so many small and disparate charities could coordinate assistance.

I would like to see the giving data on White Evangelicals, All Protestants, and Catholics: 1) gross charitable giving 2) giving as % of church revenue 3) some measure of outcome-based "effectiveness". Then compare those data with the political leanings of the 3 groups, which are roughly 80/20 Romney/Obama, 57/43, 50/50, respectively. (voting by religious group:

Is it fair to expect that those who favor private charity should be giving more? Though the objection is that over-taxation prevents this.

Either way, I'm proud that believers of all stripes make up the bulk of private charitable efforts.

Robert Brenchley said...

In Jesus' time, the Jews, who he obviously addressed, lacked their own government. The churches of the diaspora were small and marginalised. I don't think we should expect to find anything in the NT about government and the poor.

That needs a study of the OT. Psalm 72 might be a good place to start, though there must be plenty of other relevant texts.

Anonymous said...


There's another important question regarding government assistance.

The federal government does not create its own resources. It can only give assistance to one person if it first takes the resources from someone else.

What's the moral authority for government to take from one person and then give what it takes to another person?


John C. Gardner said...

I myself received aid to go to college from the federal government. I paid our country back by repaying my loan in full, earning more in future years, and therefore paying higher taxes. Oliver Wendell Holmes stated(this is a paraphrase) that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. I have friends who served in Vietnam and now have cancer from Agent Orange. The VA(through our tax money)takes care of them. We owe them and others a real moral debt. All of us are created in the image of God and we are not forbidden by Scripture in a democracy from assisting our fellow citizens. I am a small government egalitarian and I believe that the government should aid those in need. All of us are takers in some sense of the word since the Middle and Upper Middle classes receive tax deductions for mortgage interest, charity and state-local taxes. Libertarianism is not compatible in an economic sense with Christianity. I am a social conservative communitarian who is a Wesleyan Christian.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for pointing that out about Psalm 72. It seems that the first 4 verses of the Psalm are also evidence that a king was supposed to help the poor.

Most likely, kings were rich mostly because of what they took from the people, with or without their consent.

Ned Netterville said...

Jesus left us with pretty explicit and picturesque instructions on who our neighbor is, and how we are to help him or her or them in his memorable parable of the Good Samaritan. Whoever is within the ambit of our awareness and needs help that we can give is our neighbor. Very definitely Jesus had his Good Samaritan use only his own personal resources exclusively to succor the poor stranger he assisted. Jesus concluded his parable saying, "Go and do likewise."

You wrote, "We might debate whether the government actually does good, but the Bible simply does not in any way forbid a government from doing good with taxes." Ah, but God in the Bible does forbid taxes. He Commands: "Thou shall not steal!" The commandment is unequivocal and without an exception for agents of government. Taxation, because it always relies on force or coercion for its collection, is indistinguishable from extortion, which is stealing. Furthermore, it is ludicrous to think that there is anything of compassion, charity or generosity in succoring the poor with OPM (sounds like opium, is equally addicting, stands for other people's money--forcibly taken.)

Taxpayers forced to provide aid to government beneficiaries are actually the luckier ones. They are merely deprived of their money, whereas the beneficiaries are deprived of their honesty and integrity. A far greater loss to be sure.

Ken Schenck said...

A tell tale sign that we are imposing our definitions on the Bible is when the Bible doesn't connect the dots the way our definitions think it should. Both Jesus and Paul say to pay taxes, and that in a world where the powers that be were obviously corrupt. Paul says, "pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God" (Rom. 13:6).

Jesus is asked, "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” His answer, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:22-25). In other words, "yes," and he pays the temple tax as well (Matt. 17:24-27).

The New Testament unambiguously instructs Christians to pay taxes, therefore, taxes cannot be stealing from a New Testament world view.