Some years ago, when my family moved into a new house, we liked that it was in the slightly more rural (and socially-diverse) school district just outside of town. Because one of the schools in that school district was closer to the center of the nearby city than our house, we figured that we were in the township, outside of the city. About 9 months later, my wife was talking with a friend, who told her, “No, you’re inside the city.” An online inspection of a city map confirmed that we were indeed living inside the city limits – and thus subject to the city income tax!
While the person at the taxation office was friendly, and didn’t penalize us (over and above the 9 months of back taxes that we had incurred), we now owed 2% of our future income to the city, over and above our normal property tax (plus sales taxes, and all other kinds of taxes, which we already knew about). Talk about an unexpected pay cut!
Many people follow Jesus (and enjoy the rewards of living in His company, starting here in our mortal lives) and yet still live in the physical world (not yet having moved on to the perfect world that awaits them in eternity). In this situation, it may feel like we are paying taxes twice: we choose to obey God, and serve Him; however, we also have the obligations of the world: having to work hard, follow rules, and yes – even pay taxes.
When we are serving God, but still having to follow rules made by other people, it might seem unfair or – from an outside perspective – unnecessarily restrictive. Let me offer two thoughts on this matter, though:
Nothing is Owed Twice
When some “religious” leaders tried to trap Jesus by forcing Him to choose between God and Caesar (i.e., the current government), He responded with a question in return:
Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.”
Luke 20:22-24 NASB
Whatever we may “owe”, Jesus made a distinction:
- Caesar (or in our case, the president, prime minister, king, etc.) was not a god. Despite claims that he and others might have made, none of the Caesars were actually gods. No government leader – even if highly respected – merits our worship, our reverence, or our soul. However, Caesar was still in a position to demand taxes or tribute from the countries within his empire.
- God doesn’t need our money. God already owns everything. After all, God created the universe, and us. Then, after we made bad choices, He paid the price to get us back again. Instead of vainly trying to “pay Him back”, we give God praise and glory befitting Him, and – as stewards of His creation – leverage material blessings to maximize the number of people that can be rescued from sin’s ultimate punishment.
So, we don’t “owe” God an offering at church in the same way that we “owe” taxes to the government. We are actually dependent upon God for everything, and should invest what He has given us according to His will, apportioning to both ministry and government as He directs us.
On the other hand, we must not swing too far in the other direction, and treat government leaders as deities. We may like or dislike individual people who are leaders or politicians, but they are neither deity (so we must not place them on a pedestal that their human condition does not justify), nor are they demons (lest we forget that they are loved by God and their souls can be saved, as well).
There is a Single Hierarchy of Authority
Secondly, there is only one authority for the follower of Jesus. As Jesus (God the Son) humbled Himself to the will of God the Father, we – even more so – can only recognize God as ultimately sovereign. God inherently has the authority to define right and wrong1, and no one else – not a government, philosopher, or religious leader – can redefine that.
However, God did designate groups with authority on earth. This delegated “sub-authority” means that it is appropriate to follow laws given by a government (especially where those laws are designed for the good of its citizens), except – at least as I understand it – in the extreme case where laws contradict the clear instructions of God, Himself.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
Romans 13:1-2 NASB
With this in mind, we don’t have to serve both God and government as two different masters. Instead, we are serving God, including His instructions to follow authority that has been established by Him. When He places places other leaders in our lives, our ultimate allegiance is to Him, and His commands always take precedence. So, when we obey righteous instructions from God’s delegated authorities, we are obeying and serving Him. (And, as a side benefit, our submission to God leads to good citizenship.)
So, don’t worry that you won’t have enough to go around. Remember who (or Who) deserves tribute (of each kind of possession that you can share), and keep your focus on the ultimate authority. Follow both God’s direct authority and His delegated authority, both out of personal benefit (knowing that He has the best plan for us) and out of gratitude for all that He has done for us.
- Actually, I believe that the definitions of right and wrong weren’t “chosen” by God, but are actually just a reflection of His nature. He is holy, loving, and just; as a result, these things define appropriate behavior for His creation. ↩