Imagine for a moment that there is a man named Bob who starts a charity organization to help the poor. He finds that very few people are voluntarily contributing to his charity and so many poor people remain hungry. Bob decides to approach people on the street that look like well-off and point a gun at them, demanding a portion of their money. Bob contributes the money to his charity organization and many more poor people are fed and clothed.
Almost everyone would call Bob a thief. Why? Because he is taking other people’s property without their consent. That is the very definition of theft. It doesn’t matter what Bob does with the money. What if Bob hires another person to demand money from people on the street for him? Is Bob still committing theft? What if Bob lets ten people, including you, to vote on whether or not Bob can take money from you? Is Bob still committing theft? What if Bob’s men just tell you that if you don’t regularly pay him they will kidnap or kill you? Is Bob still committing theft?
Now compare the case of taxation. Bob is the government. When the government “taxes” citizens, what this means is that the government demands money from each citizen, under a threat of force: if you do not pay, armed agents hired by the government will take you away and lock you in a cage. If you resist you will be killed. This looks like about as clear a case as any of taking people’s property without consent. So the government is a thief.
What if you do not want to be taxed? What if you do not want a major portion of your property to be stolen without consent? You have no choice. This is what makes you a slave. Slaves work and a portion of their labor goes to their master and a portion of their labor goes to the slave to keep them alive. Food, clothing, housing are all taken care of but the master receives their portion—and the slave has no choice in the matter. Taxation is slavery and all over the Bible we are told this is true.
Give Us a Slave Master
Over the past centuries, many have looked to the Bible in an attempt to provide justification for the so-called divine right of kings. As far back as Constantine, theologians have tried earnestly to mount a biblical defense for the existence of human empires and rulers. Unfortunately for them, these efforts have often been in vain. It turns out that the Bible has very few good things to say about empires, and its authors spend considerable time condemning the actions of kings.
One of the most potent indictments of human kingship is recorded in 1 Samuel 8.
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights. He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
1 Samuel 8:4-7, 9, 11, 15-18
Christians who advocate for human rulers today tend to assume that God is only opposed to unjust rulers. But notably, the possibility of injustice is not the reason God gives for rejecting the Israelite’s request. Rather, God warns them about actions that are common to all kings, like conscription and taxation. Most strikingly, God says they will become the king’s slaves. God is not saying that they might become his slaves if he is unjust. God is saying that slavery is inherent whenever there is a king. To be ruled and taxed is to be a slave.
This idea seems shocking to us in our modern context, but it is generally taken for granted by the biblical authors. To understand this, we need to keep in mind that kings in those days used taxes primarily to enrich themselves and the nobility, rather than as a means of redistributing wealth. Over the centuries, rulers began to distribute some of their riches to the peasantry as a way of legitimizing the practice, until eventually, we arrived at the systems we have today. Yet while it’s true that God instructed his people to take care of the poor, he never intended to use socialized services and governments to that end (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17, 28:27). It was man’s initiative in 1 Samuel 8 to set up a ruling class, “to be like the other nations”, even though they were called to be set apart. Like every other empire throughout history, the Israelites established a system of coercion used to fund wars and exalt humans. Thus, despite its modern structure, our system now is not so different from theirs. While we may have good intentions for helping the poor, the fact is that a significant amount of our taxes are used in opposition to God’s will. The words of Samuel apply to all empires and rulers no matter their policies.
Kill Goliath and Be Set Free
To begin, foreign nations would often become slaves when they were conquered, and this was demonstrated by the fact that they would send tribute to the conquering king (2 Samuel 8:2, 8:6; 2 Kings 17:3). Being forced to send tribute was an act of enslavement because they were no longer working for themselves.
Even within the nation of Israel, it was understood that taxpayers were under a form of slavery. In the story of David and Goliath, the men of Israel speak of the rewards that will be given to the one who slays Goliath.
The king will enrich the man who kills [Goliath] with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.
1 Samuel 17:25 ESV
The king will give great wealth to the man who kills [Goliath]. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.
1 Samuel 17:25 NIV
The “father’s house” is a cultural reference to their extended family unit. What is intriguing about this verse is the Hebrew word translated as “free”, which is “ḥāp̄·šî”. This word is defined as “free from slavery” with a secondary meaning of “free from taxes”.1 In most of its other occurrences, this word is used to denote being freed from slavery (Exodus 21:2, Jeremiah 34:9). In this verse, however, many translators rightly render it as “exempt from taxes”. Thus, the usage of this word in this context shows us that there is an understood equivalence between being set free from slavery and being exempt from taxes. And if we were paying attention in 1 Samuel 8, this understanding should not come as a surprise. The king will take your possessions by force, and thus you will be his slaves.
Jesus and Taxes
Jesus was challenged regarding taxes on several occasions. In the most famous account, the Pharisees were trying to trap him by asking if taxes were lawful and whether or not they should pay them (Matthew 22:15-22). Jesus gives them a very interesting answer that caused the Roman soldiers to believe he was answering one way and caused the Pharisees to believe he was answering in another way. In one sense Jesus is saying that people should pay taxes and in another sense, Jesus is saying that people shouldn’t pay taxes. Read more on that here.
There is another account where tax collectors, people that the Jews viewed as scum, challenged Jesus about taxes.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.”
The Greek word translated as “free” is “eleutheros”. This word is almost exclusively used in contrast with being enslaved (John 8:33, Galatians 3:28). In fact, the most straightforward definition of this word is literally “not a slave”. However, unlike all the other contexts where this word is used to mean freedom from slavery, here Jesus uses it to mean being free from taxation. The implication is unmistakable. According to Jesus, those who don’t pay taxes are not slaves, and those who do pay taxes are not free.
Nehemiah and Freedom From Slavery
Nehemiah also commented on the oppressive taxation of Israel under the rule of foreign kings (Nehemiah 5:4-5, 15, 18). The people of Israel had been stripped of their independence and forced to pay heavy taxes, so much so that Nehemiah refused to receive his benefits as a governor. In his mind, it was not right to receive a share of what was taken from his people. A few chapters later, the connection between taxation and slavery is made explicitly.
Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.
Presumably, one could make the argument that this was only slavery because they were being ruled by foreign kings, and that it would not be slavery if they could rule themselves. However, this argument has a few difficulties. First, the line between neighbors and foreigners is quite arbitrary. Many empires are so large that almost all of their subjects are ruled by people living far away. More importantly, as Christians we are supposed to view ourselves as being foreigners and exiles of all worldly nations (1 Peter 2:11). Thus, we understand that we always live under foreign kings who are opposed to the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:6, Psalm 2:2, 1 Corinthians 15:24). When they tax us we have every reason to identify with the Israelites in Nehemiah.
Living in Exile
After reminding us of the reality that we are living in exile (1 Peter 2:11), Peter goes on to talk about what that should look like. Let’s look at this passage in more depth.
I urge you, as foreigners and exiles… live such good lives among the pagans… submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor… or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters… But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:11-21
Peter begins by admonishing us to be subject to human institutions. Immediately, he is pointing out that these institutions were established by man and not by God. The examples he gives are government and slavery, which are purposefully mentioned sequentially to highlight how we have the same response of submission for both.
Some may be eager to point out that the governors are “sent by God”. But that does not mean God approves of their actions. Remember, the emperors at the time this was written were actively persecuting Christians, as referenced in other parts of the same letter (1 Peter 4:16). So it would be improper to read this as an endorsement of government action. Rather, God is using fallible humans to carry out his purposes and enforce justice. This is drawing on a significant theme from the prophet’s belief that God often used wicked empires to punish those who did evil (Romans 13:4, Isaiah 10:5, Jeremiah 25:9, Isaiah 45:1)
In the context of submitting to human governments, Peter now encourages us to “live as people who are free”. That word “free” is the same Greek word that Jesus used in Matthew 17, which means “not a slave”. But here, like Jesus, Peter uses the word in the context of obedience to governments and rulers. He understands that kings seek to make slaves of their subjects. But as Christians, we know that we are actually servants of God, who is our only rightful ruler. Thus, we submit to human rulers, we pay taxes, out of obedience to God, because that is what he commands.
Be Set Free
Taxes can do a great many wonderful things but they can also do unspeakable horror. The point is, our response to human institutions is always to submit to unjust authority, whether that is by serving a master, walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, or paying taxes. None of these commands is an endorsement of the authority’s actions. Jesus tells us not to resist evil with evil, but make no mistake, these things are evil (Matthew 5:39). Rather than an endorsement, they are a profound acknowledgment that all man-made authorities belong in the same category, whether they are masters or rulers or governments. All such institutions are illegitimate in God’s eyes (Judges 8:23, 1 Samuel 8:7).
We learn from Scripture that all rulers are servants of Satan so it should be no surprise that they steal and enslave.
The rulers of this age use taxes to fund wars, imprison the innocent, and oppress the poor. They make slaves of their people. But Christ has come to set us free (Isaiah 58:6, Isaiah 61:1). Free from slavery, free from oppression, free from government. He did not come to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:25). He did not come to coercively exact tribute, but to give.
So if Christ is our model and our king, why do we continue to make slaves of our neighbors? Why do we advocate for a foreign ruler to take a fraction of their income? Why do we continue to support a human institution that God consistently condemns? Maybe it’s time to rethink our unquestioned approval of the “divine right” of politicians.