“Nuts and Bolts”: Matthew 22 and Romans 13

The two most frequently cited, if not the only two passages cited, by Christians in response to many a claim of the Christian Anarchist would be those of Matthew 22 and Romans 13. The popular understanding of the church has been and continues to be that because of these two passages, taxation is not theft (Matthew 22) and that all government, or at least the particular government of the nation the Christian happens to live in, is setup and ordained by God. It is the intent of this post to provide a more Biblical, and a more rational interpretation of these two passages. I’d like to deal with the scriptures first, and then move on to some more philosophical considerations.

 

Matthew 22

 

Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said.  And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.  Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”  And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.”

Matthew 22:15-22(NASB)

     Let me begin by stating an obvious, yet frequently overlooked nuance to this passage. The answer given by Christ here is in response to the malice of the Pharisees and their attempt to trap Him. The answer given is not in the context of the questioner approaching the Lord and humbly asking what is the right path to take. The context of the question is full of evil intent, and it was the will of the religious leaders of His day that Christ would be arrested, because He challenged their authority. Yes, the teachings of and the life lived by Christ was inherently subversive to authority. 

     The words of Christ to “render to Caesar” are of no value in answering the question of whether or not taxation, under our current political system, is theft. For one, I am not a resident of 1st century Palestine living under Roman occupation with a Caesar ruling over me. So the question of whether or not I should pay a poll-tax to Caesar just does not apply. What you would need to do is to remove this question from the literal and specific context in which it was asked, and attempt to generalize “render to Caesar” as being binding for all taxation by all government throughout all time. This just does not make sense. In 1 Samuel 8, one of the warnings against Israel rejecting Yahweh as their King and seeking for a man to rule over them is that “he will claim as his right a tenth of grain, a tenth of seed, a tenth of the fruit of the the vineyards, a tenth of the flocks.” In the original design of the government of God’s people, taxation was non-existent. So, taxation was not a part of Yahweh’s original plan for His people, and only began when a king was raised up as a result of His people rejecting Him.

     An even greater disparity is revealed when one understands how currency was created by the Roman empire, and how it is created today. In the time of Christ, the Caesar literally owned the denarius. The denarius was not the only currency used within the Roman empire at the time, but it was the only currency minted by Caesar himself. His own mint created the currency and spread it around the empire as a way to remind those under Roman rule exactly who was in charge of their lives. Paying the poll-tax was literally giving Caesar back his own property, and the currency itself,  along with the requirement of the denarius to pay the tax were both measures of enslavement. Imagine for a moment if our own government printed worthless currency and then required us to pay them a tax in only the currency they printed. How would one acquire said currency? You would have to purchase it with something of value. Gold, or maybe silver. This is not too far from where we find ourselves today, the difference being that our worthless currency is not printed by the government that we pay tax to and this is another point of difference between the monetary system of the Roman empire and the one we find ourselves living in today. The United States government does not own the currency of the United States, it does not print it, and it does not distribute it. The Federal Reserve is a privately owned central bank that finances the United States government through loans, given out at interest. For a better understanding of how money is made click here. If your argument is that “Caesar” represents “all government everywhere” and that “render to Caesar what is Caesars” means that “government owns the currency” your argument has no place in our current monetary system. Government does not own our currency and we don’t pay taxes to the Federal Reserve.  Furthermore, the government does not own my body or my time. Anything I gain through the legal exchange of the two is by rights, mine.

     There is also something to be said about how Christ places “render to Caesar” in contrast with “give to God”. As was His way, He takes an event and uses it to focus the discussion on what is more important; that we give to Yahweh that which is His. We as His image bearers are placed in opposition to a coin that bears the image of Caesar. Christ is in essence saying “You worry about paying Yahweh His due.” This is precisely where our focus and attention ought to be and we should not be using this passage to place Yahweh’s stamp of approval on theft, as long as government is the agency committing the theft.

Romans 13

“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.  For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;  for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.  Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

Romans 13:1-7(NASB)

     Here we have the very heart of the Christian argument against the tenants of Anarcho-capitalism. Albeit, an inconsistent argument at best. Let’s deal with the text itself first.

     The word translated as “established” in our English bibles is the Greek “τεταγμέναι” which does not have the common conception of “established” in the sense of “all that government does is ordained by Yahweh”. Instead, this word is more properly understood to mean: “arranged” “determined” “assigned”.  From ‘HELPS word-studies’:

 5021 tássō – properly, arrange (put in order); to place in a particular order, appoint; (figuratively) ordain, set in place; “station” (J. Thayer) (“place in position, post”) was commonly used in ancient military language for “designating” (“appointing, commissioning”) a specific status, i.e. arranging (placing) in a deliberate, fixed order.

      Paul is not saying in Romans 13, through the use of the word “tetagmenai” that all that government does is the will of Yahweh, in context, Paul is saying: “All authority belongs to Yahweh. Yahweh has delegated some of His authority to government in that they are to punish evil and reward good.

     The presupposition of most modern Evangelicals is that God’s will is always being done, and therefore all actions of government must be ordained by Yahweh and are being executed according to His will. This is simply not the case. Take the words of Paul in verses 3 and 4:

“For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;  for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

     Are we to assume from these words that all actions committed by all government throughout all time was that government “bearing the sword against those that practice evil” and being “a minister of God to you for good”? This is ludicrous. The persecution of Christians by the Roman government was certainly not an example of the Romans bearing the sword against evil. Quite the opposite. It was an example of government having a specific authority delegated to it, and using that authority illegitimately to persecute the church. Was Paul condoning the actions of the Roman empire and the persecution of the church as being “ordained by God”? I think not. The simple fact is that, like every other power or authority delegated to man by Yahweh, government, in the role of bearing the sword against evil and rewarding those that do good has failed. Romans 13 is not a blank check for government to do as they see fit because all that they do is ordained and approved by Yahweh. It is Paul telling the Christians in Rome that government has been given a specific authority, and if you do that which is good and Lawful according to God’s Law you will have nothing to worry about. Paul was correct insofar that the actions of Christians in accordance with the commands of God and the teachings of Christ would not give cause for any government to justly punish them. When, however, followers of Christ are persecuted by the same institution charged with ministering good to them, we can see how the argument that “all government does is according to God’s will” breaks down. One need not look past our own time to see examples of government rewarding evil and persecuting good. Abusing the authority delegated to it by performing the exact opposite of what it was delegated authority to do!

     The rest of the passage reads as follows:

 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.  Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

     Continuing on in the context of the passage, Paul is saying that the rulers are servants of God insofar as they are executing their delegated authority correctly and for this reason tax ought to be paid to them. If government used the money they take from us via taxation to execute it’s God ordained authority in punishing evil and rewarding good, that our money is taken from us to do so might be an easier pill to swallow. Meaning, I would not object to taxation so much if it were only used by government to fulfill the role of government as ordained by Yahweh. This is simply not the world we live in. Speaking only to the actions of the United States government, our tax money is used to pay for; abortion, the bombing of other nations, the murder of innocent people, the imprisonment of innocent people, the legislation of unjust laws, and all manner of unknown evil. Admittedly, government does what is morally right at times, but in an ANCAP society you would still have all the benefit of the good being done without the evil and it would not require taxation to accomplish this good.

     It is the opinion of this writer, and of many others, that the Church has a responsibility to let go of the false understanding that all that government does is good and ordained by Yahweh and that we face the reality of the world we live in.

Resources:

“The Myth of a Christian Nation” by: Greg Boyd

Twisted Scripture: Matthew 22 and Romans 13

Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage

“The Naked Anabaptist” By: Stuart Murray

One thought on ““Nuts and Bolts”: Matthew 22 and Romans 13

  1. Verse 1
    Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers – This is a very strong saying, and most solemnly introduced; and we must consider the apostle as speaking, not from his own private judgment, or teaching a doctrine of present expediency, but declaring the mind of God on a subject of the utmost importance to the peace of the world; a doctrine which does not exclusively belong to any class of people, order of the community, or official situations, but to every soul; and, on the principles which the apostle lays down, to every soul in all possible varieties of situation, and on all occasions. And what is this solemn doctrine? It is this: Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. Let every man be obedient to the civil government under which the providence of God has cast his lot.

    For there is no power but of God – As God is the origin of power, and the supreme Governor of the universe, he delegates authority to whomsoever he will; and though in many cases the governor himself may not be of God, yet civil government is of him; for without this there could be no society, no security, no private property; all would be confusion and anarchy, and the habitable world would soon be depopulated. In ancient times, God, in an especial manner, on many occasions appointed the individual who was to govern; and he accordingly governed by a Divine right, as in the case of Moses, Joshua, the Hebrew judges, and several of the Israelitish kings. In after times, and to the present day, he does that by a general superintending providence which he did before by especial designation. In all nations of the earth there is what may be called a constitution – a plan by which a particular country or state is governed; and this constitution is less or more calculated to promote the interests of the community. The civil governor, whether he be elective or hereditary, agrees to govern according to that constitution. Thus we may consider that there is a compact and consent between the governor and the governed, and in such a case, the potentate may be considered as coming to the supreme authority in the direct way of God’s providence; and as civil government is of God, who is the fountain of law, order, and regularity, the civil governor, who administers the laws of a state according to its constitution, is the minister of God. But it has been asked: If the ruler be an immoral or profligate man, does he not prove himself thereby to be unworthy of his high office, and should he not be deposed? I answer, No: if he rule according to the constitution, nothing can justify rebellion against his authority. He may be irregular in his own private life; he may be an immoral man, and disgrace himself by an improper conduct: but if he rule according to the law; if he make no attempt to change the constitution, nor break the compact between him and the people; there is, therefore, no legal ground of opposition to his civil authority, and every act against him is not only rebellion in the worst sense of the word, but is unlawful and absolutely sinful.

    Nothing can justify the opposition of the subjects to the ruler but overt attempts on his part to change the constitution, or to rule contrary to law. When the ruler acts thus he dissolves the compact between him and his people; his authority is no longer binding, because illegal; and it is illegal because he is acting contrary to the laws of that constitution, according to which, on being raised to the supreme power, he promised to govern. This conduct justifies opposition to his government; but I contend that no personal misconduct in the ruler, no immorality in his own life, while he governs according to law, can justify either rebellion against him or contempt of his authority. For his political conduct he is accountable to his people; for his moral conduct he is accountable to God, his conscience, and the ministers of religion. A king may be a good moral man, and yet a weak, and indeed a bad and dangerous prince. He may be a bad man, and stained with vice in his private life, and yet be a good prince. Saul was a good moral man, but a bad prince, because he endeavored to act contrary to the Israelitish constitution: he changed some essential parts of that constitution, as I have elsewhere shown; (see the note on Acts 13:22;); he was therefore lawfully deposed. James the Second was a good moral man, as far as I can learn, but he was a bad and dangerous prince; he endeavored to alter, and essentially change the British constitution, both in Church and state, therefore he was lawfully deposed. It would be easy, in running over the list of our own kings, to point out several who were deservedly reputed good kings, who in their private life were very immoral. Bad as they might be in private life, the constitution was in their hands ever considered a sacred deposit, and they faithfully preserved it, and transmitted it unimpaired to their successors; and took care while they held the reins of government to have it impartially and effectually administered.

    It must be allowed, notwithstanding, that when a prince, howsoever heedful to the laws, is unrighteous in private life, his example is contagious; morality, banished from the throne, is discountenanced by the community; and happiness is diminished in proportion to the increase of vice. On the other hand, when a king governs according to the constitution of his realms and has his heart and life governed by the laws of his God, he is then a double blessing to his people; while he is ruling carefully according to the laws, his pious example is a great means of extending and confirming the reign of pure morality among his subjects. Vice is discredited from the throne, and the profligate dare not hope for a place of trust and confidence, (however in other respects he may be qualified for it), because he is a vicious man.

    As I have already mentioned some potentates by name, as apt examples of the doctrines I have been laying down, my readers will naturally expect that, on so fair an opportunity, I should introduce another; one in whom the double blessing meets; one who, through an unusually protracted reign, during every year of which he most conscientiously watched over the sacred constitution committed to his care, not only did not impair this constitution, but took care that its wholesome laws should be properly administered, and who in every respect acted as the father of his people, and added to all this the most exemplary moral conduct perhaps ever exhibited by a prince, whether in ancient or modern times; not only tacitly discountenancing vice by his truly religious conduct, but by his frequent proclamations most solemnly forbidding Sabbath-breaking, profane swearing, and immorality in general. More might be justly said, but when I have mentioned all these things, (and I mention them with exultation; and with gratitude to God), I need scarcely add the venerable name of George the Third, king of Great Britain; as every reader will at once perceive that the description suits no potentate besides. I may just observe, that notwithstanding his long reign has been a reign of unparalleled troubles and commotions in the world, in which his empire has always been involved, yet, never did useful arts, ennobling sciences, and pure religion gain a more decided and general ascendancy: and much of this, under God, is owing to the manner in which this king has lived, and the encouragement he invariably gave to whatever had a tendency to promote the best interests of his people. Indeed it has been well observed, that, under the ruling providence of God, it was chiefly owing to the private and personal virtues of the sovereign that the house of Brunswick remained firmly seated on the throne amidst the storms arising from democratical agitations and revolutionary convulsions in Europe during the years 1792-1794. The stability of his throne amidst these dangers and distresses may prove a useful lesson to his successors, and show them the strength of a virtuous character, and that morality and religion form the best bulwark against those great evils to which all human governments are exposed. This small tribute of praise to the character and conduct of the British king, and gratitude to God for such a governor, will not be suspected of sinister motive; as the object of it is, by an inscrutable providence, placed in a situation to which neither envy, flattery, nor even just praise can approach, and where the majesty of the man is placed in the most awful yet respectable ruins. I have only one abatement to make: had this potentate been as adverse from War as he was from public and private vices, he would have been the most immaculate sovereign that ever held a scepter or wore a crown.

    But to resume the subject, and conclude the argument: I wish particularly to show the utter unlawfulness of rebellion against a ruler, who, though he may be incorrect in his moral conduct, yet rules according to the laws; and the additional blessing of having a prince, who, while his political conduct is regulated by the principles of the constitution, has his heart and life regulated by the dictates of eternal truth, as contained in that revelation which came from God.

    Verse 2
    Whosoever resisteth the power – Ὁ αντιτασσομενος, He who sets himself in order against this order of God; τῃ του Θεου διαταγῃ, and they who resist, οἱ ανθεστηκοτες, they who obstinately, and for no right reason, oppose the ruler, and strive to unsettle the constitution, and to bring about illegal changes,

    Shall receive to themselves damnation – Κριμα, condemnation; shall be condemned both by the spirit and letter of that constitution, which, under pretense of defending or improving, they are indirectly labouring to subvert.

    Verse 3
    For rulers are not a terror to good works – Here the apostle shows the civil magistrate what he should be: he is clothed with great power, but that power is entrusted to him, not for the terror and oppression of the upright man, but to overawe and punish the wicked. It is, in a word, for the benefit of the community, and not for the aggrandizement of himself, that God has entrusted the supreme civil power to any man. If he should use this to wrong, rob, spoil, oppress, and persecute his subjects, he is not only a bad man, but also a bad prince. He infringes on the essential principles of law and equity. Should he persecute his obedient, loyal subjects, on any religious account, this is contrary to all law and right; and his doing so renders him unworthy of their confidence, and they must consider him not as a blessing but a plague. Yet, even in this case, though in our country it would be a breach of the constitution, which allows every man to worship God according to his conscience, the truly pious will not feel that even this would justify rebellion against the prince; they are to suffer patiently, and commend themselves and their cause to him that judgeth righteously. It is an awful thing to rebel, and the cases are extremely rare that can justify rebellion against the constituted authorities. See the doctrine on Romans 13:1.

    Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? – If thou wouldst not live in fear of the civil magistrate, live according to the laws; and thou mayest expect that he will rule according to the laws, and consequently instead of incurring blame thou wilt have praise. This is said on the supposition that the ruler is himself a good man: such the laws suppose him to be; and the apostle, on the general question of obedience and protection, assumes the point that the magistrate is such.

    Verse 4
    For he is the minister of God to thee for good – Here the apostle puts the character of the ruler in the strongest possible light. He is the minister of God – the office is by Divine appointment: the man who is worthy of the office will act in conformity to the will of God: and as the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears open to their cry, consequently the ruler will be the minister of God to them for good.

    He beareth not the sword in vain – His power is delegated to him for the defense and encouragement of the good, and the punishment of the wicked; and he has authority to punish capitally, when the law so requires: this the term sword leads us to infer.

    For he is the minister of God, a revenger – Θεοῦ διακονος εστιν εκδικος, For he is God’s vindictive minister, to execute wrath; εις οργην, to inflict punishment upon the transgressors of the law; and this according to the statutes of that law; for God’s civil ministers are never allowed to pronounce or inflict punishment according to their own minds or feeling, but according to the express declarations of the law.

    Verse 5
    Ye must needs be subject – Αναγκη, There is a necessity that ye should be subject, not only for wrath, δια την οργην, on account of the punishment which will be inflicted on evil doers, but also for conscience’ sake; not only to avoid punishment, but also to preserve a clear conscience. For, as civil government is established in the order of God for the support, defense, and happiness of society, they who transgress its laws, not only expose themselves to the penalties assigned by the statutes, but also to guilt in their own consciences, because they sin against God. Here are two powerful motives to prevent the infraction of the laws and to enforce obedience.

    The dread of punishment; this weighs with the ungodly.
    2. The keeping of a good conscience, which weighs powerfully with every person who fears God. These two motives should be frequently urged both among professors and profane.
    Verse 6
    For this cause pay ye tribute also – Because civil government is an order of God, and the ministers of state must be at considerable expense in providing for the safety and defense of the community, it is necessary that those in whose behalf these expenses are incurred should defray that expense; and hence nothing can be more reasonable than an impartial and moderate taxation, by which the expenses of the state may be defrayed, and the various officers, whether civil or military, who are employed for the service of the public, be adequately remunerated. All this is just and right, but there is no insinuation in the apostle’s words in behalf of an extravagant and oppressive taxation, for the support of unprincipled and unnecessary wars; or the pensioning of corrupt or useless men. The taxes are to be paid for the support of those who are God’s ministers – the necessary civil officers, from the king downwards, who are attending Continually on this very thing. And let the reader observe, that by God’s ministers are not meant here the ministers of religion, but the civil officers in all departments of the state.

    Verse 7
    Render therefore to all their dues – This is an extensive command. Be rigidly just; withhold neither from the king nor his ministers, nor his officers of justice and revenue, nor from even the lowest of the community, what the laws of God and your country require you to pay.

    Tribute to whom tribute – Φορον· This word probably means such taxes as were levied on persons and estates.

    Custom to whom custom – Τελος· This word probably means such duties as were laid upon goods, merchandise, etc., on imports and exports; what we commonly call custom. Kypke on this place has quoted some good authorities for the above distinction and signification. Both the words occur in the following quotation from Strabo: Αναγκη γαρ μειουσθαι τα τελη, φορων επιβαλλομενων· It is necessary to lessen the Customs, if Taxes be imposed. Strabo, lib. ii., page 307. See several other examples in Kypke.

    Fear to whom fear – It is likely that the word φοβον, which we translate fear, signifies that reverence which produces obedience. Treat all official characters with respect, and be obedient to your superiors.

    Honour to whom honor – The word τιμην may here mean that outward respect which the principle reverence, from which it springs, will generally produce. Never behave rudely to any person; but behave respectfully to men in office: if you cannot even respect the man – for an important office may be filled by an unworthy person – respect the office, and the man on account of his office. If a man habituate himself to disrespect official characters, he will soon find himself disposed to pay little respect or obedience to the laws themselves.

    Verse 8
    Owe no man any thing, but to love one another – In the preceding verses the apostle has been showing the duty, reverence, and obedience, which all Christians, from the highest to the lowest, owe to the civil magistrate; whether he be emperor, king, proconsul, or other state officer; here he shows them their duty to each other: but this is widely different from that which they owe to the civil government: to the first they owe subjection, reverence, obedience, and tribute; to the latter they owe nothing but mutual love, and those offices which necessarily spring from it. Therefore, the apostle says, Owe no man; as if he had said: Ye owe to your fellow brethren nothing but mutual love, and this is what the law of God requires, and in this the law is fulfilled. Ye are not bound in obedience to them as to the civil magistrate; for to him ye must needs be subject, not merely for fear of punishment, but for conscience sake: but to these ye are bound by love; and by that love especially which utterly prevents you from doing any thing by which a brother may sustain any kind of injury. -ADAM CLARKE

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