Federal Taxation in the United States:
A Biblical and Constitutional Perspective
by Gerald R. Thompson
B. Biblical Models of Taxation
The example of ancient Israel illustrates the application of the law of God to matters of taxation in a specific polity. However, the use of Israel as a model for modern taxation must be made with great caution, because the law of Israel only partially applies to all nations. That is, Israel’s law was derived from two sources, the first of which was the law of nature, i.e., God’s law for all nations. The second source was the covenantal law of the Mosaic code, expressed in the form of an agreement between God and the people of Israel.
To the extent Israel’s covenant verbalizes the law of nature, of course, it applies to everyone – not because the covenant makes it applicable, but because it would be applicable even without the covenant. However, not all of Israel’s covenant verbalizes the law of nature. Many of its provisions apply only to Israel.63 Just because a covenant is of divine origin does not mean that it applies to everyone, all the time, everywhere in the world. God is not constrained to relate to every nation the way He related to ancient Israel via a divine covenant.
Nonetheless, Israel’s law does, in part, exemplify the biblical principles of taxation previously discussed. For example, Israel’s law did not provide for any property taxation.64 The family government had primary jurisdiction over all property.65 Real property could not be permanently sold, thereby passing by descent to the permanent owner’s heirs without possibility of reversion or escheat to civil government.66 In this way, Israel’s law complied with the law of concurrent jurisdiction by acknowledging the rightful jurisdiction of the family institution as against the civil government.67
Commonly suggested models of taxation from the law of Israel are the head tax and the Levitical tithe.68 The key attribute of these models is a reasonably low flat amount or flat rate of taxation allowing for few deductions or exemptions.69 The claimed benefits of basing modern taxation on these models range from making the tax burden more equitably distributed to constraining the size of civil government by limiting its revenues.70 Yet, in spite of these desirable features, the application of these models in all of their particulars to nations today is not as appealing as it might first appear.
The Levitical tithe was not merely the payment of a tenth of one’s income to God in accordance with the precepts of the law of nature. Rather, the Levitical tithe is a creature of the covenantal law of Israel which, although rooted in the law of nature, has certain attributes which are unique to that nation.71 After God delivered Israel from Egypt, he set apart the entire tribe of Levi for priestly service to the nation.72 When God apportioned the promised land among the Israelites, the tribe of Levi had no share of the land but received one-tenth of all the produce of the land from the other tribes instead.73 The Israelite law of the tithe applied exclusively to the Levites.74 The Levitical tithe was a binding obligation to set apart a tenth of one’s total increase for the benefit of a civilly recognized priesthood, that is, a state established religion.
Still, the Levitical tithe did conform to some of the biblical principles of taxation. The collection of tithes was pursuant to a lawful delegation of authority in Israel.75 The flat rate of the levy conformed to the law of equality. Since the Levites were not required to contribute to their own support, the tithe also conformed to the law of exemption. The tithe compensated the Levites for rendering a unique service to the nation which the people could not render themselves, following the law of service debt to that extent. However, the service rendered served a religious purpose, not a civil purpose, and cannot be used as a model for modern taxation in that sense.
But, this is the limit of the tithe’s conformity with the law of taxation applicable to all nations. For example, the Levitical tithe did not conform to the law of exaction at all. No one in Israel was authorized to enforce the payment of tithes.76 The obligation to tithe was not any less mandatory because of its lack of human enforcement, but the obligation was moral, not civil. Thus, the tithe cannot properly be regarded as a tax, because all taxes require civil enforcement.
The likely reason no one was authorized to enforce the Levitical tithe is that it did not conform to the law of love, either. The Levitical tithe was imposed on all agricultural produce, as well as increases in livestock and other sources of production.77 Every fruit of personal labor, whether sold or consumed, was subject to tithes. Thus, the Levitical tithe was not limited to the proceeds from sales transactions, or income, but extended to the broader concept of any tangible increase. Since God enforced the Levitical tithe himself, it could extend to every form of increase which came from Him. But the civil jurisdiction does not extend to increase which is withheld from sale, for such increase is governed exclusively by the law of love. Accordingly, the Israelites had no right to enforce the Levitical tithe.
Further, Israel’s tithe was levied primarily for the benefit of an established clergy. Even when tithes were distributed to non-Levites, they were administered by the Levites.78 But this was possible in Israel only because God, as the civil head of the nation, could legislate the establishment of the Levitical priesthood.79 In other words, the whole purpose of the tithe centered around the theocratic nature of Israel’s civil polity.
The problem with using the tithe as a model for modern taxation is that no nation is, or can be, theocratic in the same sense ancient Israel was. After all, God has not covenanted to be the civil head of any nation other than ancient Israel, at least, not as recorded in the Bible. In addition, the law of concurrent jurisdiction prohibits any civil ruler from exercising authority over moral duties owed solely to God, such as the duty of religion. The law of service debt requires legitimate taxation to fund only non-religious public services. Further, the law of nature prohibits civilly established religions in all non-theocratic nations. Thus, to the extent the Levitical tithe reflects the nature of a theocratic form of civil government, it cannot serve as a model for taxation today.
Similarly, the claim that the tithe constrains any civil government to taxing no more than 10% of income because it is prohibited from taxing people at a higher rate than God taxes them is without merit.80 First, the law of the Levitical tithe applied only to ancient Israel. The Levitical tithe was instituted as part of Israel’s civil covenant, and is binding only upon the people of ancient Israel and their descendants. Ancient Israel could no more have bound the United States to its national covenant than the United States could bind Israel to the U.S. Constitution.81
Further, the law of the Levitical tithe has been made obsolete through a modification of Israel’s covenant by Jesus Christ. Jesus stated that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.82 In so doing, Jesus affirmed the perpetual nature of Israel’s covenant. Yet, by claiming to fulfill the law, He indicated that some aspects of it would be modified. Since Jesus obviously modified the means of salvation made available to men, and just as obviously did not recreate the physical universe, we can understand his statement to mean that He would modify the means of salvation provided in Israel’s covenant, but not any part of the law of nature.
The book of Hebrews is devoted primarily to describing for the Israelites how the means of salvation had been changed by Christ. According to that book, the “old covenant” (i.e., the ceremonial law) had been made obsolete.83 In short, what Jesus did was to abolish the entire institution of the Levitical priesthood. This is confirmed in the statement: “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.”84
Not surprisingly, the Levitical tithe, which was created for the sole purpose of supporting the Levitical priesthood, was abolished when the priesthood was abolished. After all, the abolition of the Aaronic priesthood would also abolish the need for the Levites to be set apart. Further, had the Levites not been set apart, the Levitical tithe would not have been instituted, for there would have been no one designated to receive tithes under Israel’s covenant. Therefore, upon the abolition of the Aaronic priesthood, the Levitical tithe would be pointless.85
Finally, to the extent tithing is based upon the law of nature applicable to all nations today, its operation cannot constrain public officials. Tithing based upon the law of nature cannot constrain civil taxation in any nation today because its obligation is entirely moral, not civil. In other words, tithing is governed by the law of love, not the law of exaction. Further, the purpose of tithing is to fund religious, educational and charitable services, not civil or public services. Accordingly, there is no jurisdictional overlap between tithing and taxation.
Just as public officials cannot enforce the law of tithing because it is moral rather than civil, so the law of tithing cannot limit civil power for the same reason. God did not preclude Gentile nations from taxing their people more than ten percent for civil purposes simply because He “taxed” Israel exactly ten percent for non-civil purposes. It may be desirable to keep income taxes below ten percent, but there is no law prohibiting public officials from taxing at a higher rate, so long as the biblical principles of taxation are otherwise followed.
Much of the preceding analysis also applies to the Israelite head tax.86 The head tax was levied on every male in Israel who had reached age 20. Each man paid the same amount of tax (a half shekel), whether rich or poor. However, the head tax was reckoned as paid to the Lord, was regarded as an offering, and was collected for the purpose of individual redemption and the atonement for sin.87 The revenue raised was given “for the service of the tent of meeting,” to be a continual reminder for the people before God.88 Like the Levitical tithe, the head tax was not compulsory because it was moral in nature, not civil.
Hence, the head tax was imposed primarily for a religious purpose and was closely linked to the theocratic nature of the polity of ancient Israel. For a civil government today to levy a head tax after the pattern of Israel would be to establish itself as the God of the people. For this reason, the head tax is not a proper model for modern taxation.