Because taxes can be a form of theft, and because taxes need not be theft at all, a reasonable question to ask is how we can tell the difference.
The baseline, the starting point, is that property belongs to the individual. He is the one that Thou shalt not steal applies to. He is the one with the house, the vineyard, the lawn mower, the wallet, the smart phone, and so on. Whenever the Bible talks about property, it always talks about it two categories. The first is God’s absolute ownership of all things (Dt. 10:14), and the second is the relative ownership that you and your neighbor enjoy (Dt. 8:18). When we talk about the state possessing things, this possession is derivative. The state extracts value from the taxpayer, the appointed steward of God’s wealth, and this extraction can also be divided into two categories. This value can be extracted lawfully, or the state can play the role of the thief. So how are we to tell the difference?
We know that taxation can be done right because the Bible talks about paying taxes to the one to whom it is due (Rom. 13:7). These are taxes that we owe, and are not to be considered theft at all. We should no more chafe at paying our legitimate taxes than we do paying our bill for satellite television. There are taxes we do not owe, but ought to pay anyway, having more important things to do. This is the meaning of what Jesus teaches Peter — we don’t owe it, but go ahead and pay it (Matt. 17:24-27). And then there are other circumstances where the illegitimate taxes have become so onerous, and the justification for them so outlandish, and tax courts have beclowned themselves to such an extent, that the Lord raises up a left-handed means for the children of Israel to pay their tribute (Judges 3:15-19).
Now I am not issuing any kind of call to action, other than the action of understanding what the heck occurreth. It is long past time for us to be sons of Issachar, understanding the times and knowing what Israel should do (1 Chron. 12:32). In our circumstance, deliverance would be ours if most of us came to the simple recognition that our ruling elites are governing unlawfully. They are illegitimate.
So this brings us back to the question raised at the top. How do we tell what kind of taxation is challenging the law of God as opposed to the taxation that is in line with the law of God? There are three basic criteria.
First, the level of taxation must not rival God (1 Sam. 8:15). God claims a tithe, and if that is all God needs, and if God is a jealous God, then we ought to see any attempt on the part of civil government to go past ten percent as an aspiration to Deity. This is the perennial temptation for fallen man (Gen. 3:5), particularly for rulers of all kinds (Is. 14:13), and so that temptation must not be funded. Cutting off the government at 9% is like refusing a third Scotch to a wobbly tavern-goer at 1 am. Shouldn’t be controversial.
Second, the taxes need to be levied, in the main, so that the rulers can perform the functions that God requires them to perform. Coercion is a big deal, and so the government must only be allowed to exercise it when they have express warrant for what they are doing. If they have express warrant to hunt down murderers, and they do, then they have express warrant to collect money to pay for the men to do this. They are God’s deacon of justice, and the deacon of justice needs to be paid just like the rest of us (Rom. 13:4). They are not allowed to collect fees to pay for activities that are prohibited to them. If they are not allowed to do it in the first place, they are not allowed to tax us to pay for it. To do so would be theft.
Third, the taxes must be lawful and in accordance with the established constitution of the people. Arbitary and capricious government, when the constitution outlaws arbitrary and capricous government is hypocritical. It sits in judgment upon us in points of law, and contrary to the law commands us to be struck. Since I have no particular person in mind, I may feel free to echo Paul’s sentiment about this without overstepping any personal boundaries — the men who do this are a whited wall (Acts 23:3).
If a tax bill originates in the Senate, nobody needs to pay it. If a resident of North Dakota receives a tax bill from the state of Maryland, he may feel free to round file it, and to do so with a serene conscience. If a man is taxed by a body in which he has no representation, then it is an illegal tax, and it doesn’t really matter how many judges or congressmen were complicit in the illegality.
So then, in summary, taxes are theft when the government is aspiring to be god in the lives of its subjects, when the government is refusing to do what the real God requires of them and is doing something else instead, usually something very expensive, and when the government is not obeying its own legitimate processes for levying taxes.
Last point. Note that I am not arguing for any action other than the simple action of recognition. Our government is a thief, but the government is a thief that cares deeply and profoundly about respectability. They not only want to pillage with immunity, they want to do it with legitimacy. Sorry. It is not as though there is a certain number of pirate ships that magically reach the quorum of a nation state.
When you get lots of pirate ships, what do you have? This is not a trick question. You have a pirate fleet. You have lots of pirates.
Augustine records a time when a pirate was captured and brought before Alexander the Great. The pirate asked why he was styled a pirate for doing to ships what Alexander was doing to countries, and, despite this, Alexander was styled a great emperor.
History is silent as to what became of the witty pirate then, but his question did have a certain resonance. Secular man, with covetous loins, hands and brains, has not yet been able to answer it. There is, however, a stiff fine for raising it in inappropriate ways.