Law & Principles
Scripture and the state: Maximal or minimal government?
September 19, 2014
David W. Hall
Note: Through the years in the pages of Perspective, various economists, political scientists, accountants, and others have made the case for low taxation and limited government. We’ve never had a theologian weigh in on the issue, but with certain voices on the religious left calling for high taxes and big government, we are pleased to publish this article by pastor and author David W. Hall.
It is always gratifying when believers seek to apply the inspired Word of God to social and political matters. Often, though, well-meaning believers superimpose modern customs back onto biblical texts, thinking that they unearth biblical grounds for maximal states characterized by high taxation and big government.
While we may appreciate the intent of such articles, such as a recent one in the Tulsa World, we need not agree with many of the conclusions reached, especially if they are molded more by present fads than by the norms of God, whose revealed opinion really is significant for these discussions.
Often the distance between cultures may lead one to hazard a facile comparison between the ancient world and modern practice. In these sorts of essays—rather common since the 1960s—authors presume to contextualize large, centralized governments as the norm as if grounded on inspired Scripture. They attempt to persuade that the Hebrew political system may somehow be characterized by these four notions: (1) high taxation; (2) large bureaucracy; (3) expansive safety nets; and (4) mandated income equality (or at least a limiting of wealth).
Alas, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, and the New Testament disciples might be surprised to see their governments characterized by those four notions. Perhaps a more thorough review of Scripture would yield more accurate biblical conclusions than the exaggerated notions imposed by some modern partisans.
First, let us consider taxation. Rather than tax rates ranging from 30 to 50 percent (more like Sweden than Sinai), several key passages show upward taxation levels closer to the lowest American tax bracket—far from justifying either a progressive tax scheme or a large grab from most citizens’ bank accounts.
Joseph’s 20 percent taxation level for a temporary, catastrophic situation (and not treated as normative) was the highest governmental take recorded in Scripture. This unique taxation (20 percent of the crops during abundance) allowed Joseph to store the grain in selected cities (Gen. 41:35), hold it in reserve, and save for the imminent catastrophic famine. Still, insofar as this example touches on the areas of taxation and state protocol, this narrative set of precedents must be harmonized with other didactic principles. The temporary tax rate for this national emergency, although twice the rate of the tithe, was non-repeatable.
Moreover, 1 Samuel 8 exhibits that a 10 percent taxation rate was extreme. For centuries, one of the most compelling scriptures for political formulation was Samuel’s warning not to desire a monarch nor his wide-ranging bureaucracy. In a text that virtually shrieks clanging distress alarms, the Hebrew prophet warned that a king would confiscate 10 percent of seed and livestock (1 Sam. 8:15-17). This level of confiscatory taxation was outrageous at the time, and Samuel thought that such unimaginable level would surely mute the people’s press for centralization. An upper taxation rate of 10 percent, in other words, was considered shockingly oppressive three millennia ago.
As we move into New Testament times, we see that usage taxes were common, but nothing like a graduated income tax existed; certain Zionist groups even cheered, “Taxation is no better than downright slavery.” Moreover, a brief history of taxation indicates that Julius Caesar imposed a 1 percent sales tax, but it was not until the fourteenth century that progressive tax rates began.
Progressive rates were imposed by the King’s Writ (1629) under Charles I. In America, the first income tax was proposed to generate revenue during the War of 1812. Based on the 1798 British Tax Act, this 1812 proposal called for income tax rates ranging from less than 1 percent to 10 percent. However, it was not adopted. Again in 1861, the income tax proposal was resurrected—this time proposing rates from 3 to 5 percent during an unparalleled national emergency. The Tax Act of 1862 adopted these rates of income tax. During the Civil War, by 1864, these income tax brackets grew to 5 percent, 7.5 percent, and 10 percent. Following the Civil War, a flat rate of 5 percent was adopted, and by 1869, that rate was lowered to a flat 2.5 percent (see www.taxworld.org). Accordingly, not only were double-digit taxation rates nonexistent in scriptural times, but Samuel’s caveat also held sway until the statist expansion era of the twentieth century.
Finally, the comparison of the tithe to a tax is a misappropriation. The tithe was for the church and not for the state. Churches are free to require levels of giving; and of course in democracies, those are voluntary societies—not enforceable by governmental fines or penalties. If the tithe rate were properly 30 percent, as a pastor I’d start planning some massive projects.
However, this is probably dismissed as a misreading (or liberalizing attempt) of the ancient practices, along with a confusion of spheres. The Jubilee from Leviticus 25 was unique to Israel, and its uniqueness may highlight its temporary nature. Although certain liberation theologians make much of these precedents, they normally invoke these chapters to argue for socialism or communal sharing of goods, rather than for a replication of the exact provisions of Jubilee. Its spirit of equity is more important than its exact stipulations. Most, unless they logically wish to argue for all the Hebrew theocratic notions, admit that such provisions have expired with the state of Israel.
One may search high and low to find large governmental agencies mandated by the Lord; the most one will find in scripture is bloated courtiers, commissioned by monarchs or despots—not by God. The Almighty, in other words, never commended a large bureaucracy; those are more associated with over-reaching and hunger for power in recent centuries. Both Old and New Testaments assign much to the family government and to church government, but a modest list of duties for the state is found in Romans 13:1-7 to include providing law enforcement, defense of people, and basic civil order—little more. The scriptural witness is hard-pressed to justify more than the minimal state.
The 1 Samuel 8 passage could be mined for more resistance to bloated bureaucracies. This locus classicus of biblical political theory warns against the danger of centralized power. Should a monarchy result, Samuel issued a caveat that the ruler would force labor, insert oppression into free markets, claim property, conscript military service, and exert himself over the liberty of free citizens. Samuel’s prophecy—see, for example, the many Colonial-era sermons on this key text—was a clarion call against developing a large bureaucracy. To do so, thought this Hebrew prophet (and most who later heeded his counsel), would bring ill to a body politic.
If anything, the biblical witness seems to be decidedly in favor of the minimalist state due to fear of human depravity.
In his Theological Ethics: Politics (Eerdmans, 1979), the Lutheran Helmut Thielicke, who lived through World War II and also saw post-war Germany grow to its statist orientation, advocated a “minimal state” in an era of totalitarian expansion. Thielicke warned against the totalitarian state because it “necessarily seeks to penetrate every sphere of life and hence to take over the care of children, the chronically ill, the sick, and the aged.” Moreover, “The totalitarian state plays the role of the ‘universal father’; attending men with its claims and services from the cradle to the grave, it forces on them the same kind of dependence as is evident in all other spheres of life.” The modern age has acquiesced to allow the state to provide many goods and services, whereas earlier God or families were trusted for these.
Moreover, the founding document of our country (which was supported by authors and an audience that had studied the specifics of the Scriptures better than most of our contemporaries) shows, to the contrary of the revisionist political catechism, that our nation’s founders resisted large governmental bureaucracy, detested high taxation, had no inclination to strangle wealth, and saw the only safety net as being woven by private agencies such as the family, the school, and the church. Even a cursory review of the causes for independence and the scriptural streams that contributed to it refutes the notion that the consensus of biblical interpretation is pro-big-government.
According to the Declaration of Independence (and numerous sermons several generations before it), George III made judges dependent on his own will (for their pay, for starters); he created new offices that became “Swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance,” and he imposed “Standing armies.” To the colonials, these and other abuses were clear instances of arrogation of power. The American founding document bemoaned bloated bureaucracies that were more reminiscent of Samuel’s “tyranny” (a particularly loaded term with a long history, and thought to be a sufficient justification alone for overthrow) than of valid government.
These and other indictments were not only grounds for the founding of history’s most stable democracy, but were also derived from the view of civil government in the Hebrew Scriptures and rediscovered at the Reformation. They are hardly justifications for large government.
Expansive Social-Safety Nets
The case for expansive social-safety nets might be the most defensible idea in these typical essays arguing for maximal states. It is true that God authorized gleaning as part of the Levitical economy. I suppose that if one wished to snuggle up as closely to the Hebrew custom as possible, one would need to go all the way and suggest this as the sole civil replacement for welfare. Notwithstanding, God did provide for widows, orphans, and the deserted; for safeguards against false witness and dishonest currency measures; and for impartial justice and rudimentary courts. However, there were few groups indicated for communal relief.
It was LBJ’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s that vastly enlarged the remedial works of government. While some have benefited, it remains for historians to judge whether all the incursions by the maximalist state have been exclusively helpful. To summarize most simply, the biblical pattern for care for truly needy groups (see the care for the widows in 1 Tim. 5:1-21) was assigned only to the family or the church. There is simply no place or category in Scripture for distant, impersonal welfare agencies. States may assign such functions to large or bureaucratic agencies, but that is neither mandated by the Bible nor is it uniformly clear that such is the most helpful approach in all cases.
The fourth plank of the modern catechism for statist government suggests that wealth must be redistributed—an axiom of socialism, to be sure. Indeed, all the former planks (i.e., progressive taxation, large bureaucracies, and reallocation of assets to the less wealthy) fit nicely with and require this notion. Thinkers from Plato to Marx have advocated income limitations, but the Bible does not.
Abraham was very wealthy, Job was affluent at one time, Solomon was blessed by opulence, and Barnabas used his wealth to support the early church in Acts. And none of these were condemned for wealth per se. Of course, greed, covetousness, and callousness to the poor are routinely condemned. Nevertheless, even the poor may suffer from those sins.
Various utopian schemes have frequently sought to equalize incomes, as if income-inequality is the root of human ill. However, as Christianity matured it left behind more of the utopian adolescence and acknowledged that human depravity, more than anything, will preclude utopias, economic or otherwise. Such understanding protects us from the temptation to misread sacred texts.
Reformers and the earlier English Puritans knew that God could equally give wealth or poverty—and neither was considered a curse but rather part of the providential ordering of our world.
In a properly related posture, the minimalist state embraces private charity, restraining itself for the common good, supporting private and religious efforts rather than ceding those exclusively to large, centralized, and impersonal agencies.
As is often the case, those who have gone before us may be better scriptural interpreters. As such, they certainly advocated limited government, free markets (not wealth delimiters), as modest taxation as possible, and concern for the needy assigned to the family, the church, or a private society.