The Bible and the Tax Law: A Comparison

 

[1] As a Christian tax professional, I recently realized that since the end of my undergraduate accounting studies, I have held two important bodies of writing in the highest esteem - the Word of God and the Internal Revenue Code (federal income tax law). I have continually striven to become more knowledgeable in both, knowing that such acumen serves me well. Expertise with the tax law provides me a steady income that serves to feed my body. The Bible nourishes me with wisdom and direction for my soul.

[2] In fact, I now see that our approach to the tax law mirrors, in many ways, our approach to the Word of God.

 Believers and Non-believers
[3] First, each text has its own set of "believers." Those of us who follow Christ are aware that many in our society do not believe in God's existence and see little relevance for the Word of God in their lives. While Christians may see the Bible as God's Word that applies to everyone ("smoking or non-smoking - where will you spend eternity?"), many others find within that text no authority over their own lives. They see belief as a choice without any real consequences.

 [4] Our federal income tax law also has a share of our population (though much lesser) that chooses not to believe in its authority. These "tax protestors" use a myriad of unsuccessful arguments about why the law is invalid, at least for them: The Sixteenth Amendment is invalid because Ohio was not a state when the vote passed. The Constitution sets our gold and silver standard, and I did not receive any gold or silver, so I did not get any income. Only DC residents are subject to such federal law.[1]  The list of vain arguments is plentiful, and frankly, rather humorous. The courts have continuously upheld the law's authority, and there is no provision for an individual to "opt out."

[5] We do not have the American judicial system to speak to the authority of God's Word in everyone's lives. A judge can force a criminal to spend the remainder of his earthly life without freedom. She can not, however, make demands on how he spends the eternal portion thereafter.

[6] I am thankful that the protestor population is minimal. I would find it unsettling to see continuing professional education courses offered on our need to be evangelists for the Internal Revenue Code.

 Understandability of the Text, and Responsibility of the Professional
[7] Scripture and tax law texts are also similar in their lack of lucidity to many. Simplification of the tax law is a frequent political topic, though no elected official has yet devised a method for simplification that has garnered a true consensus. In short, yes, the law is bad and confusing, but we can't seem to agree on anything better.

[8] The complexity of both texts, in the eyes of many people, provides a fair amount of job security for entire industries. Clergy and seminary professors are paid to sort out the "real meaning" of the Bible's passages - pastors to make it more understandable in practical terms, and professors to find the deeper truths that historical knowledge can add to the plain words.

 [9] Highly educated accountants and lawyers also receive a fair sum for their ability to explain the confounding verbiage to their clients, or to argue before the courts the historical nuances of what really constitutes a "royalty" in the law. With our position of relative privilege granted through our knowledge of the tax laws, we professionals also incur a greater responsibility to the masses. I would argue that this responsibility extends beyond the representation and care of our paying clients (who provide many of us with an ample standard of living).

 [10] One can make a painful, yet valid, comparison between this truth and the reality of how the church of the Middle Ages held enormous power and control over the people by the abilities of the learned few to read and (allegedly) understand the Word.

 Forgiveness vs. Abatement
[11] God's Word and the Code both have methods of negating past mistakes. The New Testament promises everyone entitlement to complete forgiveness of their sins (Ephesians 1:7-8). Jesus illustrated on numerous occasions that no person was outside the reach of God's love, regardless of the quantity or level of seriousness (in human eyes, anyway) of offenses he had committed. Better yet, one need not worry that he had ever "used up" the available forgiveness - God's desire for relationship with His people is boundless and never-ending.

 [12] The remedy found in the Internal Revenue Code is not nearly as complete or absolute. The Code (section 6404, for example) allows for abatement of certain penalties that the IRS may have chosen to impose upon a taxpayer guilty of violations such as late filing or negligence. Here, the penalty is a financial consequence, often a percentage of the tax balance due. As in the Christian world, the remedy is initiated by the offender approaching the authority to seek reversal of the penalty. The tax code, however, requires that the offender be able to demonstrate "reasonable cause" (see section 6664, for example.) behind the original offense. In other words, the taxpayer guilty of a blatant disregard of the law may not receive this abatement, and may be stuck with the costly consequences of their offense. The authority, IRS, offers some degree of forgiveness to those parties it finds deserving. There will never be a person to approach that authority and pay the price for all past and future "sins" of the taxpaying public. And, again, we say "thank you, Lord Jesus!"

 A Sign of Hope?
[13] Many Christians see the Bible's message as the "Good News," bringing hope to the masses. Others feel the sting of "thou shalt not" and its heinous implications upon their earthly and heavenly well-being. A similar dichotomy can be found within the Code. Many taxpayers are able to benefit from the blessings of the earned income credit, child tax credit and other breaks, while others are more painfully aware of the sections imposing burdens such as the alternative minimum tax. Some may lose entitlement to a deduction due to the failure to meet some minute procedural detail. Still others are occasionally made to feel the Pharisaical pointing finger of late-payment or late-filing penalties. Tax professionals can serve their clients in the role of an educator, not unlike that of clergy, helping the clients to discern the importance and applicability of various provisions and understand the overall balance that resides within the text.

Distribution of Wealth and Tax Breaks
[14] The more beneficial portions of the Code, the deductions and credits that serve to reduce each person's tax liability, apply to different populations within the whole. For example, the Hope Scholarship Credit applies to college students or their parents, but the earned income credit generally applies to lower-income families, many of whom would find the expense of higher education to be outside their grasp.

[15] How ought we to decide who gets the breaks? Should our most concerted efforts always lie in lifting up the poorest Americans? Should we strike a different allocation of the tax blessings to include those earning more and paying the greater expenses, to enable them to continue supporting our economy? This, of course, is a constant matter of political debate among our elected officials. Still, does that responsibility not ultimately rest with those of us who cast the ballots?

[16] The Bible illustrates that God does not always distribute blessings according to our human notion of fairness. Jacob and Esau illustrate the inequity of a second son getting the blessings normally reserved for his elder sibling (Genesis 25:23). In that regard, we assume a God-like level of responsibility in determining whom our federal tax dollars shall serve. Our decisions carry real-dollar implications on the lives of Americans.

Conclusion
[17] Clergy and lay leaders within the church bear the present-day responsibility for communicating the centuries-old truths of the Holy Bible to a society with broadly varied levels of interest in it. Clear communication and illustration of its wisdom, through sermons, studies, and living it daily help others to form a deeper understanding of God's will contained therein.

[18] That learning process is also promoted by taking elements of the "sacred" world and demonstrating how they relate in application to everyday "secular" life, and vice versa. For those with some understanding of our federal tax law, the Internal Revenue Code and related points of law and explanation can help to serve that purpose. In addition, tax professionals with an appreciation for God's Word may be reminded of the level of responsibility that comes with leading a flock, especially if the sheep are paying them voluntarily to do so.


End Notes

[1]

Revenue Service, "The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments," November 30, 2006, Internal Revenue Service (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tl/friv_tax.pdf).

 

 

 

© September 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 9