Tax avoidance, tithes and total depravity

Tax avoidance seems to have taken centre stage in the news of late. In particular, HSBC have found themselves in the firing line (see here). Many right-wingers have lined up to defend lower-level forms of tax avoidance (cf. Lord Fink, Nigel Farage, Toby Young, et al). The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, as well as other voices on the left (e.g. Owen Jones) have come out against the practice. The Prime Minister is trying to walk that tricky line between upsetting his friends in business – for whom aggressive tax avoidance seems standard practice – and the majority of voters who don’t have the income to warrant employing personal tax accounts and thus generally dislike the practice.

There is obviously some talking past one another on this issue. This typically revolves around our definition of terms. When Lord Fink claims “everybody does it” he is almost certainly referring to pension contributions, ISAs and other tax deductible activities encouraged by government. If our definition of tax avoidance is utilising anything that reduces our taxable income, then yes, most of us engage in tax avoidance. However, if our definition of tax avoidance, as per Owen Jones’ claim, is anything that avoids the tax government would ordinarily expect us to pay, then it is probably true that most of us do not engage in tax avoidance.

There is certainly something distasteful about government employing accountancy firms to help draft tax legislation who then win customers on their ability to avoid the very legislation they helped implement. At the very least, those of us without the income to warrant access to personal tax consultants are not on a level playing field. Even on a business level, when larger companies can write off their tax losses in the UK against other EU countries and thus avoid UK tax is not a level playing field for smaller, independent companies who have no such foreign presence.

The question that inevitably does the rounds is whether, if you could, you would accept the ability to pay one per cent tax. But it is a redundant question when most of us aren’t in the position to do so. We can make any bold statement we like knowing we will never actually have to follow through on our claim. As the comedian David Mitchell put it when asked if he would pay 1% tax if he could get away with it, “well I certainly wouldn’t say I would”. This is probably closer to the truth than many of us like to think.

At heart, however, the issue is clear. It is not fundamentally one of the tax system (though that is an issue) but one of sin. Given the chance, the human heart will exploit whatever means it can for greed and gain. The OT system of jubilee years recognised this tendency. God instituted a system that would effectively redistribute wealth, stop long-term poverty and lifelong slavery. It was a system in which wealth and land could not be hoarded forever and the impoverished would not remain so generation after generation. Debts were mandatorily cancelled, land returned and slaves set free. God recognised, left to their own devices, the rich would exploit the poor in perpetuity and thus set in place a system to stop such practices.

It is this very tendency that always staggers me when Christians (rightly) uphold total depravity on the one hand, whilst (wrongly) maintaining trickle-down, capitalist economics will work for the many. Since when did the sinful human heart think, of its own volition, giving away wealth to strangers is a good idea? Since when did the sinful human heart think, of its own volition, I have a means of keeping more of my own money but I’m not going to utilise it? That some people don’t do this is testament to common grace. That most do (or would do given the opportunity) rather underlines human nature. The OT system seemed to recognise that without legal structures to enforce wealth distribution, land return and slave release it simply would not happen. This is as true today as it ever was. 

A heart changed by the spirit of God may cause these things to happen without enforcement. The collection boxes of churches up and down the country are testament to this. However, even there, sinful human nature plays its part. My offering may be equal to the number of people watching me place it in the offering box. My tithe may be a portion of my income after my outgoings have all been taken into account. It may not be tax avoidance but it might be tithe avoidance. The Bible never dictates how much or how often we ought to give, it simply says believers ought to give. Yet we too continue to fight against the old man; greed or approval may still rear its head. As one minister friend was fond of pointing out: most people either want more money or a round of applause. If we are able to get both, what a day!

Greed is a powerful motivator. We shouldn’t be surprised by tax avoidance because, in a system which openly encourages greed what are we to expect? There needs to be a system that doesn’t simply expect greedy, sinful people to act in honourable ways. As the old quote says (often, probably wrongly, attributed to Keynes), “capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all”.

Yet, though we are fast to point the finger, most of us pay tax through PAYE and have no opportunity to avoid it on any large scale. But what do our tithes and offerings suggest about what we’d do? Do we skim off our outgoings and other things to effectively reduce what we feel we ought to give? Are we generous toward the Lord and his people or are we greedy and seek to hoard our wealth for ourselves? 

If our response to the Lord’s work, and our claim to love his people, doesn’t extend to our wallets and purses then perhaps we haven’t been affected by the gospel. If we skim off our tithes and offerings, using loopholes and arguments to justify what we give, then how are we any better than tax avoiders? In fact, surely we are worse. Many companies make little pretence they like paying tax and clearly say if they could pay less, they would. Their exploitation of loopholes is a logical outworking of that claim. We, who claim to love the Lord and say we support his work, are hypocrites if we seek to lessen our offerings. With our mouths we claim to love the Lord, his people and his work but with our wallets and self-justifications we don’t.

Tax avoidance is a soft-target. Most agree the face-value of the tax owed ought to be paid by those that owe it. It is quite right they should come under pressure to pay their tax. It is also right the government should clampdown on existent loopholes. But we shouldn’t forget that most of us are in no such position to do it. It is very easy to claim we wouldn’t do the same when there is no reason to presume we will ever be in a position to make that choice. What we are in a position to see is our own generosity toward our saviour and the work of his church. That should give us a real insight into whether we would seek to avoid our taxes the same way given the opportunity.


  1. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for this well thought out and wonderful article. The sin nature in mankind will ensure that inequality will be our companion until Christ returns.
    Neither capitalism nor socialism is the answer. The former encourages exploitation, whilst the latter encourages laziness.


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