Reading John Brown’s “The Law of Christ Respecting Civil Obedience”

Some remarks

occasioned by the perusal of John Brown’s
The Law of Christ Respecting Civil Obedience, Especially in the Payment of Tribute

and its various notes and appendices

concerning a nineteenth century flame war largely over matters religious but touching on conscientious objection and the duty of refusing certain taxes

in multiple parts

which is to say: don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Part One.

In the mid-1830s, a Scottish nonconformist minister named John Brown (no relation, so far as I know, to the American abolitionist) stopped paying something called the “annuity tax,” the proceeds of which went to support the official Church of Scotland, which competed with Brown’s own, competing Christian franchise, the Presbyterian United Secession Church.

At first he paid the tax under protest, but then decided he couldn’t pay at all: “I have not paid, and, with my present convictions, never will, never can, pay it… I cannot do so without offering violence to a conscientious conviction, not rashly nor hastily arrived at.” Brown held out, and eventually the government seized some of his property to satisfy the tax.

The episode engendered considerable debate, the residue of which can be found in such books as:

Brown’s own book went into at least three editions, each expanding on the last as he felt the need to pen new rebuttals to the various attacks.

The way Brown puts it, Haldane vigorously pamphletted Edinburgh and much of the rest of Scotland with an accusation that Brown, with his tax refusal, was violating the clear commands of Jesus and willfully misinterpreting the scripture in an attempt to justify his action. So Brown felt forced to make a rigorous response, which he did in two lectures from the pulpit which he then published and expanded on.

The controversy, as you might guess, largely concerned the interpretation of those familiar passages in the New Testament concerning taxation and submission to civil authority, particularly good old Romans 13. Brown hoped to demonstrate that in spite of what that verse says, “neither the doctrine nor the law of Christ has any affinity to slavish principles.”

His book has some remarkable and interesting arguments about civil disobedience and tax resistance, but also a lot of doctrinal quibbling and teasing of The Original Greek only of interest to Bible junkies and queer eggs like myself.

The book is dense… it has its own three page table of contents just for “the more important foot notes”! I made some notes while I was reading it, and will summarize here the parts of his argument that concern civil disobedience and tax resistance, though mostly ignoring the parts of his book that argue for disestablishmentarianism and the separation of church and state without touching on those other two topics.

Much of the book is Brown’s rigorous explanation of how he interprets Romans 13 and why he believes his interpretation is correct.

He avoids the convenient dodges that some interpreters have tried to cast on the passage as a way of ducking out of its pretty clear instruction to Christians to be compliant, obedient subjects of whatever government they happen to be under.

Not that the passage doesn’t have its difficulties, just in trying to make it coherent. What can you make of Paul’s assertion that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil” when he knew very well the opposite was often true? Brown assumes that “good works” and “evil works” are here just synonyms for “law-abiding” and “law-breaking” behavior. But then Paul seems to merely be making a ridiculously pedantic point about the law: don’t disobey the law, because you’ll get punished if you do, because rulers punish people who break the law and don’t punish people who obey it. Did he really need to spell that out to his flock?

It seems much a much more plausible to read this as Paul saying that seeing as how the ruler is, as ruler, “ordained of God” and “the minister of God”, his actions in enforcing the law are extensions of God’s judgment. You should obey the law “not only for wrath” — that is, fear of punishment — “but also for conscience sake” because the ruler’s laws are God’s laws by proxy.

The problem with this interpretation, for Christians anyway, is that it either makes Paul out to be an idiot, makes God out to be even more capricious than he was in Old Testament times, or makes Romans 13 look suspiciously like it was never intended to be an instruction to Christians so much as it was meant for the eyes of the Imperial authorities as a way of making the Christians out to be just the sort of harmless grovelers every tyrant would love to have for subjects.

In general, Brown seems to waffle between seeing Romans 13 as pragmatic advice to Christians on how to best get along under the current scheme of things without risking getting stepped on by the Imperial boot — which may be a good surmise of the intent of the chapter — and as a more metaphysical discourse on the nature of law and earthly government and its relation to God’s will and Christian duty — which seems to me a more accurate reading of the message of the chapter. But he’s prevented by his understanding of how Scripture works (it’s not just something someone wrote for some reason, but is “given by inspiration of God… for instruction in righteousness”) from separating the intent and the message in this way, so he tries to hold on to both at once, but tends to just go back and forth between them depending on which suits his argument best at any particular time.

Romans 13 doesn’t itself allow for any exceptions to the general rule of civil obedience. Brown believes this is because carefully delineating the scope of the obligations of the governed and the governing wasn’t Paul’s agenda when he wrote the chapter — he just wanted the Roman Christians to accept the Roman government as legitimate and not to toy with sedition and agitation or to consider themselves ungovernable as “subjects of the kingdom of heaven” or some such, but to make nice with the pagan overlords for the sake of the survival of the church. It’s a mistake, Brown feels, to make this passage out to be the be-all and end-all of Christian instruction on political philosophy.

Naturally, Brown alludes to the episodes in which the apostles defied rulers in order to continue their preaching, or refused to offer incense at heathen altars when commanded, to demonstrate that an exception to the general rule of obedience clearly exists when man’s law contradicts God’s law.

Brown also notes that Paul himself defied magistrates on occasions when he believed they were exceeding their legal authority. So, he infers that there is also an exception here: you don’t need to obey rulers when the rulers are acting on their own whim rather than upholding the law. It is the authority of the legal office itself that must be obeyed and respected, not the person who happens to occupy it. In cases that fall under this exception, you may or may not obey the law, depending on what you think is best.

Brown also says that there is a third exception: that only laws and rulings that are legitimately within “the limits of civil authority” must be respected. More-or-less he means that the Romans had no business regulating Christians in their religious practices “except so far as these might interfere with the peace or good order of civil society.” This will be crucial to the argument closest to his heart — separation of church and state.

He’s a little vague on this third exception, and doesn’t say where he finds scriptural support for it — he’s more likely to cite European political philosophers like Locke. One logical argument he alludes to for this position goes something like this: If civil government were permitted to make rules governing religious belief and practice that Christians were obligated to follow, then clearly only those rulers “who know and teach the true religion” could be ordained of God, and Paul clearly wasn’t talking about Christian rulers, ergo… But this seems to prove exception #3 only at the cost of making it redundant to exception #1.

For laws that fall under this third exception, like the second, a Christian can feel free to disregard or obey them as seems best in the circumstances.

Even given these exceptions though, a Christian should be submissive in disobedience — never seeking to overthrow or subvert the government, but just accepting the consequences with no more than a complaint.

Given all this, he then asks to what extent Paul’s instructions to the Roman Christians in should be followed by Scottish Christians in . For the most part, he says, the instructions are just as good now as they were then. However, he cautions that just because Paul could write that the powers that were in “are ordained of God” doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the powers that are in get the same seal of approval. The powers-that-be then-and-there meant Rome and jurisdictions subservient to Rome. We shouldn’t overgeneralize from that one case:

[C]ivil government in general is of divine appointment… but as to any particular government being God’s ordinance to any particular individual or nation, that is to be inferred from a variety of circumstances.… The Roman Christians were directly informed that the Roman government was God’s ordinance to them. We have not the same means of judging of any particular government…

In short: you have to decide for yourself whether the government you’re under (or which of the governments contending for your allegiance) is the legitimate one, ordained of God. Usually, according to Brown, it’s a no-brainer, and the powers-that-be are ordained of God now as they were then.

The same three classes of exceptions to the general rule of obedience also still apply today, and with these also, it’s up to you and your understanding and your conscience to decide where to draw the line in any particular case:

nobody will become surety for the consequences at the last day, of my doing what I thought wrong, because another with great confidence, but, as appeared to me, little argument, pronounced it to be right.… Man is a responsible being. His creed, his religion, his actions, are his own: he must answer for them, and therefore it is right he should look after them.

And the same instruction applies today: if you disobey, submissively accept the legal consequences. Brown takes pains to distinguish civil disobedience of this sort from the “anarchy and bloodshed” of ordinary law-breaking. The ordinary outlaw breaks the law and attempts to evade the consequences; the civil disobedient sees that under the law “obedience has always an alternative” — that is, the law’s penalty for disobedience — and chooses that alternative in an orderly, “legal” fashion. This in my mind is a bit of a stretch, but he takes pains to quote the “obedience has always an alternative” bit from a commentary in “a Tory literary journal” to make it seem a conservative legal theory, and perhaps he’s right. In any case, he insists that someone who is practicing civil disobedience has not thereby become an outlaw or a poor citizen:

He who, when he cannot conscientiously actively obey a command of a government, which he yet in his judgment approves of, as, upon the whole, a good civil government, quietly and patiently takes what he cannot help thinking a wrong, is certainly not a bad subject. He honours the government by submitting to it, when he cannot obey it.

Brown goes further and says that there are circumstances in which a Christian is justified in not just passively disobeying the authorities but actively resisting them. He approvingly quotes William Paley, who gives this liberal defense of revolution:

So long as the interest of the whole society requires it; that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God (which will universally determines our duty) that the established government be obeyed, and no longer. This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redress on the other.

This, he says, is the clear right of citizens, and Christians are not called upon by God to give up their civil rights. If that’s all that Christian submission to the powers-that-be comes down to, thinketh I, the powers-that-be had better watch their backs when there are Christians about.

Having painted this picture of the Christian duty of civil obedience, Brown moves on in part two of his book to look at the particular case of taxation. I’ll save that for tomorrow.