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 Two.

In part one of my review, I introduced you to John Brown, a nonconformist Scottish minister who was refusing to pay a tax designated for support of the official government church, and to his interpretation of Romans 13 and the Christian duty of civil obedience it mandates. Brown moves on in part two of his book to look at the particular case of taxation, and I’ll follow suit in part two of my review.

Brown notes that Paul singled out taxation as a specific example of the way Christians ought to submit to the powers-that-be: “for this cause pay ye tribute also… Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom…”

He says there are historical reasons for this: For one thing, Christians needed to distinguish themselves in Roman eyes from the Zealots, particularly from followers of that other notorious Galilean, Judas (no, not that Judas), who had led a violent tax-related rebellion under the theory that Jews ought not to pay tribute to pagan kings — one which was crushed.

He also notes that the “for this cause pay ye tribute also” phrase can also be accurately translated “for this cause ye pay tribute also” — turning a commandment into a mere description, though I’m not sure this really changes much, given its context, and in any case he is unconvinced that this is the correct rendering.

The gist of the passage, says Brown, was that Christians should voluntarily give whatever tribute was asked of them — neither refusing, trying to evade, or attempting to get away with underpayment — as a matter of moral obligation. He paraphrases the section of Romans as follows:

Pay tribute, as well as yield obedience, from a regard to the divine authority; for not only are the higher officers of the imperial government to be considered by you as God’s ministers to protect the peaceable and to punish the lawless, but those very contemned and hated publicans are God’s ministers also, and the collection of tribute is the work which he, in his providential arrangements, has assigned them. You cannot refuse compliance with their lawful demands, without disobeying God: you cannot cheat them, without robbing him.

Paul’s instructions about taxes, writes Brown, “are a reply to the question, Are Christians bound to pay tribute to a government administered by heathens? And that reply is a very strong affirmative.”

Much as he did in part one, having established the strict general principle, Brown goes hunting for the particular loopholes.

He starts by saying that as taxation is just one of the class of duties of obligatory obedience that Christian citizens must honor, the general case of which he treated in part one, it’s likely that the same three exceptions that applied to the general case there apply to this specific case here.

He notes, however, that many Christians have taken Paul’s emphasis on taxation to mean that taxation in particular has a stricter obligation attached to it.

Brown feels that if Paul indeed meant this, he would have said so explicitly. If taxpaying is obligatory above and beyond the limits of ordinary civil obedience, this is not because the Bible says so, but must be because of something peculiar about taxation.

And this is where it gets most interesting to me, because he addresses this question, which I’ve wrestled with here from time to time:

[T]here are only two conceivable causes… which could give this idiosyncrasy to this particular form of civil obedience: either that the parting with money is not in itself, properly speaking, a moral act — or, that supposing it to be in itself a moral act, if performed voluntarily, the compulsory nature of the exaction strips it of its morality.

The first of these possibilities — that monetary transactions are by their very nature devoid of moral import — he dispatches quickly. The second one takes some more work. I prefer the more pithy version he wrote in a letter-to-the-editor when he was responding to Robert Haldane’s criticism of his tax resistance:

To command a person to employ his property in doing that which, in his estimation, is sinful… to a man of plain common sense seems an act of the same kind as to command him to employ his hands in doing that which, in his estimation, is sinful, and I really think “expedients must be resorted to” [paraphrasing Haldane’s criticism of Brown’s arguments — ♇] in order to persuade him that to comply with the first command is right, while to comply with the last command is wrong.

Here’s how he puts it in the body of his book:

[I]t has been said that the compulsory character of tribute strips it of its moral character in one way, and invests it with a moral character in another. Here is an object to which I could not voluntarily contribute without sin; but God has given another party authority to impose tribute on me, and he has power to compel me to make payment: so that whatever be the object, I have no concern with it, while, from the divine command, it is my duty to make the required payment. Now, in the first place, we have to remark here, that in taking for granted that God gives to the magistrate the right to impose tribute for whatever purpose he pleases, the premise is made identical with the conclusion to be drawn from it — a convenient, but not a very reputable mode of arguing; and, in the second place, that compulsoriness is not a quality peculiar to tribute-paying — it belongs to all acts of civil obedience; the very principle of civil government being force. If a Christian was commanded to pay a tax for the support of idol worship, the very same power that was ready to punish him if he did not do it, was equally ready to be put forth against him for refusing to go to the temple and worship; and if the compulsory nature of the requisition is a good reason for complying with the first, it would be difficult to see why it should not be a good excuse for complying with the second. If actual absolute force were employed in either case, then indeed the moral character of the acts would be lost, obliterated, destroyed; for in that case the man would cease to be an actor and become a sufferer. It appears, then, that there is nothing in the nature of tribute, to take it out of the general category of forms of civil obedience; — there is nothing to make the limitation of the precept an impossible thing.

But don’t get too carried away: under this principle, Christians are still required to pay taxes for wise, just, right, and efficient government, as well as for unwise, unequal, and oppressive government. The duty to refuse to pay a tax is, in Brown’s opinion, rare and narrowly-defined. He considers the explicit Christian obligation to pay taxes cheerfully to be a blessing, because without it, Christians might be obligated to scrutinize all government expenditures to assure that they were in line with Christian principles before paying up.

Wide, however, as was the sphere of the obligation of tribute-paying, we apprehend that it was by no means unbounded; and its limits were, and indeed must have been, materially the same as the limits of the other forms of civil obedience. There is nothing arbitrary in the divine constitutions. They all proceed on great general principles, and any thing that claims to be an exception, requires to produce very satisfactory evidence before its pretensions can be admitted. That tribute-paying has no sound claims to the distinction of being the only duty of civil obedience which has no limits, will appear, we apprehend, very distinctly as we proceed.

If this law have limits at all, there can be but little doubt, that the payment of a tribute, exacted specifically for an immoral or impious purpose, or generally for a purpose conscientiously disapproved of by him from whom it is exacted, falls beyond these limits. There is something absolutely revolting to those moral perceptions and feelings, which lie at the very bottom, which form the ima fundamina, of our spiritual nature, in maintaining the opposite opinion. It is monstrous to suppose that, by any mere human arrangement, not only may what was not duty become duty, and what was not sin become sin; but what was sin become duty, and what was duty become sin. The principle would need to have strong support that warrants such a conclusion as the following:— voluntarily to have contributed money for defraying the expenses of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, on the part of his disciples, would have been guilt, if possible, fouler than that which makes the name Iscariot the type of all that is base and impious; yet had the Roman authorities imposed a tax on them for this most immoral of all purposes, it would have immediately become their duty cheerfully to pay it. This is the fair result of the principle. I have heard of men who, on being made to see this, still held by it. But such men are beyond the reach of argument.

Here he quotes in a footnote from A Hind let loose, or, an historical representation of the testimonies of the Church of Scotland, which has an interesting-looking section on “The Sufferings of many, for Refuſing to pay the wicked Exactions of the Ceſs, Locality, Fynes &c. Vindicated” (or, in the page headings, “Refusing to pay wicked Taxations vindicated”). The argument therein encourages the reader to imagine paying taxes to the various tyrants who have oppressed righteous people throughout the ages: would you have voluntarily contributed kindling to the oven in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were to be roasted if Nebuchadnezar demanded it? Would you contribute a thread to the noose for hanging a martyr if that were your tax?

Brown concludes “that had the Roman Christians been required directly to contribute to the support of heathen idolatry, it would have been their duty to refuse compliance.”

He looks at the evidence that perhaps the early Christians indeed had been required to pay such a tax (there is evidence that some time later this may have been the case), but sees also evidence that if this indeed was the case, in fact they did refuse to pay it. Much of the evidence he cites in this regard he does not deign to translate from the Greek and Latin, and much of the rest indirectly addresses the question at best, so I can’t say much for it.

He does quote from William Cave’s Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel () in a letter-to-the-editor in response to Haldane, but this too is third-hand and inconclusive (it’s not certain, for instance, in spite of what Cave says so authoritatively, that Tertullian was speaking of “taxes” to maintain the temples as opposed to just donations and fees charged to worshipers):

Tertullian tells them, that although they refused to pay the taxes rated upon them for maintenance of the heathen temples, yet for all other tributes they had cause to give the Christians thanks for so faithfully paying what was due… they would easily find that the Christians’ denial to pay that one tax was abundantly compensated and made up in their honest payment of all the rest.

At this point, as he did in part one, Brown concludes his analysis of what early Christians understood was their duty regarding Roman taxes, and asks how this should guide modern Christians. Basically, to no great surprise, he concludes that we should pay our taxes honestly and conscientiously. He agrees that to evade taxes or to deal in black market goods is equivalent to robbing the public purse.

But still he thinks it is possible that the government may levy a tax that Christians are duty-bound not to pay. He assembles quotes from several authorities to back him up on this, and then proceeds to try to draw the line over which taxes are unpayable.

“[F]irst… on the clearest principles of moral obligation, we are not — we cannot be bound to pay a tax levied for a specific purpose, if that purpose is immoral or impious…” That is to say that if the government raises a specific tax the revenue from which is designated for specifically immoral spending, a Christian cannot voluntarily pay it. If the government raises a general tax and just happens to spend the very same amount on the same immoral thing just in the course of its general budgeting, however, the Christian is in the clear, and indeed is duty-bound to pay up in full.

This, you may recall, is much the same conclusion that many Quakers came to about war taxes. Explicit war taxes should be resisted, but general taxes that paid for a general budget that just happened to include a war were okay.

In this regard, he points to 1 Corinthians 10:27-28:

If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, this is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake…

He says that this same technique should apply to scruples about taxation: You don’t have to go out of your way to find out whether your taxes are being spent in sinful ways, when it’s ambiguous or when all the spending is mixed together, but if the ruler tells you explicitly that this is what he’s going to do, you have to draw the line:

[L]et the magistrate demand money of me for the general purposes of government, and I will conscientiously give it him; but if he say, Give me money to do what is impious and immoral, I cannot, without sin, give it, though, without sin, I may suffer it to be taken from me.

He put it better, I think, when he first announced his resistance:

If they to whom the management of the public funds is, by the constitution of the Government committed, misemploy them, that, so far as it is a question of moral responsibility, is more their concern than mine. But it is obviously otherwise with a tax professedly levied for an object, which I consider as not only impolitic, but unjust, — not only unjust but unscriptural. For me voluntarily to pay such a tax would be to assist in doing what I believe God disapproves, — it would be in inversion of the inspired maxim, “to obey” man “rather than” God.

Back in the main body of the book, he addresses war taxes specifically, and with a vehemence I found surprising:

On this ground all war taxes, i.e. all taxes for the support of a particular war, are objectionable. In many cases, wars have been obviously unjust. In the estimation of some of the best and wisest men the world has ever seen, all wars are necessarily unjust. I cannot see how any man can consistently pay taxes levied avowedly for the support of an unjust war; and I am sure, a very great part of the subjects of any government are ill fitted to form a true judgment with respect to the character of a particular war. It is far wiser to impose general taxes: for in proportion as men become more intelligent and more conscientious, the difficulty in obtaining payment for such taxes, as are levied for objects respecting the lawfulness of which doubts are entertained, except by means calculated to make a government odious, will increase. Perhaps, however, the present system of providing for the expense of belligerent operations, by specific taxes, may be permitted to continue, and the growing difficulty of collecting such taxes may be one of the means to be employed by the Prince of Peace, to put an end to war among mankind.

Now, Brown can get to the meat and potatoes of his argument, which is that Christians ought not to pay taxes that are specifically designated for the support of an official church.

He argues several points simultaneously: that people ought to be Christians and particular church adherents through their own voluntary choice, that the civil authorities ought not to meddle in religious and church matters, and that Christians ought not to pay taxes for the support of state churches. The latter point is the one that interests me, so I’ll concentrate my summary there.

Brown approvingly mentions the Quakers, who had already come to this conclusion, and who refused to pay mandatory tithes and church-rates to establishment churches. He quotes the Quaker J.J. Gurney:

[W]henever these demands (tithes and other ecclesiastical imposts) are made on the true and consistent Friend, he will not fail to refuse the payment of them.… nor will he venture, by any action of his own, to lay waste his principle, and to weaken the force of truth, with respect to so important a subject. Such an action, the voluntary payment of tithes must unquestionably be considered.

This conclusion is by no means affected by the consideration that the payment of tithes is imposed on the inhabitants of this country by the law of the land.… Faithful as Friends desire to be to the legal authorities… as Christians, they cannot render to the law an active obedience in any particular which interferes with their religious duty… [A]lthough they refuse to pay tithes, they oppose no resistance to those legal distraints by which tithes are taken from them. It is surprising that any persons of reflection should form an opinion (not unfrequently expressed), that there is no essential distinction between these practices, and should assert that the suffering of the distraint, in a moral and religious point of view, is tantamount to the voluntary payment. The two courses are, in point of fact, the respective results of two opposite principles. The Friend, who voluntarily pays tithes, puts forth his hand to that which he professes to regard as an unclean thing, and actively contributes to the maintenance of a system which is in direct contrariety to his own religious views. The Friend, who refuses to pay tithes, but who (without involving himself in any secret compromise) quietly suffers a legal distraint for them, is clear of any action which contradicts his own principles.

Gurney also states (and Brown agrees) that refusing to pay such a mandatory tithe to a government church is not just morally obligatory, but is socially valuable, in that it amplifies a justified protest against an ill-advised entanglement of church & state.

Of the present state of things in Scotland, Brown writes:

…I am sure I do not overstate the truth when I say, that in few questions are the minds of conscientious men at present more painfully interested, than how far they are warranted, by the voluntary payment of church taxes, to contribute to the permanence of an order of things, which they are fully persuaded is inconsistent with the mind of God and the law of Christ Jesus.

The question, Brown says, is whether when someone actively pays such a tax (as opposed to passively refusing), this amounts to the same thing as “to sanction and support that which he accounts to be sinful.” He believes it certainly does.

There’s another, more mundane sticking point. The annuity tax that Brown was resisting was a tax on a particular class of property in a particular region of Edinburgh. This tax inevitably had an effect on the market for such property, in that the property was less valuable to the buyer because of this tax liability that was attached to it, and so the seller of the property could expect to get a lower price for it as a result than he could if there were no such tax. So is it fair, asked Brown’s critics, for Brown — by resisting the tax — to get 100% of the value of his property, after paying for the property at this discount? Is it fair that he was able to outbid competing buyers for the property for whom the property was inherently less valuable for having the tax (that Brown refuses to pay) wrapped up in it?

I don’t think this is a great argument, but in any case Brown doesn’t meet it head on so much as he notes that even though he doesn’t pay the Annuity Tax voluntarily, he does end up incurring at least as much financial loss through distraint, which makes the argument moot.

I hear a similar argument raised occasionally about proposed free market reforms today. For example: the abolition of rent control. I rent an apartment in San Francisco, which has vast regulations governing the residential rental market. When I entered into a contract with my landlord to pay him rent in return for a place to live, enmeshed with our explicit contract were all of these legal regulations that formed the background of the deal. The price we agreed to implicitly included the values of these legal protections and liabilities.

So what would happen if the mayor and county board of supervisors were replaced by a bunch of anarchists who set about abolishing these various regulations in the name of a free market? Well, on the plus side, the government would no longer be interfering with our freedom to enter into contracts of our own choosing. On the minus side, the government would be abruptly and dramatically changing the terms of the contract we’ve already entered into. An interesting conundrum.

Another argument for the annuity tax was that it itself was a variety of rent — that the government, which was more-or-less the final arbiter of property rights in the land — had ceded a portion of a certain class of property to the Church of Scotland, and the Church, via the tax, was just claiming its just return on its property.

This wasn’t very convincing. If the annuity tax amounted to a rent on property, it was a weird sort of property — no title, no right of sale or transfer, and so forth. And furthermore, if the State did just up and grant a bunch of property to the Church like that, they should not have, and assuming they had the power to do so, they certainly have the power to undo what they did, which they ought to forthwith.

Brown notes, relying on Duncan Maclaren’s History of the Resistance to the Annuity Tax (), that the current establishment church in Scotland was once in dissent against King Charles ’s state church — and that they resisted the Annuity Tax at that time — putting up with the “poinding and rouping” of their property, the quartering of soldiers at the homes of tax resisters, and worse — the government was not averse to using torture and execution against religious dissenters — rather than voluntarily paying.

One thing you may have noticed as conspicuous by its absence in all of this discussion is the “Render unto Caesar” episode from the gospels. This, along with the “tribute money” episode, finally makes an appearance on page 181.

These he deals with briefly. The first, he insists, does not give Christians the sort of unquestioning duty to pay all taxes whatsoever that some people think it does. Christians are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but what is Caesar’s is an open question, and Caesar may indeed ask for things that belong not to him but to God. The second episode he sees as evidence that while there is a class of taxes Christians are duty-bound to pay, and a set that Christians are duty-bound to resist, there may also be taxes that are in neither category, that Christians may pay or refuse to pay based only on pragmatic considerations — for instance, a tax that was assessed illegally, or one that is not for the support of civil government but for some crony’s private benefit.

Finally, there’s one additional argument that Brown relegates to an appendix, but which strikes me as worthy of more prominence. Some of his critics wondered why, since the annuity tax only applied to high-rent properties in a particular part of Edinburgh, Brown didn’t just up and move somewhere else when he discovered that there was an odious tax there. That way, he’d neither offend the civil powers by refusing to pay a tax, nor offend God by offering up a voluntary tithe to a government church.

Brown is dismissive of this argument:

And is it indeed come to this? … [I]s a Dissenter, in consequence of holding a conscientious opinion, to be obliged, if he choose the metropolis of Scotland for a residence, to dwell in the suburbs? It would not be discreditable for any man to take up his residence within the royalty of Edinburgh, with the direct intention of yielding a passive and peaceable resistance to an unjust and injurious impost, if he had the hope, in this way, of doing any thing effectual towards its removal…

(Though in his case, he admits he didn’t move into Edinburgh in order to resist the tax, but for more mundane reasons, and just happened to need to resist.)

Brown addresses two other arguments in his preface:

  1. That a tax, like a debt, ought to be paid simply because it is owed, and not conditionally on how the proceeds are to be spent by the recipient
  2. That arguments for refusing to pay a particular tax because the proceeds will be spent sinfully are arguments that would also apply against a general tax, certain portions of which will be spent sinfully

The first of these arguments Brown says begs the question of whether a tax really is like a debt — do we in fact owe a tax if the tax is being levied for a sinful purpose? The second he thinks is not the reductio ad absurdum it is made out to be — if his valid arguments against a particular tax are indeed valid arguments also against a general tax, so much the worse for the general tax.

He concludes that:

…every attempt to show that the avowal, on the part of the government, of what appears to me the immoral purpose of a tax, does not affect the moral character of my act of paying it, has completely failed, and must for ever completely fail, while there is a difference between parting with property for what I know to be right, and parting with property for what I know to be wrong. To part with property is a voluntary act, and no power on earth can make it right in me voluntarily to do what I believe to be wrong. If it is taken from me for such a purpose, that is the exercise of might not right, and in such a transaction I may innocently be a sufferer, but I cannot innocently be an actor.

Disestablishment he thinks is inevitable and imminent, and he sees ominous signs that it could be a violent break. (See Disruption of for some notes on the impending conflict. Today, Scotland still has a national church, but it is substantially more independent of the government.)

Given that, he advocates non-violent civil disobedience like his tax resistance as a way of advancing the dissenter cause without risking violence:

Were all, or were even the great body of the Dissenters in this country, quietly, yet resolutely to refuse to yield support to the ecclesiastical institutions, of which they conscientiously disapprove, following in the peaceful and praiseworthy track of the Friends, the attention of the government and the legislature, would be irresistibly drawn to a subject, which has been but little considered, and is not at all understood by them; and the impossibility of long upholding the present system, would glare on them with an evidence which would persuade them, even against their will, that no time was to be lost in preparing for an approaching event, which, if met unprepared, may have consequences from which all sound-minded, right-hearted men, to whatever religious or political party they belong, would start back with alarm.

Were the Dissenters generally to refuse to pay church taxes, no government which could exist in this country, whether Tory, Whig, or Radical, durst continue from year to year the measures which would be necessary, in this case, to support the Establishments. They would be obliged practically to repeal the law for their maintenance, so far as Dissenters are concerned, and this would be found equivalent to a dissolution of the connexion of Church and State. It has been justly observed, that “nothing is so invincible as determined non-compliance. He that resists by force may be overcome by greater force; but nothing can overcome a calm and fixed determination not to obey.”

Here, he’s quoting from the Quaker Jonathan Dymond’s essay on “Civil Obedience” (which also has an interesting section on non-violent tax resistance I need to dig up and post here some day), circa .

So aside from seeing his particular episode of tax resistance as a moral obligation of his Christian faith in its own right, Brown also saw it as a valuable tactic in his struggle for church/state separation. As such, he was eager to use the “poinding” (distraint) of his property for tax debts as an opportunity for propaganda.

Here’s a letter-to-the-editor he wrote to try to publicly shame the establishment clergy over accepting tax money stolen from members of other churches:

Sir, — As I was going out this morning, I met, in the lobby, three persons, one of whom informed me, that they were come, to distrain, for the Annuity Tax, civilly apologising for coming on so disagreeable an errand, and assigning as the reason, that the Magistrates had informed them, that if they did not do their work, they must leave their service. He then asked me if there were any articles which I would prefer being taken rather than others. I declined availing myself of the choice offered to me; and was about to show them into the dining-room, when he said, looking towards a clock standing in the lobby, “This will serve the purpose.” On this I left them; but found afterwards, that doubting, I suppose, whether an article, the price of which, a few years ago, was £10, would suffice to pay a charge of £3:3:6, they went into a bed-room and poinded a mirror, valued at about £4, leaving an intimation, that if the tax was not paid within eight days, the articles would be removed and sold.

For various reasons, I am desirous that these facts should be recorded in your columns “in perpetuam memoriam rei” — as an illustration of the true character of the Annuity Tax, and of the moderation and wisdom of its exactors. While I take joyfully this “spoiling of my goods,” I abhor the injustice and despise the meanness of the system, by one of “the beggarly elements” of which, I am legally robbed of my property; and cannot help thinking, that every unprejudiced and reflecting mind must perceive that there is something very far wrong with that system, which can render it necessary and proper, in the estimation of a number of most respectable and amiable Christian ministers, to employ or (which in a moral point of view is the same thing) to sanction the employment of such measures in reference to another Christian minister, who has no ecclesiastical connexion with them — who never received from them any favour, and never did them any injury, — in order to obtain that maintenance to which, according to the laws of Christ, they are entitled from those who choose to avail themselves of their valuable labours — a body so numerous and wealthy, that I do not see how, without disgrace as well as criminality, they can allow their respected pastors to suffer even temporary inconvenience, from any difficulty, originating in the unequal, illegal, persecuting, and odious character of the impost from which, unhappily for all parties, their income at present is chiefly derived.

Sympathetic dissenters packed the auction room where Brown’s goods were sold to pay his tax debts, as a contemporary news account in The Scotsman tells:

On Wednesday forenoon, a great excitement was occasioned in the city by placards being carried through the streets upon poles, intimating that a sale of goods, poinded from individuals who had refused to pay the Annuity Tax, was to take place at the Weigh House. Some years having elapsed since any sale of the kind had been attempted, considerable curiosity was evinced to see who, or if any one, would have the hardihood to purchase the goods of their fellow-citizens under such peculiar circumstances. Purchasers, however, were found. We need hardly state, that the crowd expressed their feelings pretty audibly both in reference to the general nature of the transaction itself, — the rouping of one minister’s goods for the support of other ministers to whom he was under no obligation, and in reference to the unenviable position in which the purchasers chose to place themselves.