[The following comments were penned in answer to a query by a reader, in 1878, who asked concerning Christ’s paying of tribute, "lest we should offend," etc. (Matt. 17:24-27), what the Covenanter position is regarding taxation.]
The topic suggested by our correspondent has often been discussed in past generations, and especially in the [18th] century, between Covenanters and Seceders in the British Isles. It had also been a matter of earnest controversy in the seventeenth century, during the time of the Westminster Assembly. Were the works published by men of erudition and piety on the Dominion of the Mediator and cognate doctrines accessible to sincere inquirers; our present attempt to answer our friend might be superceded. Indeed, what can be said, which has not been said, on a subject which has filled volumes, and which will continue to be agitated till the millennium; but we will present our views on the subject concisely as follows:—
Our God, in free love and sovereign mercy, has revealed himself to man by his word in three aspects, for our contemplation and adoration; in personal relations, essential, voluntary and economical. In the first he subsists before and independent of all creatures, Job 38:4; Ps. 90:2. Therefore, to speak of God as creating, ruling, &c. in essential character, is not only improper but absurd, because it supposes the eternity of creatures (a parte ante). Creation and providence result from the voluntary exercise or operation of the divine attributes, Ps. 135:6; Eph. 1:11. From God in this character emanates all power among his creatures both physical and moral, Ps. 62:11; Rom. 13:1. All this power has been delegated by the Father to his Son in economical relations of these divine persons, Ps. 110:1; Matt. 28:18. Now, as "there is no power," unless, except, "but of" from "God;" and as the Mediator expressly claims this power, and as the Father commands chief magistrates to "kiss his Son," it follows irrefragably that no legitimate moral power can exist outside of the Mediator’s dominion. All kings, princes, potentates and nations that are not in subjection to the Father’s sole Plenipotentiary, are symbolized by beasts upon mountains of prey; from Pharaoh—the dragon of the sea, Ps. 74:13, down through the lion, the bear, the leopard and the nondescript beast of our own time, which embodies the subtlety and cruelty of all, Dan. 7:4-8; Rev. 13:2.
Again, God in absolute character and voluntary relationship, having instituted moral rule by positive law, Gen. 1:28; upon the breach of the Covenant of Works, transferred that headship from the first to the "last Adam," with large additions, "leaving nothing which is not put under him," Heb. 2:8; 1 Cor. 15:27. The crown of universal empire thus placed upon Immanuel’s head by his Father, and with the hearty consent of his mother, Song 3:11: then it is perfectly natural that all his loyal subjects should be joyful in their King, Ps. 149:2. The ordinance of magistracy instituted in Eden, and for the development of which our beneficent Creator made suitable provision in the moral constitution and social nature of man; He graciously continued after the Fall, "writing it out in our sight and making it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it," Deut. 17:15; Jer. 30:21. To this holy ordinance of God and its administrators, God’s children owe conscientious subjection and willing obedience; "custom, tribute, fear, honor and prayers," Rom. 13:1,7; 1 Tim. 2:1,2; 1 Pet. 2:13,14. By the controlling power of the Messiah the earth occasionally helps the woman—gives his oppressed people favor in the eyes of them that led them captive, as in the case of Cyrus and Darius; but this is evidently a constraint put upon ravenous beasts—the lion, bear, or leopard. The kings or queens of God’s ordinance naturally care for the church, and protect and provide for her as nursing fathers and mothers, exemplified by Hezekiah, Josiah, Nehemiah, &c., 2 Kings 18:4; 22:3-6; Isa. 49:23.
Now we ask, do mankind in general, or God’s people in particular, owe custom, tribute, fear, honor and subjection—or any one of these things, to ravenous beasts of prey, the haters of the Lord, who devour Jacob and lay waste his dwelling place?—and this too, for conscience’ sake? No, understanding this matter in the clear light of God’s Word, and aided by the blood stained footsteps of Christ’s valiant and martyred servants, none of their legitimate successors will answer in the affirmative. They do, and their predecessors always did, pay custom, tribute, &c., to just such characters; as Paul was "constrained to appeal unto" one of them, "for wrath’s sake"—to escape the furious rage of his "kinsmen according to the flesh!" All taxes are paid to the "kings of the earth," during the reign of Antichrist, by Christ’s witnesses, for wrath’s sake and under published protest: and his people make no moral discrimination in reference to the objects to which the impost may be appropriated by the existing power—provided always, that the exaction be not for a declaredly sinful object, or demanded as a test of loyalty.
It has been often asserted in ages past—and New Covenanters now reiterate the assertion, that not only did Christ pay tribute to Caesar, but enjoins His disciples to do the same—and, of course, for conscience’ sake! Let the Christian only think of our Lord contributing conscientiously to the support of that power by whose sentence through Pilate He was crucified! Such irrational and impious teaching can be equalled only by that of our Saviour’s eating His own flesh and drinking His own blood at the institution of the Eucharist. The assertion that Christ paid tribute to Caesar has never been proved, though often attempted; and we are confident that it can never be done: and in the meantime, in the language of another, "We pronounce the assertion a libel on the Lord Jesus Christ." Alas, into what labyrinths do earth’s politics plunge the intellects of men! But now more directly in brief our friend’s request:
The reference by him is evidently to Matt. 17:24-27, a portion of Scripture which has been often adduced in proof that symbolical beasts [such as Caesar] are ministers of God by His preceptive will, "for good to men." And the proof would indeed be conclusive if the assumption were true—that the tax paid was civil tribute. Our Lord’s question to Peter refers to what was known in the families of the "kings of the earth." Their sons were exempt from taxation. Peter knew this to be true, either as law or recognized usage. Now, our Saviour pleads exemption for Himself and Peter on the ground of sonship. In what sense was Christ or Peter Caesar’s son? Their sonship is of higher extract, by nature and adoption; therefore, they are exempt from tribute in their Father’s house: but they waive their right for the edification of others, as Paul did, and as the law of love, the law of God requires in like cases. See Ex. 30:13-15; John 2:16; Gal. 4:6.
Christ’s witnesses, like their Lord before Herod and Pilate, the official representatives (Dan. 7:23), of the fourth beast, have had continual conflicts with opposers in the matter of owning civil rulers in general, and concerning paying taxes in particular for their support. They have been often told that the paying of tax is equivalent to allegiance; yet every unbiased person may perceive the fallacy of the charge, who knows anything about paying duty in foreign commerce; or, even before his eyes on postal stamps, he may read its fallacy.
Christ wrought a miracle for Peter’s instruction—and ours too, by finding the "piece of money" for the temple worship—not for Caesar: and proved His own exemption by a reference to the custom of the "kings of the earth"—not of Caesar only, for confirmation and illustration. The difference which the Spirit of Christ has made, His witnesses have always made, between doing any thing "for wrath’s sake, and for conscience’ sake;" the conscience meanwhile owning either the Dragon or the Lamb. If a person thinks he can serve these two masters,—and many seem to think so, he is certainly and woefully mistaken. And if a professing witness declares that he pays tax to immoral power, civil or ecclesiastical, "for conscience’ sake;" he betrays his own folly, deceives himself, and ceases to be a witness. He might profit by lessons from "silly lasses" of Scotland. "The nations have drunken of Babylon’s wine; therefore, the nations are mad," Jer. 51:7. It is common to say,—"Why reason with a man while he is drunk, or when in a passion?" In either case reason is dethroned. R[eformed] P[resbyterian] witnesses, when "reasoning out of the Scriptures" on the point in question, have frequently met with no better arguments than Paul received from the Ephesian votaries of Diana. Often in such cases of irrational opposition, have such inspired words as the following recurred to memory: "A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil; but the fool rageth and is confident—wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason."—David Steele, (1878).