In this series, the term “Christians” is used in its strict biblical usage: to be precise, members of the “church” founded by Jesus Christ in the first century AD, popularly known as “Christians” because they were seen and known to be Christ’s friends and followers. The intention is to set out the principles which these early Christians learned and adopted in relation to the law of the lands in which they lived, guided as they were by the example and teaching of their “Shepherd and Bishop.” If Christadelphian traditions and practice fit in with those principles, all well and good. If they don’t, we need to change. And “if on some point you think differently, God will make it clear to you.”1
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the two-drachma tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do governments on earth collect duty and taxes – from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him.2
Bible teaching is full of apparent contradictions. As Christians we are all expected to resolve these in our daily lives by exercise of our consciences, inspired and instructed by the spirit of God through His word and prayer. Simon Peter needed to learn this lesson. The tax administration office was in Capernaum. Jesus’ taxes were due (and Peter’s too, it seems!). Was Jesus going to pay up? Peter had no hesitation in answering for his Master: O, Yes. But wait. Peter didn’t understand. As Son of the supreme emperor of the world, Jesus was exempt. And as his apostle, so was Peter.
Yet, despite this, Peter was told, Take a four drachma coin and give it to them for my tax and yours. But why? They didn’t deserve it. The Jewish government was corrupt. The Roman administration was oppressive. But Jesus had a strangely tender conscience as to why: so that we may not offend them.3 That took precedence over the exemption.
Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…You pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him. If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.4
Another apparent contradiction! As citizens of heaven we pay our tithes (or more) to the God of heaven and keep His laws. Yet, for conscience sake, we diligently and faithfully obey the laws of the land of our sojourning.
He who rebels against government authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the government authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also because of conscience.5
As Christadelphians, we must give God’s laws priority over the law of the land; and we should obey God rather than men. It was in that spirit that I myself committed a crime a few years ago. It is the law in the Cayman Islands that a baptism must be carried out by a ‘qualified’ person approved by the government. Christadelphians have no legal recognition. Nevertheless, as elder of the Cayman Brac ecclesia, I thoughtlessly invited a brother visiting from the U.S.A. to conduct two baptisms. Police spies reported us, and one of the new sisters was subjected to lengthy interrogation. Then, we all were very politely but clearly informed that we had broken the law. We were even lectured by a government officer that to have asked a church minister to officiate would not have affected the validity of our baptisms – which, of course, is true. I broke the law. Moreover, and worse, I involved my brother in my mistake. I can only beseech the Lord that the future of Christadelphian work in the Cayman Islands might not be prejudiced by my foolish and unscriptural action.
It is sad if, through the arrogance of sectarianism, we place tradition above truth and wrest scripture to support it. Will Jesus say to us, You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!6 To the Galatian believers Paul wrote, The fruit of the Spirit is love…goodness…gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.7 Is the apostle really telling us that we are above the state and can flout its laws? And the same Peter who spoke about obeying God rather than men also wrote: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.8 Peter would have expected us in our generation to follow him in working out this apparent contradiction in a reasonable, Christ-like and spiritual way, just as he did in his day.
The early Christians
Eberhard Arnold, the religious historian, wrote thus about the early Christians:
The Christians’ sharp condemnation of the dishonesty, impurity, violence, and mammonism in public life far outweighed what they accepted of the existing law and order. They did recognize the government as a transitory necessity, but they considered it of only relative moral value. These revolutionaries of the spirit knew that they were actually the State’s best allies in the cause of morality and world peace, which proves that they had a positive attitude to the ethical importance of the state. For Christians, it is a matter of conscience to honor and respect the moral task of the State and its rulers, for they are ordained by God to be a bulwark against the most serious excesses of sin and evil in these times.9
The basic principle adopted by the early church is well and simply expressed in an anonymous report about the Christians written to Diognetus, a prominent Roman official in the second century AD: They live on the earth, but their citizenship is in Heaven. They obey the established laws, but through their way of life they surpass these laws.10
In October, 2004, a British newspaper had a front-page banner headline: Smack your child and you spend five years in jail. The paper was reporting on a new European Community law defining the rights of the child, which if passed, would ban certain types of discipline sanctioned in Scripture. In letters to the press and in public discussion, many religious people, including Christadelphians, are insisting that they will defy the new law, even if it means being convicted of assault and going to prison. Are they right?
In my opinion, they are wrong. Physical abuse of children is so rampant that some such law is desirable, and I believe, as exemplars of the love of God, we should be supporting it. [Note: this is the author’s view. In our opinion, we can surely oppose child abuse without resorting to an extreme that ignores divine instruction and that frequently results in badly behaved children]. Whether the European Community is a worthy governmental entity is not relevant to this issue. When the apostle Paul wrote Romans 13 in 58AD, the imperial throne was occupied by the Josef Stalin of the time, Lucius Dimitius Ahenobarbus, alias Nero. The modern historian E.A. Judge makes this comment:
It was Nero to whose superior justice Paul appealed against the vacillations of his deputy, Festus (Acts 25:10-11). And Nero whose God-given authority he had studiously supported in writing to the Romans (13:1-7). There is a horrible and tragic irony in this: ‘He does not bear the sword in vain’ (v. 4). We do not know the outcome of Paul’s appeal, but the Christians of Rome were treated for their loyalty to one of the most barbaric pogroms in history.12
In Peter Hemingray’s fascinating book John Thomas: his friends and his faith, we read:
At the age of twenty-five, he became officially entitled to practice medicine within the realm of England and its dependencies when he was enrolled as a member of the British College of Surgeons in June 1830…Thus when he emigrated in May 1832, Dr. Thomas was a fully certified medical practitioner, having qualified as a surgeon, and he left behind his own successful three year practice at Hackney, London.14
As most readers will know, my late wife Mary was treated on and off for nine years at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, and I was permitted to live in the hospital for lengthy periods.15 Records, publications, and the qualifying thesis of John Thomas are on file. A Christadelphian brother who worked in medicine in London to whom I showed the paragraph cited above insisted that, although John Thomas did indeed have “a successful three year private practice in Hackney, London” he was practising illegally. Investigations at the Royal College of Surgeons and the London Borough of Hackney revealed that this was in fact the case. According to the archivist at the College, John Thomas was indeed qualified academically, but he was either unable to afford or refused to pay the exorbitant fee of US $102,000 (at 2005 value) which was required to practise legally in London. So, according to the financial records, he paid a much lower fee which only entitled him to practise in certain areas of Britain outside London. But the records in Hackney show that he decided to break the law and practise illegally in London [note: this was several years before his coming to the truth].
Robert Roberts mentions that the Hackney local authorities “gave themselves no rest until they had purchased and suppressed [an] unfinished manuscript” by John Thomas. I was told that this manuscript is still “probably” in the archives, but was not available for perusal. Wisely perhaps, Robert Roberts does not indicate why the local authorities were so anxious to quash its publication.
The reason is not far to seek. It is written of John Thomas, he insisted upon a radical reform in the organization, theories, and practice of the medical profession.16 The records confirm that one of the very reasonable complaints he had about medicine and surgery in Britain was the license fee system. This was elitist, and deliberately designed to keep the medical profession firmly within the male upper class of society and to effectively prevent upward social mobility through medical education. In frustration, his illegal status led him to emigrate, which could have been providential.17 But was John Thomas right in fighting for medical reform by “successfully” breaking the law for three years or more? I have asked a number of Christadelphians this question. Some have answered, Yes, of course. Otherwise, he would not have found the truth. Others have said, Absolutely no! What do you think? What does the Bible say?
Alan Eyre, Kingston, Jamaica
NEXT MONTH: The Sugar Disaster, and Isaac Barnes, Christadelphian crusader for black rights.
Footnotes 1 Philippians 3:15.
2 Matthew 17: 24-26.
3 Matthew 17:27.
4 Philippians 3:20, Romans 13:6,7
5 Romans 13:2,5.
6 Mark 7:9.
7 Galatians 5: 22,23.
8 I Peter 2:13.
9 Eberhard Arnold: Die ersten Christen nach dem Tode der Apostel. 1926.
10 Letter to Diognetus 5:6 (second century AD).
11 Revelation 17:3-5.
12 E.A. Judge: article ‘Nero’ in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 1994.
13 Except in citations, in this series the names of persons, including Christadelphians, are used without adding ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. In no way does this imply any disrespect.
14 Peter Hemingray: John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith. 2003.
15 This is the proper name for this hospital. It claims to be the third oldest and second largest hospital in the world. It has been operating continuously for over a thousand years. By God’s grace, a famous Muslim specialist there worked wondrous miracles for Mary. The second oldest hospital is also in London: St. Bartholomew’s or ‘Barts’. Interestingly, the oldest functioning hospital in the world is the St. John Hospital in east (Arab) Jerusalem. It was founded at an unknown date long before the Crusades, and taken over in 1099 by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who became known thereafter as Knights Hospitallers. It is still run today by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and is medically renowned throughout the Middle East.
16 Alexander Wilder: The History of Medicine. 1901.
17 See Hemingray, p.13.