The Christian’s Response to Taxation for War

1973 Church of the Brethren Statement

1972 Query: Telephone Tax and U.S. Government Securities

Whereas, the Church of the Brethren is an historic peace church; and
Whereas, our government is engaged in war and spends a large percentage of its budget on war purposes; and
Whereas, the statement on war passed by Annual Conference 1970 opposed the use of taxes by the government for war purposes and military expenditures; and
Whereas, the government specifically stated that the telephone tax is a “war tax”; and
Whereas, many Brethren are concerned about our denomination’s inconsistency in paying these taxes;

We, the Board of Administration of the District of Southern Ohio, petition the Annual Conference through the District Conference of Southern Ohio to form a committee for the study of the payment of the telephone tax and the holding of U.S. government securities.

James W. Tyler, Chairman, District Board; Opal DeVilbiss, Secretary

Action of district conference: Passed to Annual Conference.

I. James Eshleman, Moderator; Opal DeVilbiss, Writing Clerk

Recommendation of the Standing Committee

In light of

  1. the query on the federal telephone tax from the District of Southern Ohio,
  2. the growing number of Brethren and Brethren institutions (districts, churches, families, individuals) that are either withholding the telephone tax (and/or income tax) or struggling with the problem,
  3. and the 1970 Annual Conference statement on war, Article IX, “The Church and Tax for War Purposes,” calling for our Brotherhood at all levels “to study seriously the problem of paying taxes for war purposes,”
it is the recommendation of Standing Committee that Annual Conference establish a committee of five to study the problem of the Christian’s response to taxation for war; and that this study be conducted in light of the New Testament and the historical stance of the Church of the Brethren on taxation and peace.

It is the further recommendation of Standing Committee that Annual Conference reaffirm its fellowship with and prayerful concern for all those Brethren who have in light of their New Testament faith and Brethren heritage, chosen to withhold payment of taxes for war.

Action of the 1972 Annual Conference: Recommendation above was adopted. The committee of five was elected, which includes Dean Denlinger, Galen Detwiler, Vernard Eller, James F. Myer, and Robert Myers.

(Note: The matter of U. S. government securities mentioned in the above query and two other 1972 queries was cared for by a separate Standing Committee recommendation which was adopted by the 1972 Annual Conference.)

1973 Report of the Committee

This study assumes as its background the church’s long-established position regarding peace and war and, in particular, the Statement of the Church of the Brethren on War as adopted by the 1970 Conference. What is affirmed there, that all war is sin and that the gospel calls us to the way of peace, is taken for granted in this paper without further investigation.

That the payment of federal taxes inevitably involves one in war and preparation for war is self-evident (see Exhibit A. This and other exhibits are in a separate printed piece.) Yet when the Christian understanding is applied to this issue, the matter immediately becomes complex and problematic. On the one hand, our calling is to obey God rather than men, to witness for Christian peace and presumably, also, to protest the evil of war. But on the other hand, the New Testament makes it clear that the Christian just as certainly has been called to stand alongside his fellowmen, to participate in their common life, and to take a responsible role in the larger world.

Regarding taxes, then, the first calling would seem to imply that the Christian should entirely divorce himself from that society which has dedicated its energies to the waging of war and refuse to support it in any way—including, of course, tax support. However, the second calling would imply a Christian obligation to participate fully in the social effort of humanity—including, of course, the payment of one’s fair share of taxes. The problem is to find the proper balance between these two callings.

This finding of balance is complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing between “war taxes” and other taxes when the government itself makes no such distinction. Still further complication is introduced when the question arises as to whether one actually is able to withhold tax money or in any way affect the amount that ultimately is spent for war purposes. The matter is not an easy one.

NEW TESTAMENT GUIDANCE

As we turn to the New Testament we realize that the early Christians had to seek the same balance that we do; undoubtedly there have been few if any times in history when a Christian’s tax bill did not include “war taxes.” And it is certain that money paid to the Roman Empire went not only to support war but also idolatry, slavery, and other evils as well.

The New Testament, of course, is consistent in its opposition to war and violence; yet at every point where the particular issue of taxes is raised, the counsel is to pay them; no explicit precedent for withholding them is to be found.

Paul, in Romans 13:4-8 (NEB), speaks in terms of general principle: “You are obliged to submit. It is an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. That is also why you pay taxes. The authorities are in God’s service and to these duties they devote their energies. Discharge your obligations to all men; pay tax and toll, reverence and respect, to those to whom they are due. Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17).

When faced with the specific question of paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus’ response was “Pay Caesar what is due to Caesar, and pay God what is due to God” (Matthew 22:15-22; cf. Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:19-26). The intended implication would seem to be that what belongs to God is much more inclusive and in every way prior to what belongs to Caesar. And yet if Jesus’ statement means to indicate as legitimately belonging to Caesar, it is precisely that coin of taxation which Caesar himself had minted.

Finally, in Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus, in order “not to cause offense,” shows himself willing to pay even that tax which, he asserts, could not rightly be claimed of him. The reference may be to the temple-tax, although Jesus does speak of “earthly monarchs” collecting it. Be that as it may, the temple came under just as strong a judgment from Jesus as the state did. And it seems clear that the Gospel writer wants to use this incident to teach, with Paul, that the liberty of the Christian is not a license for him to disregard his civic obligations in matters such as tax payment. Certainly, all of the above texts must be held in tension with such commands as obeying God rather than men, separating oneself from evil, not conforming to the world, and so on. But the evidence is that, in this tension, the New Testament Christians found their proper balance to include the paying of taxes rather than the withholding of them (see Exhibit B).

THE BRETHREN TRADITION

Historical research (see Appendix) indicates that the official position of the church consistently has been that of paying all taxes, including some that were much more directly “war taxes” than any that can be so identified today. Indeed, even the possibility of withholding taxes was given almost no consideration until very recently. When such consideration was given, the church in every instance granted the right of conscience to tax resisters even while declining to recommend their action. It should be noted, too, that some of the Brethren who have been most honored for their peace witness also took a stand in favor of paying taxes; the person’s position regarding tax payment was not made a test of his commitment to Christian peace.

THE CURRENT SITUATION

One complicating aspect of tax resistance is the fact that tax monies are not clearly differentiated into military and non-military categories; most of the functions of government are financed out of the same general fund. Money withheld (if that actually is possible) is withheld as much from the humane programs of government as from military programs; and it takes some care to make it clear that what one is protesting is war and not taxation in and of itself. In our day, the telephone tax comes the closest to being an explicit “war tax”—although even that situation is debatable (see Exhibit C).

The Christian’s problem is further complicated by the fact that he cannot actually withhold taxes, deprive the war effort of funds, or prevent his money from being used for war purposes—short of doing without a telephone (and perhaps other items subject to federal excise taxes), keeping his income below taxable level, or resorting to questionable dodges (see Exhibit D). Whatever taxes the individual does not pay voluntarily, the government is able to collect by means of liens and confiscations (and penalties which have the effect of actually increasing the amount of one’s money that goes to the government).

In its effect, then, tax resistance must be understood simply as one means of registering strong and dramatic opposition to war—a protest which may or may not be more effective than other means of protest. In fact, unless it is also accompanied by some other form of witness, tax refusal, in and of itself, has the disadvantage of being sheerly negative protest against war rather than a positive witness to the Prince of Peace and his way.

THE FINDING

We find no specific biblical counsel directing that taxes should be withheld, while we do find some calling for the payment of taxes even to a sinful, militaristic government. However we can appreciate the fact that a number of Brethren, out of a truly Christian aversion to war based on the total Spirit and life of Jesus and the overall teachings of the New Testament do feel led of God to make protest by means of tax refusal. But whatever action the Christian takes, it should mark a serious and dedicated effort to realize the lordship of Jesus Christ and become obedient only to him. It should never be merely the practice of a current political technique on the one hand or a heedless and cowardly way of avoiding trouble for oneself on the other.

RECOMMENDATIONS

(1) Although the Brethren cannot agree as to whether tax withholding is proper, they all can recognize the propriety of using the means of dissent which the social order itself recognizes and provides. We recommend, therefore, that all who feel the concern be encouraged to express their protests and testimonies through letters accompanying their tax returns, whether accompanied by payment or not, in correspondence with appropriate legislators and officials, and in other such ways.

(2) We recommend, also, that both the denomination and individual Brethren give strong and active support to appropriate legislation providing alternative tax arrangements for peaceful purposes for those persons conscientiously opposed to war.

A FINAL PLEA

We plead for a mutual and brotherly honoring of one another in this matter. To those whose reading of Scripture leads them conscientiously to pay their full tax requirement, may they recognize the sincere Christian intention of the withholders in their desire to protest against what the New Testament clearly identifies as the sinfulness and demonism of war. To those who because of their Christian conviction conscientiously feel that they must withhold payment in some degree, may they realize that their brethren who pay are themselves striving to be obedient to the instruction of Scripture and dare not be assumed to be any less dedicated to the Prince of Peace than are those who withhold.

Finally, we would consider it most unfortunate if, because of the taxation issue, the church allows its peace emphasis to become focused upon this one particular technique of anti-war protest and so be diverted from the much more important matters of deepening our biblical and theological understanding of the Christian peace position and of being about the positive work of reconciliation at all levels of human interaction through our witness to Him who is our Reconciliation.

Dean E. Denlinger, Chairman; Vernard Eller, Secretary; Galen Detwiler; James F. Myer; Robert B. Myers

Action of the 1973 Annual Conference: The paper was adopted with a number of amendments which are incorporated in the above printing of the paper. The appendix, below, is included for its historical information.

APPENDIX: The Historical Tradition of the Brethren Regarding the Payment of Taxes for War Purposes

THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR

The earliest Brethren statement on our topic would seem to be a joint declaration of the Brethren and Mennonites submitted to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on November 7, 1775. It takes a firm stance against military service but regarding taxation says:

We are always ready, according to Christ's command to Peter, to pay the tribute, that we may offend no man, and so we are willing to pay taxes, and to render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's and to God those things that are God's. . . . We are also willing to be subject to the higher powers, and to give in the manner Paul directs us. . . . Our small gift, which we have given, we give to those who have power over us, that we may not offend them, as Christ taught us by the tribute penny.1

During the period of the Revolutionary War—although the situation varied from time to time and colony to colony—the matter of “war taxes” was particularly well-defined and particularly onerous for the Brethren. Several options presented themselves: (1) A man liable for military service could take the initiative in hiring a substitute for himself. (2) He could take the initiative in raising and paying to the government a sum to cover such a hiring. (3) He could wait until the government levied a fine upon him. (4) He could refuse payment and let the government follow its own means of collection. (5) In addition, all members of the peace churches, whether liable for military service or not, were taxed at twice, three, and even four or more times the normal rate—just for being opposed to war and oath-taking.

An Annual Conference minute of 1781 outlines what seems to have been the consistent Brethren position and practice on the matter. Options 1 and 2 are specifically exhorted against. No. 3 is specifically recommended. No. 4 is tolerated as a conscientious possibility but is not recommended:

If a brother bears his testimony that he cannot give his money on account of his conscience and would say to the collector: “If you must take it, then use your authority, I shall not be in your way”—with such a brother we should also be satisfied. But concerning the tax, it is considered that on account of the troublesome times and in order to avoid offense, we might follow the example of Christ (Matt. 17:24-27). Yet, if one does not see it so and thinks perhaps, he for his conscience sake could not pay it, but bears with others who pay in patience, we would willingly go along inasmuch as we deem the overruling of the conscience to be wrong.2

There is no evidence that the Brethren even considered resisting the taxes of No. 5.

In a letter of 1775, Elder Jacob Stoll of Conestoga answers an inquiry from Alexander Mack as to how the Brethren in that area are dealing with taxes. Stoll’s answer is that they are paying them, designating the money “for the needy,” and leaving it to the conscience of the government as to how the money actually is spent.3 In Germantown, a voluntary fund was raised for outfitting Captain Hill’s Company. The name of Elder Christoph Sauer, Jr., heads the list of subscribers—with the designation indicated, “for the poor wives and children.”4 A historian of strongly anti-Brethren bias and writing more than a century after the event, in describing the stance of Pennsylvania-frontier Brethren during both the Revolution and the earlier French and Indian Wars, says: “They refused in a most positive manner to pay a dollar to support those who were willing to take up arms to defend their homes and their firesides, until wrung from them by the stern mandates of the law, from which there was no appeal.”5 The statement, of course, is entirely inconclusive as to what constituted “the stern mandates of the law,” whether the normal levying of taxes or only liens and confiscation.

THE WAR OF 1812

During this conflict, also, conscientious objectors were fined an amount requisite for hiring a substitute. An Annual Conference minute of 1815 states: “When [such Brethren] shall be hard pressed with the payment of fines they shall be assisted by the brethren.”6

THE CIVIL WAR

In 1861, Elder John Kline, the celebrated Brethren peace martyr, wrote a letter to Colonel Lewis of the Confederate Army protesting the fact that conscientious objection to military service was not being recognized. However, he also said: “We feel bound to pay our taxes, fines, and to do whatever is in our power which does not conflict with our obligation to God.”7 That this also was the position of the brotherhood as a whole is indicated by a Conference action of 1864: We think it more in accordance with our principles, that instead of paying bounty-money, and especially in taking an active part in raising bounty-money, to await the demands of government, whether general, state, or local, and pay the fines and taxes required of us, as the gospel permits, and, indeed, requires. Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:7.8 Also in 1864, the peace churches managed to win from the Union government the concession that the bounty money of conscientious objectors would be “applied to the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers” rather than used to hire substitutes.9

WORLD WAR I

Charles D. Bonsack, who was a recognized leader in the brotherhood and a member of its Central Service Committee during this period, later recalled Brethren behavior and attitudes toward the war. His account includes this sentence: “The church had strong decisions about peace and war; but its members were also careful citizens of the state, paying taxes, conforming to its laws and upholding its institutions.”10

THE MODERN PERIOD

In 1933, there came to Conference a query on “Protesting Against Military Taxes.” It was answered the next year by a report from the Board of Christian Education which listed several methods of protest but without mentioning the refusal of payment. Apparently this possibility did not enter the minds either of those bringing the query, the board that formulated the answer, or the Conference that adopted it.

With the exception of the 1781 minute that allows tax refusal as a conscientious possibility, it is not until 1968 that any of the church’s many statements on war as much as take note of the matter. For the first time, the 1968 revision of the 1957 version of the original 1948 statement on war adds a section on “The Church and Taxes for War Purposes.” It lists refusal among the different alternatives a Christian may take but neither indicates a preference nor makes any recommendation.

The new and latest statement, that of 1970, essentially reiterates the 1968 position.

Footnotes

1 Quoted in The Brethren in Colonial America ed. by Durnbaugh, pp. 364-65.

2 Durnbaugh, p. 354.

3 Durnbaugh, pp. 361-62.

4 Rufus Bowman, The Church of the Brethren and War, pp. 84-85.

5 U. J. Jones, quoted in Bowman, pp. 74-75.

6 Bowman, p. 104.

7 Bowman, p. 132.

8 Bowman, p. 119.

9 Bowman, p. 126.

10 Bowman, p. 172.

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