Today is a feast commemorating another martyr and the conflict between Church and State. The Eastern Church is now venerating the Holy Innocents, but in the West it is the 843rd anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket.
For the few who don’t know, Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his death on 29 December 1170. He had been appointed by King Henry II upon the death of Theobald of Bec. Though Thomas had been a protege of Theobald, who recommended his appointment as Chancellor, Henry thought that Thomas would be compliant to his wishes in exerting control over the Church. In particular Henry wanted the clergy to face trial from crimes in his courts instead of ecclesiastical court and most importantly, he wanted to tax the Church to support his wars.
It may seem strange to us to have the clergy tried in separate courts, but chief advantage was that ecclesiastical courts could not impose the death penalty. Since capital punishment could be imposed for any number of offenses, this was no small thing.
Of course the taxation issue is one that is relevant today. Thomas would not have been happy with 501(c)(3) status. Tax exemption is still an acknowledgment that the State could tax if it chose to do so. Thomas’ position was that the Church was tax immune. Since it did not derive it’s existence or authority from the Crown, it was not subject to the powers of the Crown.
I have much more sympathy for Thomas than I do for various tax protesters in the US today. There is no biblical precedent for individual tax protest – even on the various bizarre “Constitutional” grounds I have heard over the years. There is much more biblical precedent directly on point against it. But it was never conceived in the eras that Scripture was written that the civil government would tax the Church as an entity.
To suggest that just because the Church has corporate income or owns property, it should be taxed is to presume that all property is ultimately derived from the State. The presence of the Church is rather a testimony that all authority from God does not reside in the State, whether a monarchy or a republic.
Thomas Becket’s episcopacy and death stand as a testament through the ages of this struggle of sovereignty. While there is no place for an ecclesiocracy, Thomas reminds us that all authority is not vested in the State. The Kingdom of God is not just something for the after-life, or the life after life after death.