Americans are concerned about their rights. Rightly so. The Constitution of the United States recognizes that mankind is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Notice that this is a recognizing of rights not a conferring of rights. The laws of the United States are consequentially supposed to protect the rights of its citizens.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First Amendment, Constitution of the United States of America

In the wake of strict stay-at-home orders around the country, and restrictions on church gatherings (see here, here, and here), Americans are growing restless about their rights as citizens. Some groups are openly calling for civil disobedience to protest these executive orders. (NOTE: These guidelines may have the force of law, but are not laws themselves.)

As Christians, we recognize the Bible’s command to submit to governmental authority (Romans 13:1-3; I Peter 2:13). Sometimes that means submitting to consequences when we cannot submit with compliance (see Daniel 3:16-18). We are also conscious (or should be) of how our actions represent the Gospel to the world around us.

As Americans, we hold to the Constitution’s recognition of (and supposed protection of) individual rights, including the right to free speech (which includes protests). We are also conscious (or should be) of the fact that “freedom isn’t free,” it must be defended.

The fact that we enjoy such rights as Christians is unprecedented in the history of the world. How many early Christians actually enjoyed Roman citizenship, and the protections that came with it, is unclear. However, Paul was a Roman citizen, so he had to navigate the kinds of submission-, testimony-, and exercise-of-rights issues we face today. In fact, Paul actually invoked his rights as a Roman citizen (at least) three times in the Book of Acts.

Understanding Paul’s exercise of his rights can help us think clearly about the exercise of our own.

  • He invoked his rights to protect the testimony of the Gospel and of those who believed it.

“And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go.
And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace.
But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.
And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans.”

Acts 16:35-38

Paul had just endured an unjustified beating and a night chained to his companion, Silas, in a Philippian jail. Though he had been miraculously “freed” and witnessed the conversion of his own jailer and his jailer’s family, Paul could not allow his public mistreatment to go unchallenged. Why?

“…the stealthy manner of the release [suggested by the city officials] leaves Paul less than pleased because the issue of his (and especially his new faith’s) innocence would be left publicly unresolved… This would not be a good result for others in Philippi who also might be subject to persecution for their faith.”

Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 543-544.

Paul was not avenging his ego. An actual injustice (as opposed to perceived injustice) had been publicly committed by governmental authority, and such action would have tarnished the reputation of the Gospel. He invoked his rights in order to defend the reputation of the Gospel and those who believe it. However, Paul did not seek vindication or “justice” after mistreatment at the hands of civilians (see Acts 14:19-20 where he was stoned and left for dead). Christianity is not vindictive or retaliatory, and our rights should never be used as cover for such behavior.

  • He invoked his rights to avoid unnecessary personal harm.

“The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him.
And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?
When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman.”

Acts 22:24-26

Paul had been attacked by fellow Jews who wrongfully accused him of violating their religious practices. A group of Roman soldiers actually rescue Paul from the mob, but he is allowed to speak to the crowd (after requesting permission to do so). However, the crowd will hear none of it, and persist in rioting against him! Since he spoke Hebrew to the crowd and the Roman captain could not understand what he had been saying, he determined to have Paul “scourged” (an enhanced interrogation) to find out what was going on.

It was illegal to treat Roman citizens this way:

“…the scourge… was a fearful instrument of torture… Fortunately for Paul, it was a form of treatment from which Roman citizens were legally exempt.”

F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), pp. 420-421.

Paul was not going to undergo unnecessary personal harm if it could be avoided. Sometimes potential harm was part of the ministry (see Second Corinthians 11:24-27), and Paul willingly endured such treatment for the Gospel’s sake. But there is nothing cowardly or disgraceful about exercising our rights to avoid what is unnecessary.

Of further importance is that his request was “private,” away from the gawking crowd. Perhaps this was another tactic to protect the integrity of the Gospel message not allowing rights of citizenship and the Gospel to become interconnected (How would Jews perceive the Gospel if the Roman citizenship of someone preaching it became an “issue” with them?).

  • He invoked his rights to preserve life.

“But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?
Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.
For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.
Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go.”

Acts 25:9-12

The Jews had been trying to have Paul assassinated since his arrest in Jerusalem (see Acts 23:12-15). If they could have his trial transferred back to Jerusalem, they would have a much better chance of seeing their plot realized (a tragic accident on the way or some such cover-up). Paul, of course, was aware of their intentions. So, he “appeals to Caesar,” the highest court of the Roman Empire and in the city of Rome. This appeal assured Paul the “protection of the state” since they must guarantee his safe arrival to Caesar’s court.

“There was no sense in putting his head into a lion’s mouth, even if he was prepared to stand up to lions when the need arose. He therefore insisted that the present court, a Roman one, was the one before which he ought to be judged… When a person [appealed to Caesar], the magistrate had no choice but to transfer the case to Rome.”

I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), p. 405.

Paul invoked his rights, and wisely used the government’s God-given responsibility to help preserve innocent life, in this case, his own. There would come a day, however, when being a Christian was against the law. At that point, Paul would not stop being a Christian; he would bow to the consequences of doing what he had to.

If you are a Christian who is considering participating in civil disobedience protests, let me pose to you some questions:

  1. Is your consideration based on the reputation of the Gospel and those who believe it, or personal uneasiness?
  2. Is this about your identity as an American, or your identity as a Christian?
  3. Will your involvement tend to promote, defend, and benefit the Gospel, or might it present Christianity as subversive?
  4. Are you lashing out about a restriction on personal liberties, or are you standing up for the opportunity for the Gospel to be freely heard?
  5. Are your actions aimed at preserving life, or preserving your freedoms?

Obviously being a good citizen and being a good Christian are not mutually exclusive. But, if the exercising of our American rights hinders the Gospel in any way, our Americanism may need to take a backseat to our Christianity. There is a worse thing than losing our liberties.

May God give us all the wisdom to navigate these unusual times not just as American citizens defending our rights, but as Christians loving and promoting the Gospel above all else.

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

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