Paul and His Roman Constitutional Rights

One of the crucial questions in our current moment of governmental overreaches has to do with how we understand our rights as Christians living in this world. Many of our current discussions evidence a great misunderstanding of our calling as believers in this world in times when the culture or governing authorities begin to oppose us. For some, if social media evidences at all the current trajectory of Christian thought, their sole purpose in our turbulent times seems to be to stand up for their rights against governmental overreach.

Little reflection appears to be given to the New Testament data in how the apostles thought when they faced the trampling of their rights in this world. There are, of course, rights that are afforded to the people by the constitutional laws of the governing authorities, but all Christians should recognize that the freedoms we have and the rights that we enjoy in this life are under God’s sovereign discretion.

We were told way back in the Old Testament that governing authorities have the propensity to trample rights and take from the people (I Sam. 8). But when someone becomes a Christian, there is a distinctive perspective one is to have in how rights are used in this world. When we came to Christ, we surrendered all of our rights to Christ who sovereignly governs our earthly lives for a much greater end than our own happiness. Christ may certainly give us to enjoy earthly rights in our time on this earth, or he may, in his providence, allow them to be taken from us for a cause that is much greater than us. The question is how the biblically inspired writers handled themselves when their rights were taken.

On the Loss of Rights

Of great importance to this question is something that is said in Hebrews 10:34: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Notice carefully how these believers were commended for their faith by joyfully accepting the confiscation of their earthly belongings. I confess, this is a hard statement for me to read. These early Christians were facing unlawful seizure of their property due to official actions by magistrates for the reason that they were Christians. Yet, they joyfully accepted such abuse?

We know that in A.D. 49, Christians faced expulsion from Rome and many had their properties seized. What is remarkable is that the inspired author praises their joyful reception of this seizure precisely because they lived by faith believing that they had “better and permanent possessions” to come in the new heavens and earth that was promised to them.

In this great chapter celebrating the faith of God’s people, often under persecution, these Christians are specifically commended for living as those who recognized that earthly possessions and rights are temporary in great contrast with, as Lane observes, “the permanent possessions Christians enjoy on the basis of their relationship to God through Christ.” These early Christians lived trusting in the promises of the future and were able under persecution to lay aside living for these earthly rights when they were unjustly taken precisely because that had a better perspective of their better inheritance that awaited them.

As I read the current discussions of some believers in our present time, one would gather that the great end for which many have come to live is to oppose the government for the sole retaining of earthly blessings and rights. Maybe Carl Trueman gets to the heart of the issue:

Surely it is time to become realistic. It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies. It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

Jesus told us not to store up our treasures in this earth, and much of our current discussion evidences that we are moving away from the purpose for which Jesus left us on this earth to begin with. There seems to be little biblical perspective that the rights we enjoy in this life may be taken for a greater end that Jesus has for others in the furtherance of the gospel. Jesus orchestrates the events of history to a greater end than our temporary happiness through earthly treasures. Paul lived with this perspective, he considered the “sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is soon to be revealed (Rom. 8:18).”

When someone challenges the idea that the Christian life is not about desperately clinging to one’s earthly rights, there has become a new axiom in response, one that is now used to the point of being cliché, namely, “tell that to Paul who appealed to his Roman rights in Philippi.” This is a sloppy caricature of Paul that, somewhat anachronistically, presents him as modern American in how he viewed rights in this life.

Any careful consideration of Paul’s appeal to his rights will recognize that Paul did this strategically not for his own preservation—after all for him to die was gain—but for the furtherance of the gospel. When Paul said in Acts 16, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out,” he was certainly appealing to the unjust treatment he received as a violation of his rights.

When this passage is appealed to in support for demanding our American rights in the face of injustice, there is almost no reflection on the timing or purpose of Paul’s appeal. What should be recognized is that Paul appealed to this citizenship after having been unjustly flogged, beaten, and imprisoned. When comparing this event in Philippi to Acts 22, there we see that Paul’s appeal immediately stopped the abuse up front, but here Paul appeals after the beating. The reason is that Paul had an entirely different purpose in his appeal than to preserve his own life and rights.

Paul understood that the present moment of persecution was sovereignly ordained, and that appealing to his rights would have thwarted a divine purpose, namely, of bringing salvation to a jailor and his family. Yes, sometimes there are bigger causes than our own rights, like the salvation of others. Why then did Paul appeal to his rights after the injustice? Derek Thomas says it well, even though he should not have been beaten, “Paul was thinking of the precedent it might set of the Christians in Philippi once he has gone if the authorities thought they could treat people this way, flagrantly violating Roman standards of justice…it was a demand for the sake of those left behind, more than any feelings of grievance in the apostle himself…The apostles showed no bitterness or recrimination. They had instead employed the rule of law (Roman law) to Christianity’s advantage.”

Christians have every right to appeal to the governing authorities to uphold their own standards of law and justice. Please don’t miss this point. We should. Can we ever appeal to them for our own advantage? Certainly. But Paul thought of others first, recognizing that they might be taken, by Jesus, for a time, to save a jailor and his family. If Paul thought appealing to his rights would be beneficial for the church, he would would use his rights to help them in the cause of the gospel. The point is that Paul strategically appealed to rights to use them for the advantage of others in hearing the gospel.

Paul was fully cognizant that this life is not one of desperately holding onto to rights for one’s own advantage. If they were taken, under God’s providential hand, he too could rejoice because, as the saints of Hebrews are commended, he had “a better possession and an abiding one.” Paul conducted himself with wisdom, godly fear, fully believing that there was greater purpose in his own losses for bringing the good news of salvation to the peoples.

A Better Perspective

We need this perspective of the New Testament writers in how we conduct ourselves in seasons when the culture and governing authorities turn against us. If we are honest, what is often driving our engagement with culture is fear. Fear is what produces anger. This anger, however, will never produce the righteousness of God. In the struggle, it’s easy to forget why the Lord left us here in the first place.

We need to look like our savior under a cross. Jesus knew that in the face of gross injustice, God’s divine plan for the salvation of the nations was playing out. In fact, Peter says, that when he was reviled, spat upon, struck in the face, and beaten, “he suffered leaving us an example.” What example? “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” This perspective, in the face of all injustice, brought salvation to the world.

We should remember what we are ultimately fighting for. The Christian life is not about desperately holding onto our rights and freedoms, as much as we enjoy and desire them. In all of our conduct in this present evil age, our minds should be set on the things above, living by faith believing that we have a better inheritance that awaits us.

Christians, of all people, have good news to bring to a lost and dying world. Let us not forget in our current confusion what people need most to be delivered from: their sin and misery. And, along the way, God might take a lot away from us to give that which matters the most to someone else. This is what Martin Luther was saying when he spoke of not desperately holding onto our rights lest we deny what the gospel is all about. Yes, we “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.” This is the peculiar way a Christian is to think about his rights in this life.

6 comments

  1. While I would sincerely dislike – to the extreme, any violation of my Constitutional Rights by any governing authority, I do understand my obligation to not only submit to such a violation, but also to pray for those governing authorities involved in said violation; as well as my obligation to be content in whatever situation the Lord places me in, regardless of how unpleasant it seems at the time (Phil.4:11-13; James 1:2-5; etc). That being said, however, I also understand my obligation to obey the Lord (John 14:21,24-25;15:10; 1John 2:4-6), and that includes refusing the governing authorities orders, requirements, laws, etc., when they are contrary to the Word of God. For example, if I am required by law to not share the gospel, I will not comply. If I am required by law to affirm that homosexuality is natural and good, I will not comply. If I am required by law to affirm that abortion is natural and good, I will not comply; and so on and so forth. Submission to the governing authorities is a command from God to His people, but, God Himself commands us to not cross the line when submission to the governing authorities enters into sinful activities.

  2. What of the right to life. When the government mandates things you believe are dangerous to your own and your family’s health? Were OT judges wrong for taking up the sword against oppression?

    • Hey John, my mothers maiden name was Leonard, rarely come across it, thought I’d say something. As I said in the piece, our rights are surrendered to Christ, that may include the loss of our lives to unjust tyranny. That’s why we accept that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” All Martyrdom thoughout history was usually by unjust things magistrates did to the saints. We use wisdom and discretion in how we protect our family and their health. When something is against the Word of God, we defy. When it’s unclear we proceed using wisdom and prudence. But the right to our lives belongs to Christ’s sovereign will and sometimes we may face things that we can’t stop, if we do, we proceed joyfully knowing that, as Heb.10:34, we have better possessions and a better inheritance” in the life to come. Nothing is lost. As for judges under a theocracy, they hold a different position being invested with the sword. We’re not invested with that authority to take lives due to tyranny. Ask Peter who tried it and then Jesus corrected this thinking and save a man’s ear. Hope that helps. All the best.

  3. The first century Christians were the New Kids on the block in a pagan world.
    What are we?
    We’re an apostate church which is now justifying its failure to make disciples of all nations as instructed by Our Savior Himself and emphasizing our pietism over our lack of carrying out our commission.

  4. Hi Rev. Gordon,

    I haven’t seen the social media posts you’ve seen on this, but here are my thoughts. There’s are differences between standing for your rights as a Christian in response to Christian persecution, leveraging your civil rights for the sake of other Christians and the gospel as Derek Thomas said, and standing on your rights as a private person in the face of tyranny to get on with life. I think most of us are doing the latter – we’re trying to push back against onerous COVID restrictions using our rights as Americans for the sake of getting on with life, not because we’re being persecuted as Christians. One of those rights is religious liberty and the Supreme Court has ruled that we have this right even during the pandemic (courts have affirmed this numerous times) even though we’re churches were not being shut down for preaching the gospel.

    I wonder about the loss of property in AD 49 as well. Christianity was an illegal superstition and I’m not sure what rights Christians had as practitioners of an illegal superstition. I guess they probably didn’t have any. It’s an open question whether they would have exercised their rights to property if they had them since productive property was how families provided for children back then.

    Perhaps there’s a further distinction between how religious organizations leverage their rights and laws and how private persons do. Have you seen this?
    http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/14/14-20112-CV1.pdf

  5. I’m curious that you didn’t include I Cor 6:12 from Paul:

    “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

    It’s a pretty explicit statement that, in my opinion, addresses the common over-emphasis on so-called “God-given rights.”

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