In America, we are defensive about our rights, and we see in the Scriptures that Paul did not hesitate to use his right as a Roman citizen. Is it appropriate for Christians to be concerned about the government infringing on our rights? Lots of Christians are using this to justify not wearing a mask1 or continuing to defy government regulations on gatherings.
This question deals with several issues that need to be carefully distinguished. First, there is the context in which Paul’s actions are viewed. Second, there is the general issue of our relationship to the testimony of Christ and his kingdom to the world. Thirdly, there is the more general question of the nature of the Assembly and what the Lord says about its condition in the present world. Not all of these can be covered in a single post. I will have to use this post to examine the passages concerning Paul’s actions in Acts. A succeeding post will look at the relationship we have as Christians to this present world.
Before looking at these specific issues, let’s remind ourselves of the responsibility we have toward government in general. This is given to us in Romans 13:1–5. Here we find that in this world we are to give obedience to governmental authorities. We also find that they are for the purpose of maintaining order and providing for the well being of those under its authority. We are also given the example in Acts 4:19 of the limits of governmental authority. It is important to notice that the command of governmental authority went directly against the explicit commandment of God to spread the news of Christ’s resurrection.
Rebellion is the primal sin. In the garden of Eden, Satan asked Adam and Eve “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1) We must not dismiss the fact that even as Christians, resistance to authority is deeply rooted in our fallen nature. Are we really sure that the governmental edicts we resent are truly in direct conflict with God’s commandments to us? Furthermore, we must ask whether the edicts are for our benefit or are they actually an attack on God’s rights? There are countries in the world where the government is overtly opposed to the gospel. We must ask if this is the case in our situation? It is very easy to cloak a rebellious attitude in false piety wherein we fain obedience to some supposed God-given right and bring a rebuke upon ourselves. Then, because we imagine the rebuke to be persecution, it actually promotes self-serving, false piety, and not true humility. The world is not fooled by such inconsistency and so we bring justifiable ridicule on the gospel.
Examples from Paul in Acts
There are three instances in Acts where Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship. Each one is slightly different and each one offers an interesting insight into the Christian position with respect to the leaders of this world. We shall find as we look carefully at them that they are not so supportive of the claim suggested in the question as one might think.
The first instance is found in Acts 16:16–40. The essential points in this incident are: (1) Paul and Silas were falsely accused and beaten and put in prison. (2) Later, they were released quietly. (3) Paul objected to this treatment by mentioning his citizenship requesting that those responsible (the ”magistrates”) personally let them go. With regard to the first point, it cannot be forgotten that Paul did not use his citizenship to avoid being beaten. This must be remembered when we look at the subsequent passages later in Acts. The next point is that the magistrates were going to let Paul and Silas go without any apology. This would imply that it was only convenience that governed their behavior. This could be construed as simply differred justice against evildoers. This would bring the gospel and the work of Paul and Silas into disrepute. This would actually be unrighteous. So, Paul utilized his citizenship, not for any personal benefit, but solely that the gospel and the preaching of Paul and Silas would not be despised.
The next incident is in Acts 22:22–29. This is the passage that some would like to use to justify the conclusion that Paul used his citizenship to avoid being beaten. Let’s look more closely. The first thing to notice is that the Roman authorities had no reason to think that Paul was not simply another Jew. He was in Jerusalem acting out a Jewish ritual. It might also be noted that he had been warned “in the spirit” (Acts 21:4, 10–14) not to go. So, he was not in a particularly good position to be acting for God. But, this is not the main point. After Paul was rescued from the riot that resulted from Paul giving his defense before the Jews, Paul was taken to the palace and was to be examined to determine why he had caused the uproar.
The apostle Paul told the guards who were about to scourge him that he was a Roman citizen. To use this event as an excuse for disobedience is a major misuse of the passage. The issue has nothing to do with Paul using his citizenship to avoid being beaten. After all, we have already seen that Paul would not use his citizenship to avoid being beaten.
It is necessary to notice in verse 29 that the tribune (commander) was “afraid”. Why? It was because it was illegal for a Roman citizen to be scourged “uncondemned.” Paul was notifying the guards that they were about to do something that could get them imprisoned and possibly executed. This incident has nothing whatsoever to do with Paul exercising any “rights.” Paul was providing legitimate information to the guards so they would not break the law. To allow the scourging to take place would not have been a good testimony to the Gospel. The Gospel seeks to save men, not place a stumbling stone before them.
The last incident is the one referred to in the question. The complete passage is Acts 25:1–12. It is important to consider the whole passage in order to understand the situation. There are several important points to keep in mind. (1) We have already noticed that Paul was not necessarily acting according to God’s direction in going up to Jerusalem so we need to be cautious in drawing any lessons for ourselves from his actions. (2) The Jews planned to kill Paul (v. 3). This was obviously illegal. (3) Festus was clearly not acting righteously in trying to please the Jews and this was possibly an abdication of his responsibility. To allow the trip to Jerusalem to take place would most certainly have resulted in Paul’s death. (3) Paul was standing before Caesar’s judgment already, where he “ought to be tried” (v. 10). So, again, he is not making an appeal on any special basis except to remind Festus that he already was where he ought to be. This plea is more like an appeal for asylum than a plea for special consideration. It possibly kept Festus from being complicit in Paul’s death. So, this was certainly not an appeal to avoid governmental regulation nor is it an attempt to gain a favorable outcome or a benefit for himself personally.
Another point needs to be made regarding this event. Paul had planned to travel to Rome. (Rom. 1:10) If he had not gone up to Jerusalem, he would likely have traveled to Rome as part of his regular missionary journeys, being supported by the saints (Rom. 15:25-28). Having gone to Jerusalem, and as we noted—possibly not directed by God to do so, he now faced circumstances intended to make him realize his own mistake and to allow God to show him His overruling grace. We see that the appeal, right or wrong, resulted in a trip to Rome “on Caesar’s nickel.” (Rom. 8:28)
Some remaining issues
However, even if none of the examples of Paul’s actions can justify resisting governmental authority, we still have two important issues. First, governments may grant certain rights to its citizens. These are called “legal rights.” Legal philosophers also define “natural rights” which are the basis for the statement in the United States Declaration of Independence regarding certain rights being “inalienable.” How does the Christian stand in relation to these rights?
Without question, we should be deeply thankful for whatever freedoms we have. In Western countries, we are generally allowed to meet together as we please, communicate with each other, even preach the Gospel publicly. We need to value and thank God that He has granted us these freedoms. I cannot find anywhere in Scripture that these are guaranteed “rights”. In contrast, when we engage in these activities where they are prohibited we can expect to suffer just as believers in many parts of the world experience such persecution today.
This does not mean that we should deliberately entice antagonism to our activities when alternatives exist. For example, if I am told “You cannot preach on this street corner, because here you block traffic. You must remain on that street corner.” Then, unless there are unusual circumstances, compliance is what honors God, not deliberate, unnecessary resistance. This applies directly to the question we are considering. With regard to wearing a facemask, the government has regulated behavior for the benefit of the society as a whole. It is irrelevant what I as an individual believe about the efficacy of the behavior. God has not commanded either way. So, on the basis of the principle we examined at the beginning of this essay, we should comply.
But, there is a much deeper issue here that we must consider. What is our relation to the governments of this world? Our Lord when standing before Pilate said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn. 18:36) The epistle to the Colossians was written as instruction for our walk in a world that is contrary to us. One of its main premises is “If then you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above…” (Col. 3:1) The name of the last Assembly mentioned in Revelation 3 is Laodicea. The name means “people’s rights” or “people’s justice”. What does all this have to tell us about our place in this world? These important issues are very much related to our topic and very necessary for us today.
We will have to take these up in part 2.
1. The government recommended and sometimes required persons to wear a facemask during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to reduce transmission of the virus from person to person. While the actual events pertain to a particular circumstance the principles I deal with here are of general applicability.