Kevin DeYoung has a new post up today that addresses the question, “Is It Wrong For Christians to Defend their Rights?” This is an excellent question to explore especially in light of several issues around the country related to religious liberty. The subpoena of Houston pastors for their sermons and speeches by Mayor Annise Parker and the threat of arrest and fines to pastors who operate a wedding chapel in Idaho for refusing to perform gay marriages are just two examples of how pressing this question is.
DeYoung outlines four points from the closing chapters of the book of Acts and concludes that the Apostle Paul “would keep preaching the Christian gospel. He would keep on defending the religious and legal legitimacy of the Christian faith. And he would not believe for a moment that the two tasks were aimed at different ends.”
I agree. Last Sunday, I attempted to answer a similar question in my sermon: “What should gospel-proclaiming Christians do in response to the violation of our rights?”
Our text for that morning was Acts 16:35–40. Paul is on mission in Philippi when he is arrested and beaten and thrown into jail. Many are familiar with what happened while Paul was in jail: the story of the conversion of the Philippian jailer who asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” to which Paul responds, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30–31).
It is what happens the next day that may be less familiar. The magistrates of Philippi release Paul and Silas to quietly leave the city. What follows are comments from my sermon notes:
But, how does Paul respond? As an apostle of Jesus, does he just say, “thank you! I am grateful for whatever freedom and liberties you have granted me”? Does Paul, grateful for his freedom, quietly leave without making a scene? Does he say, “oh well, ‘turn the other cheek’ I guess”? No, look at what he does in verse 37:
But Paul said to them, “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” (Acts 16:37).
When the magistrates ask them to just leave secretly and quietly, Paul responds with, “Absolutely not!” In no way would Paul quietly go in peace. In no way was Paul going to allow this miscarriage of justice to happen.
If a Roman official were to have done anything that is described in these verses—the public beating of a Roman citizen without a trial—they could be in great trouble. Such mistreatment may be done to non-Roman citizens without any recourse because they were not covered under Roman law. But to do that to a Roman citizen would be liable to severe punishment. Paul says, “you have thrown us, Roman citizens, in here, uncondmned.”
Notice what it says in verse 38:
“The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city” (Acts 16:37–40).
Those magistrates were terrified because they had broken their laws, Roman laws. Roman magistrates broke Roman laws. The ones appointed as officials over a society broke the rules that govern that society that they were sworn to uphold. Paul has a case. If Paul were to go public with this it could be very damaging to them. The magistrates could lose their jobs and even suffer punishments themselves, from Rome, from Caesar on down. That is why they are terrified. That is why they are afraid. They are in the wrong. They know they are in the wrong. And Paul knows they are in the wrong.
So back to my question: What should gospel-proclaiming Christians do in response to the violation of our rights? Do we just say, “oh well.” Or do we say, “wait, we have rights here”?
Paul refuses to leave quietly. Why does Paul do this? I believe Paul is doing this for the integrity of the church. Paul is doing this for the integrity of the gospel. He is claiming his rights. Now, Jesus had taught his followers that if someone who strikes you on the right cheek you should offer them the other one also. Someone might ask, “what about that? Isn’t that how Christians are supposed to respond when mistreated?” They would say that turning the other cheek is what Christians are to do when attacked or persecuted. I would say that that is exactly what Paul did. He was beated with rods and he did not fight back. He was saying, “If you want to beat me with sticks, fine. But if you want to beat me for Jesus and then tell me to shut up and go my own way? You want to bring disrepute to the name of Christ and to his church in this city and you want me to say nothing about it? You want to break the Roman laws and then force me to accept that without claiming my rights as a Roman citizen? Absolutely not!”
Paul’s refusal to leave the city and demanding an official escort by the magistrates is calling them out on their abuse of power. The magistrates themselves are goverened by an authority and they themselves violated that authority in their treatment of Paul. That is why they were “afraid” when they found out that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. For Christians to seek protections, even to demand protections, entitled to them under the law is not an “un-Christian” thing to do. Let me say that again: For Christians to seek the protections that are entitled to them under the laws in which they are governed is not an “un-Christian” thing to do. It isn’t “un-Jesus-like.” Now, how you say it may be un-Jesus-like. Your posture in how you demand it might be un-Jesus-like. But to claim the rights themselves is not an un-Christlike thing to do. Paul was claiming the rights entitled to him as a Roman citizen. We can claim the rights entitled to us, especially our rights of religious liberty and freedom of speech. No matter how well-meaning, to quietly stand by as religious liberties and freedom of speech rights are threatened does not in any way represent Jesus, was not the practice of the Apostle Paul, and is not acceptable in our mission and witness in the world. In the same way Paul was claiming his rights, we have the freedom to demand that our sermons not be monitored, or suboenaed as if they were not protected as free speech, or as if they were subject to the governmental oversight. We can stand up for our religious liberty.
… We can and should stand up for religious liberty and freedom of speech. But let us not only stand up for the freedom of speech but to actually do the speaking for which we seek the freedom. If we are going to defend the freedom of speech and the freedom to preach and proclaim the gospel then let us proclaim the gospel!
As Christians, it is perfectly appropriate to leverage the laws and freedoms and responsibilities that we have. It is in no way un-Christian or not “Jesus-like” to claim our rights. But lets do so not as an end to itself. Let us not pursue our religious liberties and our freedom to speak just because we have them. Let’s pursue them because they are tools for us to proclaim the gospel, which is the most important thing.
… Friends, may we have the courage of our conviction to defend our religious freedom and our freedom to speak, but let us do so as an opportuntity and a platform so that Christ is honored, that the church’s reputation is maintained. This is a fine walk for us as Christians but we must do it.
Audio of the message can be accessed here: The Gospel and Government: How Should Christians Respond to Violations of their Rights?—Acts 16.