A couple days ago, I spent some five hours watering my drought-stressed garden, which gave me a great deal of time for thought and reflection. I turned my attention to the teaching of Paul regarding the Christian and his relationship to civil government. Of course the classic text is Romans 13:1-7. I have written elsewhere on this text and so will not do so again here, other than to briefly summarize: we are to submit to legitimate government authority. It exists for our benefit by maintaining order in society, punishing evil doers and protecting the innocent (in recent weeks, numerous state governors and city mayors in America have abnegated their responsibilities in this area, allowing evil doers to literally run riot, without consequence). We follow the law not simply because we don’t want to suffer punishment, but because it is the right thing to do. And we support government in its legitimate functions by paying taxes, and by recognizing government authority in its proper realm. Elsewhere (I Timothy 2:1-2), Paul admonishes prayer for government officials, so that we can simply be left alone, free from government harassment or persecution—“that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life,” to quote his exact words. That Paul was serious about submission to the lawful authority of government is evident from his words, when charged with a crime: “If then I am a wrong-doer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death,” (Acts 25:11a; note, furthermore, that he supports the death penalty in principle).
From his actions, as recorded in the book of Acts, we learn something more about Paul and his view of government—that he repeatedly displayed a strong insistence that his legal rights as a citizen be recognized and respected, and objected to government usurpations and violations of those rights.
At Philippi (Acts 16:16-40), Paul and Silas were accused of crimes by slave-owners whose income they had indirectly interfered with by freeing a fortune-telling slave girl from demon possession. These owners stirred up a lynch mob, resulting in Paul and Silas being severely beaten at the direction of the mob-accommodating city leaders, and subsequently consigned in shackles to the city jail.
Now, it is important to know that Paul (and Silas, too) was a Roman citizen, a privilege at the time enjoyed by only about 5-10% of the populace in the vast Roman Empire. Among the rights of a citizen were freedom from beatings without trial, the right to be tried before the emperor rather than in a local court of law, and the right to not be executed by crucifixion. When the magistrates sent orders for Paul and Silas to be released, ‘having learned their lesson,’ they supposed, these abused men refused release, until the magistrates spoke to them personally. Paul’s message to them: “We are Roman citizens, and you have beaten us and jailed us without cause.” The magistrates were fear struck upon learning that they had violated the sacred civil rights of two Roman citizens, an action which could have subjected the rulers to severe personal penalties, perhaps up to and including execution. Profuse apologies followed, and a request that the abused men quietly leave the city.
Some years later, when Paul gave his personal testimony and verbal defense to the violent and badly misinformed mob in the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 22), he was rescued from the rioters and certain death by the Roman soldiers garrisoned nearby (demonstrating that the police power of government can be and often is for our benefit). The method of “interrogating” the prisoner to find out the cause of the riot was to be severe flogging while bound (v. 24). As they bound Paul and prepared to inflict the beating, no doubt his mind flashed back to Philippi and he decided to demand his rights sooner than later this time, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” As with the magistrates at Philippi, the centurion in charge “was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him,” (v. 29). Paul insisted vigorously that his civil rights be respected and not violated.
Two years later, Paul was still a prisoner in Judea but now at Caesarea, and facing possible trial before the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, where his condemnation was a foregone conclusion (Acts 25). The newly-arrived Roman governor Festus was amenable to the Sanhedrin’s demand to try Paul themselves. To escape from the injustice of a prejudicial tribunal, Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen: “I appeal to Caesar,” (v. 11).
So then, Paul as one who had certain definite civil rights, repeatedly invoked them and demanded that they be recognized by the governing authorities.
The citizens of the United States have “certain unalienable rights” with which they have been “endowed by their Creator,” to quote the Declaration of Independence. The rights are specified in writing in the “Bill of Rights,” the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It is notable that these amendments expressly tell the government what it cannot do: “Congress shall make no law, …”; “…shall not be infringed,”; “…shall not be violated,”; “Shall not be construed, . . “ And just here is the genius of the U. S. Constitution as written: it expressly limits government to the specified powers delineated and denies all others to it. Throughout most of history, the case has been the opposite: governments have often exercised nearly unrestricted powers over the people, and the governments have instead declared to them what they, the people, could or could not do. The general populace had only such rights as the government might concede to them for the present time, subject to revocation at will.
It is not wrong, indeed it is right and necessary, that we Christian citizens of the United States insist and demand that our Constitutional rights be recognized and respected, and that any and all infringements and usurpations be removed forthwith. This includes, especially, our right to unhindered religious worship—“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For governors or mayors to demand the closing of churches but not of retail stores, for crowd (and masking) restrictions to be imposed on churches but not on street demonstrations (and rioters), is a blatant violation of our rights. And I could add demands by a mayor for full lists of members from the churches in his city, and a governor’s prohibition of hymn singing. (I could also note the arbitrary government forced closure of certain businesses as “non-essential” while leaving others open for business as usual is a power I do not find in the Constitution). Likewise, it is proper that we demand—and exercise—our right to armed self-defense, as guaranteed in the Second Amendment. So, too, with the other God-given, and government-guaranteed civil rights. “Use them or lose them.”
When infringements of rights are allowed to go unchallenged, governments are emboldened to push the envelope again and again and again, until the “rights” exist only on paper and not in reality. Jefferson wrote of “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinc[ing] a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.” What we are experiencing now is the very thing Jefferson wrote about. Such has been the sad legacy of government after government through time, as ambitious rulers, gripped by “libido dominandi” (Latin for “the lust for power”) sought evermore control and power over the people. As has been famously said, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” that is, vigilance against those who would seek to take that liberty away.
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.