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obey God rather than men?

I was recently sent an article and asked to comment on it. The conclusion and therefore central thrust of the article was this: we must help our nation “by standing against overreaching government bureaucrats”. As support for this the author cited Paul’s insistence on his rights as a citizen of Rome in Acts 22.

Is this what Paul was doing? Consider the context. In Acts 22 Paul is recounting his story. He tells them about how Jesus had appeared to him and told him he would travel far away to proclaim the gospel message to the nations (Acts 22:21). It is in response to this declaration, that the gospel was for the nations as well as Israel, the people were enraged with Paul. They declared they wanted to kill him (Acts 22:22). The Roman tribune stepped in and decided to interrogate Paul by flogging him. Then we read this:

But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”

Acts 22:25 ESV

It was illegal to flog a citizen without a trial. Flogging was commonly used as a means of investigation (which was the tribune’s purpose here), yet citizens of Rome had certain rights and one of those was the freedom from punishment without a conviction. Here Paul was insisting on his rights. The author of the article I was sent suggested that we should also insist on our rights, for this is the example of the apostle. What was Paul actually doing, though? Consider this from 2 Corinthians.

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.

2 Corinthians 11:24 ESV

The law of Moses prohibited more than forty lashes (see Deuteronomy 25:3). In case the person miscounted, he would only whip a person 39 times so as to avoid violating the commandment. Paul received this punishment on five separate occasions. Roman law allowed Jewish synagogues to provide their own form of policing, but only for members of the synagogue. For Paul to receive this form of punishment he had to remain a member of the synagogue. This means that at any time Paul could have insisted on his rights to not be beaten by the Jews by simply revoking his membership in the synagogue.

This raises the question: why would Paul insist on his rights in one situation, but not in five other situations? The answer is quite simple. If Paul had renounced his membership in the synagogue, this renunciation would apply to all synagogues. He would be unable to enter the synagogue and speak—to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather than lose his opportunity to share the truth of Jesus in synagogues, Paul gave up his rights on five separate occasions and endured five terrible beatings. In Acts 22 insisting on his rights as a citizen prevented the beating, but even more, ensured the people could not have him killed. Paul’s example of enduring a beating shows us his primary concern was not avoiding a beating. No one higher up from the tribune would have batted an eye if the tribune had a disturber of the peace executed, but a citizen? Without a trial? So it comes down to this: when insisting on his rights enabled him to preach the gospel, Paul insisted on his rights and when refusing to insist on his rights enabled him to preach the gospel, Paul refused to insist on his rights.

This raises another question: what does it mean to obey God rather than men? In Acts 5 the apostles declared that this is true. What was their purpose, however? Here’s the context:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Acts 5:27–29 ESV

The apostles’ civil disobedience came down to this: when Caesar’s laws conflict with the clear commands of God, we must obey God rather than Caesar. Nowhere do they suggest that they are free to disobey Caesar when they dislike Caesar’s commands. Whether Caesar taxed too much or required too many regulations or had an “overreaching government bureaucra[cy]”, they knew they were to obey Caesar—unless Caesar was compelling them to disobey God. This is why Christians would pay their taxes but refused to confess Caesar is lord. This is why they followed Caesar’s regulations but refused to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. Doing so would be disobedience to God for only God is to be worshiped. This principle of obeying God rather than men only applies when men insist we sin against God. It has nothing to do with our political or economic philosophies. The exact reason the apostles declared their greater obedience to God was because the civil authorities had forbidden them from proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. Failing to preach Jesus would be disobedience to God so they chose to obey God rather than men.

It comes down to this. If exercising our rights as citizens enables us to preach the gospel and to live faithfully, we should insist on our rights. If denying our rights as citizens enables us to preach the gospel and live faithfully, we should deny our rights. The issue isn’t whether our rights match our own conception of government or governmental policies. The issue is whether we can faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus and live faithfully. It was Jesus, after all, who existed in the very form of God and therefore had all the rights and privileges that belong to God, yet he did not insist on his rights as God. Instead, he took on the form of a servant, as one who had no rights. He allowed Caesar to abuse him and kill him, and this was truly for the sake of the gospel.

We know this because Paul tells us this in his letter to the Philippians (2:5–9), which brings up another interesting point. As mentioned above, Paul was a Roman citizen. The vast majority of those living in the Roman empire were not citizens and therefore did not have the rights people like Paul had. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony. It was thoroughly Roman in every way and it was populated by Roman citizens. This means the majority of the believers in the church in Philippi were Roman citizens. So a Roman citizen named Paul wrote to a church of Roman citizens and had the temerity to say this:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…

Philippians 3:20 ESV

He’s reminding them that their true identity is not first and foremost that of a Roman citizen, with all its rights and privileges, but that as citizens of heaven. Our identity must be rooted in Jesus, the one who gave up his rights for the good of others. We must hold our earthly citizenship loosely while clinging to our heavenly citizenship firmly. On a practical level, then, we should ask ourselves this question: are we known more for our hot political takes or for proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified? This question doesn’t preclude political involvement, but it helps reveal where we think our true citizenship is.

If the answer to that question is people are more likely going to know your particular political views than what you say about Jesus, you should become more like Jesus and lay down your rights to self-expression and your rights to hold whatever political views you hold. If your conversations with others are filled with your thoughts on masks and vaccines and vaccine requirements or your thoughts on taxes and free trade and health insurance policy and very little of Jesus, ask yourself why. Where is your true citizenship? What is your true identity? The truth is we must obey God rather than men, and God calls us to live as his witnesses in the world, yet so many would rather live as witnesses to their political party. We belong to Jesus, which means Jesus defines for us what our lives ought to be. Jesus defines for us our values. Jesus determines for us our activities. We must live in such a way that our lives point others to Jesus, not our personal views.