By Timothy Pigg
Pastor, Fellowship Church
“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…’ So the tribune came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he answered, ‘Yes.’ So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.”Acts 22:25, 27, 29
In reading these words, I am prone to ask several questions that appear to be most relevant for our current context. First, was Paul undermining his heavenly citizenship by invoking his Roman citizenship? Second, could Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship be a display of patriotism for the country of which he was a citizen? Third, is it acceptable to be a Christian and proud to be an American? My goal in the next few paragraphs is to provide a biblical response from Pauline literature concerning these questions. In the concluding paragraph, I wish to make an appeal to my Christian brothers and sisters to be patriotic for their country while living as an ambassador of God’s Kingdom.
Question 1: Was Paul undermining his heavenly citizenship by invoking his Roman citizenship?
The short answer is, “No.” In Acts 22, there is no implication that Paul set aside his identity as a follower of Christ in order to invoke his Roman citizenship. One aspect of Paul’s theology is his understanding of how Christians are to live as citizens of a fallen world. For help grasping Paul’s theology of being “in the world but not of the world,” one need only to look at 2 Corinthians 5. Within this chapter, Paul speaks of an “earthly” home and an “eternal” home. He recognizes the limitations and impact the Fall has had on our “earthly” home. He shows how this world causes believers to “groan” and “long to put on our heavenly dwelling” (v. 2). Nonetheless, the reality of our future home does not abrogate our responsibility to “please” God while dwelling on earth (v.9). The chief responsibility of a Christian is explained by Paul as allowing God’s love to control us to such an extent that we plead with men, “be reconciled to God” (v. 14, 19-20).
Therefore, Paul understood the value his “earthly” citizenship afforded him to take the gospel to Rome; so, he demanded to be treated according to his Roman citizenship. Scripture demonstrates that Paul had a desire to bring the gospel to Rome and to fellowship with the believers there (Romans 1:10-11; 15:22-23, and Acts 19:22). Though prohibited throughout his ministry, the Lord providentially allowed Paul passage to Rome as a prisoner. How fitting, don’t you think? A man invoking his Roman citizenship to fulfill the responsibilities of his heavenly citizenship.
Question 2: Could Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship be a display of patriotism for the country of which he was a citizen?
In an attempt to answer question two, we must delve into the pathos of Paul’s appeal to be treated as a Roman citizen. It is only within the pathos of Paul’s appeal that we could find his patriotism. Patriotism is defined as the act of being patriotic by a vigorous support for one’s country. The hinging word of the provided definition is vigorous. Therefore, we must discern if Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship was done in a manner that could be described as vigorous. Was Paul’s appeal a plea for survival or a mere statement of judicial order? Several contextual clues help the reader discern the pathos of the scene. For instance, Luke describes how loud these antagonists are speaking (Acts 22:22-23). Also, he describes the rage of these antagonists (v. 23-25). It is in the midst of such screaming rage that Paul speaks up and objects to the proceedings on the basis of his Roman citizenship. Therefore, in the midst of the situation, the pathos of Paul was one of vigorous support of his Roman citizenship in order to continue spreading the gospel.
Question 3: Is it acceptable to be a Christian and proud to be an American?
Just as Paul understood that he was a citizen of Rome and Heaven, so too do believers need to understand those realities with respect to their own earthly residences. Being a citizen of the United States of America affords us rights and privileges that can serve to be advantageous to our local churches spreading the gospel in our communities. Constitutional rights such as the freedom of religion and speech are rights afforded to every citizen. These rights should be invoked by Christians, much like Paul did in Acts 22, when they are infringed by local, state, or federal government. A Christian’s chief aim in regard to earthly citizenship should be to please God, knowing that one day every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of how he or she has lived (2 Corinthians 5:10).
To my Christian brothers and sisters that are citizens of the United States of America and the Kingdom of God, let me offer this encouragement with the words of our Lord, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).