But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” (Acts 16:37)
As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:25)
I’ve written before about Paul’s citizenship (Like this post, this one and this one). Given how often it gets mentioned in relationship to topics like patriotism and nationalism, I thought it worth another look.
When we take minor points out of two stories in the book of Acts and use them as the justification for broad areas of activity, I can’t help but think that we are using Paul for an excuse rather than an example. Look at some points about what happened:
- Paul had to tell people he was a citizen. Admittedly in each of these stories we are dealing with people that didn’t know Paul well. Still, it should be noted that in these only two cases we have, Paul had to point out that he was a citizen. There was nothing about what he was doing or saying that made that obvious.
- People were surprised to learn that Paul was a citizen. Again, we’re dealing with people who didn’t know Paul. But it’s telling that he wasn’t acting the way they would expect a citizen to act. He wasn’t doing the things that most Roman citizens did. There was nothing about his life, his dress, his choice of companions, etc. that pointed to him being anything but a Christian.
- Paul wasn’t doing most of the “citizeny” things that we talk about. When we talk about being good citizens, we often look at political activity, support for the military, etc. These examples show none of that. Paul mentions his citizenship in legal settings, much the way he used his status as a Pharisee.
Scholars are divided as to why Paul mentioned his citizenship. In Acts 22, it saved him from a beating. In Acts 16, Paul allowed himself to be beaten and imprisoned, then mentioned his citizenship after being released. Some say it was for the advancement of the gospel. Some say it was to protect others, the jailer in Acts 16 (who still could have gotten in trouble for “fraternizing” with Paul) and the Roman soldiers in Acts 22, who would have been legally liable had they beaten Paul. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that it was for none of the reasons that people appeal to today in citing these examples.
If we follow Paul’s example, we’ll live in a way that others will know we are Christians, but won’t know we’re citizens unless we tell them. We’ll only use our citizenship in extreme situations, for legal purposes. And we’ll focus our attention on our heavenly citizenship. (Philippians 3:19-20)