When someone challenges the idea that the Christian life is not about desperately clinging to one’s earthly rights, there has become a new axiom in response, one that is now used to the point of being cliché, namely, “tell that to Paul who appealed to his Roman rights in Philippi”. This is a sloppy caricature of Paul that, somewhat anachronistically, presents him as modern American in how he viewed rights in this life.
Any careful consideration of Paul’s appeal to his rights will recognise that Paul did this strategically, not for his own preservation—after all for him to die was gain—but for the furtherance of the gospel. When Paul said in Acts 16, “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,” he was certainly appealing to the unjust treatment he received as a violation of his rights.
When this passage is appealed to in support for demanding our rights in the face of injustice, there is almost no reflection on the timing or purpose of Paul’s appeal. What should be recognised is that Paul appealed to this citizenship after having been unjustly flogged, beaten and imprisoned. When comparing this event in Philippi to Acts 22, there we see that Paul’s appeal immediately stopped the abuse up front, but here Paul appeals after the beating. The reason is that Paul had an entirely different purpose in his appeal than to preserve his own life and rights.
Paul understood that the present moment of persecution was sovereignly ordained, and that appealing to his rights would have thwarted a divine purpose, namely, of bringing salvation to a jailor and his family. Yes, sometimes there are bigger causes than our own rights, such as the salvation of others.
Why then did Paul appeal to his rights after the injustice? Derek Thomas says it well, even though he should not have been beaten, “Paul was thinking of the precedent it might set of the Christians in Philippi once he has gone if the authorities thought they could treat people this way, flagrantly violating Roman standards of justice…it was a demand for the sake of those left behind, more than any feelings of grievance in the apostle himself…The apostles showed no bitterness or recrimination. They had instead employed the rule of law (Roman law) to Christianity’s advantage.”
Christians have every right to appeal to the governing authorities to uphold their own standards of law and justice. Please don’t miss this point. We should. Can we ever appeal to them for our own advantage? Certainly. But Paul thought of others first, recognising that they might be taken, by Jesus, for a time, to save a jailor and his family. If Paul thought appealing to his rights would be beneficial for the church, he would would use his rights to help them in the cause of the gospel. The point is that Paul strategically appealed to rights to use them for the advantage of others in hearing the gospel.
Paul was fully cognisant that this life is not one of desperately holding on to rights for one’s own advantage. If they were taken, under God’s providential hand, he too could rejoice because, as the saints of Hebrews are commended, he had “a better possession and an abiding one”. Paul conducted himself with wisdom, godly fear, fully believing that there was greater purpose in his own losses for bringing the good news of salvation to the peoples.