Paul and the Magistrates: A Time to Defer and a Time to Defy

November 12, 2021 at 8:30 AM

There has been much discussion in recent days about how Christians ought to think about engagement with civil authorities that are basically hostile towards a Biblical worldview, as well as how to approach conflicts between the church and state. 

It is beyond the scope of this article to offer anything close to a comprehensive answer to such questions, but rather the aim, which is based on a firm belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, is simply to continue the conversation by examining a case study of the apostle Paul engaging with the civil magistrates on one occasion in Philippi during his second missionary journey. This brief history can be recounted in the following four scenes from Acts 16.


Scene 1 - Carrying out the Commission (Acts 16:10-15)

“And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So, setting sail from Troas, we made direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us.” 

Before examining how Paul deals with the magistrates, we first see that he is a man on mission, and that his mission has been mandated by the Lord Jesus. He is a man set under authority, who has been told to go and do and say particular things to particular people, namely to bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, even at great personal cost (Acts 9:15-16; 26:16-18). In other words, he was called to be an evangelist, not an activist. This is not to say anything against activism or activists who work with zeal for social improvement – God has assigned to each person a particular life and set of opportunities and called him or her to be faithful and fruitful to do good within that sphere (1 Cor. 7:17). But the Great Commission is a first priority concern for all Christians (Matt. 28:18-20), and Paul demonstrates wholehearted devotion to the mission to which he has been personally appointed by the Lord. So the context for Paul’s clash with the magistrates is that he is simply busying himself by carrying out this commission – he plants and waters, God gives the growth, and a new church is born (1 Cor. 3:5-9).


Scene 2 - Causing Controversy (Acts 16:16-24)

“As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.” 

Now we are introduced to the magistrates and the jailer who possessed their delegated authority. Roman law, which governed Philippi, was a sophisticated system of social justice from which we derive many of our own democratic benefits. There was due process, and mob justice was illegal (Acts 19:38-40). It was illegal to administer punishment before the accused had had the opportunity to stand trial (Acts 22:25-29). A citizen was assured the right to face his accusers in court and make a defense with evidence presented (Acts 25:16), and questionable decisions and charges could be appealed to a higher court (Acts 25:10-12). Although the system was obviously not perfect, these civil rights were impressive for that time. However, Paul’s experience at Philippi demonstrates the corruption, not the benefits, present in the system – false accusations, mob rule, magistrates forsaking justice in order to placate public pressure. The result is that Paul finds himself beaten and imprisoned for an unproven crime. 

But what exactly was the cause of this controversy? Paul healed a demon possessed woman while preaching the gospel, and both the healing and the message posed a threat to people’s economic prosperity (cf. Acts 19:23-27). While such authoritative miraculous healings passed with the apostles, the truth claims we continue to preach today from Scripture are no less contentious to a contemporary culture, and the hostility that it provokes is just as heated. 

We must acknowledge that Paul was not engaged in destroying systems of social oppression – indeed, the instructions he later writes to the churches he planted about slave-master relationships seem uncomfortably unsubversive to our modern ears (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1). This again does not mean that Paul would be against the abolitionists (I can even imagine the apostle celebrating the faithfulness of Wilberforce when the two were united in heaven). But in his own life, Paul was occupied with destroying strongholds and arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ through the preaching of the gospel (2 Cor. 10:4-5), which was more than sufficient to bring him into controversy with the culture and the magistrates.


Scene 3 - Startling Submission (Acts 16:25-34)

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

The story is so familiar we forget to be surprised at the details. But imagine that you have just endured brutal injustice at the hands of a corrupt government. You’ve been handed over to the jailer for further suffering and torture. All of a sudden, the God whom you believe is sovereign over all things miraculously causes an earthquake to open the prison doors and loose everyone’s bonds. While processing all this, you see that the torturer himself is poised to commit suicide. Surely, you could be forgiven if you interpreted this to mean that God Himself had brought about justice through miraculous intervention, and that this represented a divinely sanctioned overthrow of a corrupt system, along with the destruction of its agents of oppression. Who could fault you if you cried, ‘Freedom!’ while rallying the prisoners to run out of the prison right over the jailer’s dead body to celebrate in the streets?

That, however, is not what Paul did. Rather than seize the win against civil injustice, he chose rather to save a life in an act that also turned out to be one of startling submission. Yes, he submitted himself to the jailer and the corrupt magistrates by not escaping, and he apparently influenced the other prisoners to submit to continued incarceration as well. This is not to suggest that Paul’s primary concern was submissiveness to government as if that is the right thing to do in all situations. Rather, he valued the life of a man, even a wicked one, over his own freedom and several others, and he was willing to submit to an unjust government to save that life. In so doing, he put himself back into the hands of his torturer in order to do good, even while entrusting his soul to a faithful Creator who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:23 & 4:19).

And in this case, wisdom is proved right by all her children (Luke 7:35). The results of this deed, even more than a saved life, include the salvation of a whole family of souls. It is not that Paul saved the jailer; only God opens hearts to receive the gospel, as He did for Lydia (Acts 16:14). But this act of submissiveness proved to be the most attractive adorning of the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:10), serving as potent pre-evangelism before God would bring about the washing of regeneration by His Spirit through the gospel (Titus 3:5). Startling submission, self-sacrifice, and unjust suffering have always been the most compelling ways to bring people to God, since these are enshrined in the gospel and Christ’s work on the cross (1 Pet. 3:18).


Scene 4 - Surprising Shrewdness (Acts 16:35-40)

“But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.’ But Paul said to them, ‘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.’ The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.”

Just when we thought we had Paul figured out as a sheep resigned to the slaughter (Rom. 8:36), he surprises us by unexpected assertiveness and serpentine shrewdness (Matt. 10:16). Why is he being so confrontational and uncooperative all of a sudden? Why does he bother to make a public issue out of his civil rights and freedoms? The magistrates offer him a free pass to leave peacefully, so why cause a ruckus? What happened to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the extra mile’ (Matt. 5:39, 41), as we shine our lights to a dark world by being peacemakers (Matt. 5:9, 14-16) and people who don’t complain or dispute (Phil. 3:14-15)? 

It would be a mistake to think that Paul is seeking to defend his pride, or reputation, or even his civil liberties in this event. He did not account his own life of any value or as precious to himself, as long as he could finish the course of the ministry of the gospel assigned to him by Christ (Acts 20:24). And only the day before he was more concerned about the life of a pagan jailer than any personal civil liberties. So, why the public protest over his rights as a Roman citizen? 

Although the text does not explicitly say, it seems reasonable that Paul’s concern was for the fledgling Philippian church that he had just planted. These were brand new believers who likely were not ready to withstand such heated hostility from their immediate social environment that could quickly lead to imprisonment and torture. Make no mistake, they were converted and committed to counting the cost, and Paul would later exhort them that it had been granted to them not only to believe in Christ, but to suffer for His sake (Phil. 1:29). But for now, Paul does what he can to preserve their civil rights and provide a period of protection from the brutal persecution that he had just endured on their behalf. Through Paul’s shrewdness, God grants the fledgling Philippian believers needed time for them to be built up by the word of His grace, so that they receive the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32). 

Then Paul, from whom we have Romans 13, after defying the magistrates to their face, ignores their urgent request that he immediately leave Philippi by instead visiting the baby church he just planted, taking time to encourage and build them up before departing on his own terms.

In sum, Paul demonstrates remarkable discernment to distinguish between a time that calls for deference and a time that calls for defiance, apparently guided by his convictions about the sanctity of life and concerns for building up the church, always driven by the Great Commission.


Concluding Prayer

Heavenly Father, please grant us by the power of your Spirit the grace and wisdom that you gave Paul to be committed to carrying out your Son’s Great Commission. If we are to cause controversy, let it be first and foremost because we are destroying strongholds and arguments raised against the knowledge of You through spreading the gospel. Help us to count life as precious and to prioritize the salvation of souls ahead of fighting for social freedoms, even if it means sacrificing ourselves and our freedoms in order to accomplish what is spiritually good. Thank you for the liberties that we continue to enjoy in this country. Help us to do what we can to preserve them. May you give us the wisdom and discernment we need to know when defiance will accomplish more good for your kingdom than deference, but to also embrace with patience submission when Christ’s kingdom would be further advanced through such suffering. Amen.