In the sixteenth chapter of the book The Acts of the Apostles, we read about Paul and Silas, his helper in their missionary ministry, walking the streets of the Macedonian city of Philippi and being followed by a demon-possessed girl who, the text says, cried out for many days, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It seems odd that a girl in bondage to Satan would repeatedly state such things – truthful things; but, in true Satanic fashion, the truth was being proclaimed in such a way that it became an annoyance. Rather than being able to hear the message of Gospel preached by Paul and Silas, they were distracted by this girl shouting over and over again that they had a message to share from God. So Paul, “having become greatly annoyed,” cast the demon out of the girl.
Needless to say, her “owners” were not happy she was nothing more than an ordinary girl once again, and so they took Paul and Silas before the local authorities and accused them of stirring up trouble. The officials proceeded to beat the missionaries and imprison them without a trial. Later that night they were singing hymns and praying when all of a sudden there was an earthquake that caused all the prison doors to open. Long story short, the jailer was saved from harming himself (thinking the prisoners had escaped) and then saved from his sins after Paul and Silas preached the Gospel to him.
The next day, the magistrates sent to have the men released and leave the city “in peace.” At first, Paul was going to have none of it. He said, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us in prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The magistrates, not wanting to get in trouble for their illegal actions, came and apologized and asked them again to leave quietly.
Paul originally wanted a public apology for a public offense. When the magistrates came in private and apologized, Paul could have easily demanded more. He and Silas had been physically assaulted, their reputations tarnished, and their rights violated. However, Paul contented himself with the private apology, left the prison quietly, encouraged some fellow Christians, and then left the city “in peace.”
Why didn’t Paul stand up for himself and fight for his rights to the fullest extent possible? I contend it was because he realized doing so would not enhance his ability to share the Gospel. Just because he could have, didn’t mean he should have. Think for a moment of all the implications and impacts such a forcing of the issue would have had in relation to his mission to share the love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, we as Christians have to wrestle with how to balance fighting to maintain our personal and civil rights with what Jesus said about turning the other cheek, not resisting an evil person and the example of Paul letting his rights get trampled for the sake of the Gospel. This is a tough topic, especially now in the U.S. I can think of cake bakers, wedding photographers, journalists and others who have been embroiled in fighting for their rights. Were they all wrong for doing so? Should they just have given up, let themselves be silenced, pushed around, and forced to violate their consciences?
I don’t claim to know the answers to all those questions, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. In each of these circumstances, and any we might face in the future, we have to assess, as Paul did, if action or inaction will advance or hinder the Gospel both in the short and long term. We must, as Jesus said, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Paul was a bit if a “snakedove.” He got the local authorities to acknowledge their error and offer an apology, but was wise and gentle enough to graciously leave the city without publicly embarrassing them or putting his rights a Roman citizen above his calling to preach the Gospel.
If we are Christians, we must remember we are dual citizens of our Earthly nation as well as the Kingdom of Heaven. As such, we must give preference to the higher authority – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – and seek to honor and obey Him in all things, even if it means giving up some “rights” granted to us by lesser authorities. God has given us all the charge to be salt and light in the world, and that can and should certainly include being good, engaged Earthly citizens who champion truth, justice and equality and who participate in electing God-fearing leaders. We should advocate, and, when appropriate, even fight for the rights we’re afforded by our governments; yet we have to always remember our ultimate calling is from Jesus – to make disciples, to love our neighbors (and our enemies), and, if necessary, to suffer and die for His sake and the sake of the Gospel.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Jesus of Nazareth