​Christians, Citizenship, and Rights

We live in a society that is increasingly being defined by the struggle for rights and access to the public square. The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed the watershed of the civil rights movement, which has defined contemporary America up to this moment. The civil rights movement continues to branch out into other areas of rights orientation: gay rights, animal rights, and environmental rights. The United States of America has seen the transformation of its culture by the legal, social, and political ramifications of the rights movement in its various forms.

Roman Citizenship

Several years ago I went on a promotional trip for Christian schools to Washington, D.C., to learn more of the Christian heritage of the United States. It is noteworthy how much of American history and culture is conditioned by the Christian background of our original colonial ancestors. One day, as we were getting on the tour bus, a lady was holding forth on how the rights of Christians were being trampled on by the government. She was discussing how Christians should influence politics in order to protect their rights. In response I retorted that Christians do not have rights. This completely took her aback and left her without a response. This incident illustrates the truth that Christians do not have civil rights as Christians—we have rights as American citizens. However, often Christians protest against discrimination as Christians rather than as American citizens.

The biblical perspective on this matter is illustrated by the experience and teaching of the apostle Paul. Here we see an individual who possessed dual citizenship, one as a Roman (Acts 16:37, 22:25,29), and the other a heavenly one (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20; Philippians 3:20). Studying his use of each will reveal to the contemporary Christian the transcendent and timeless perspective of a Christian’s understanding of rights. A correct understanding can aid the modern American Christian in their response to a society increasingly hostile toward Christian values and practice.

How did Paul understand his dual citizenship? An analysis of the privileges of Roman citizenship will help to explain Paul’s perspective on a Christian’s rights in a society.

Rights of Roman Citizenship

Roman citizenship was a privileged and prized opportunity in the first century. Citizenship was either a matter of birth or a grant. Paul’s citizenship was by birth (Acts 22:28), which was granted to his parents originally. As a Roman citizen Paul benefited in several ways. He had the right to appeal a trial to Caesar (Acts 25:7-12). He used his citizenship as protection from a vigilante mob (Acts 22:25-29). He used it to gain release from detention (Acts 16:37-39). Other rights and privileges attained by citizenship, which Paul may or may not have used, were exemption from military service (as a Jew it was unlikely he was confronted with this), the right to hold political office (which he definitely did not do), inherit property, contract a marriage recognized by Roman law (Paul was apparently single), protection while traveling throughout the Roman Empire, protection anywhere under Roman law, and the right to be exempted from certain types of punishment, such as flogging (which he was unjustifiably subjected to in Acts 16).

Paul’s Attitude Toward Citizenship

Paul did not hesitate to use his Roman citizenship when it was advantageous to do so. However, he used it as a tool, not as an identity marker. He used his Roman privileges and rights to enhance his Christian mission throughout the Empire. For example, he never journeyed outside the bounds of the empire on his missionary travels. He recognized that Christians should pay their taxes (Romans 13:6, 7), for that was a duty as citizens of a country, yet a Christian obligation. A Christian was to submit to authority (verse 1) and not rebel against it (verse 2). Believers were to do what is right (verses 3, 4). Submission to government authority was required so that punishment would not result and for the sake of conscience (verse 5). Christians were to be good citizens of the Roman Empire.

Paul’s Heavenly Citizenship

Paul’s citizenship among the Romans was not the focus of his attention. He used his Roman citizenship as a tool to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. He used Roman citizenship to protect himself from undue harm and persecution. As a citizen of the empire he was free to travel throughout the extent of Rome’s territories. His Roman citizenship transcended the local jurisdictions to which he was frequently subjected (Acts 25:9-11). As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s Roman citizenship furnished him with a unique vantage point from which to carry out his calling.

Whatever the opportunities presented to him by Roman citizenship, Paul’s true citizenship was not earthly. Paul’s citizenship belonged in heaven (Philippians 3:20). From that kingdom he awaited his King, who would come and “bring everything under his control” (verse 21, NIV).* As a citizen of another kingdom, Paul saw himself as an ambassador from that kingdom to this world announcing the magisterial act of God in reconciling a lost world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Ephesians 6:19, 20). Paul saw himself as an emissary from another kingdom representing the Sovereign of that kingdom. As an emissary Paul was free to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22). He knew no political or national boundary that limited his calling to proclaim the gospel; because in Christ a new citizen had been created, a citizen without ethnic, gender, economic, or national distinctions in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Paul’s dual citizenship in Rome and heaven must be placed in perspective. It is at this point that application to contemporary Christians can begin.

Christian Citizenship

Paul did not apply heavenly citizenship merely to himself. It applied to all Christians.

“But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20, NIV). Similarly, the writer to Hebrews likens our Old Testament ancestors to “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13, NIV). Learning from their example, Christians are to look for something better (verse 40). That something better is coming is certain, because believers in Christ will receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28, NIV). True citizenship is in heaven, and we exist as “resident aliens” awaiting the consummation of our heavenly citizenship. Having become citizens of another kingdom, Christians living in the earthly realm have a dual obligation—representing God and being good citizens in the earthly dominion, without forgetting their divine civic responsibilities.

Contemporary Applications

Christians do not have rights—they have privileges. As citizens of heaven, Christians do not possess inherent rights as we would understand them. Christians have been given privileges that result from the grace shown to them through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. As recipients of grace, Christians have many privileges that could not be given prior to their redemption. For example, because Jesus is our high priest, believers can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” to receive mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16, NIV). To understand this privilege as a right is to assume believers have a claim to approach the throne of grace to find mercy. Grace and mercy are given to those who surrender prior claims. Heavenly citizenship and rights are vastly different from earthly political rights.

Christians do not have any “inalienable right” to insist on earthly privileges. There is no biblical evidence to support the American notion that God gave Christians an inherent right to religious freedom. The earthly privilege to worship God as one sees fit is totally unique to world history. It is uniquely American and stems from a particular understanding of rights within Western tradition. Any nation that grants freedom of religion today merely mirrors the revolution in thought originated by American culture. Christians throughout history and in many parts of the world worship God despite the absence of freedom. Therefore, worship and religious liberty do not automatically go together as a natural right for Christians. Religious liberty is a unique blessing given us under the providence of God.

Christians should utilize their natural citizen rights as a tool for spreading the gospel. Even though Christians do not have rights as Christians, they continue to possess the rights given as citizens of their respective countries. Paul utilized the rights of Roman citizenship perhaps to the very day of his death. Tradition states that he was beheaded, whereas Peter was crucified. As a Roman citizen Paul could not be crucified, while Peter (not a Roman citizen) requested that he was unworthy to die in the manner of his Savior, and was crucified upside down.

American Christians have a wonderful opportunity to live at peace in a nation that allows religious freedom. Christians as American citizens should uphold this right not because they expect it, but because it is a blessing. The constitutional right of religious freedom is fragile and must be looked after by those who benefit from it. Vigilance in protecting this freedom is not done selfishly, but as a civic duty. Rome was tolerant of varied religious and philosophical traditions so long as their adherents did not threaten the imperial cult. However, American Christians can focus on freedom for freedom’s sake. Preservation of freedom is certainly something Paul would have supported, but he would not have staked his ministry on it.

American Christians should be Christians first and Americans second. This distinction has often been blurred throughout American history. Beginning with the patriot cause in the War for Independence extending to the recent history of Christian Right politics, the tendency has been to see political and social movements and causes as righteous events fulfilling God’s original call on America as a special nation with God’s blessing. Notwithstanding the blessings that America has experienced, such reasoning clouds the obligations that Christians have as Christians first and Americans second. Too often in world history the cause of the state has been bolstered by or identified with the cause of Christ. It is too easy for Christians to identify their mission as Christians with their mission as American citizens. Lincoln’s wise words in reply to the question of which side God took in the Civil War exemplifies the prevalent dilemma confronted by Christians in every nation. Lincoln replied that he was not so much concerned with which side God was on, but was most concerned whether the Union was on God’s side. This perspective speaks volumes to Christian obligation and loyalty in the ongoing conflict between Christian and national obligations and loyalties.

Christian activism in America must be tempered by Biblical understanding of Christian citizenship. Loving God first must have no competitors. Nationalism, patriotism, and political activism are not competitors for Christian loyalty. While Christians can be thankful for citizenship in a particular country, they must always remember that citizenship in heaven is their first loyalty. Pledging allegiance to the flag of a country is not so much the issue as what the pledge represents. Christians during the time of ancient Rome were not anti-Roman but existed as loyal citizens to Rome up to the point of conscientious objection. Likewise, Christians in America must recognize their obligations and rights within the context of their heavenly calling.

The biblical model of Christian citizenship on earth transcends the debate over the Christian heritage of American government and rights. While the American Declaration of Independence rightly puts the the source of rights as divinely transcendent, the fact remains that the Bible nowhere states that God has given Christians the right to overthrow their civil government just because they might be displeased with it. In fact, when an individual becomes a Christian, they give up any claim to rights as inherently theirs. The rights they claim are those already given them by the nation they live in. For example, the Declaration of Independence states that everyone has a right to life. From a Christian perspective, no man has a right to take life from another one, since God is the author of life.

The Declaration of Independence declares that humans have the right to liberty. A Christian perspective recognizes that God has created free beings, yet this is a gift, not a right. Therefore, political liberty is merely the outgrowth and expression of a created order. True liberty is seen on the spiritual level, not the political. At best, political freedom is the earthly expression of spiritual freedom, not its competitor. From a biblical perspective, Christians have obligations to the state, not rights inherent from it.

The Final Mandate

Political rights and philosophy derived from certain interpretations of the Bible is to be expected. However, the New Testament is clear respecting the obligations, privileges, and responsibilities of Christians toward any civil government and the state. That ethic begins with the recognition that Christians have a mandate from their Savior that transcends any obligation to the state. Indeed, that obligation continues irrespective of any and every form of government devised by humanity. The American experiment in religious freedom and republican democracy must not be allowed to hold that mandate hostage or confuse the issues. Christians must continue to be vigilant in their commission to represent their heavenly King in a sinful and fallen world.

*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Article Author: Rodney Nelson