BreakPoint: A Biblical Case for Defending Religious Freedom

Paul in Acts

Why should we actively and publicly defend religious freedom? We’ll look to the Apostle Paul for an answer.

In late May, Alan Sears, the founder of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, was awarded the Wilberforce Award for his and the Alliance’s efforts on behalf of religious freedom.

At the ceremony, several speakers testified about Sears’ commitment to securing this most basic of rights, and the example he sets for all Christians.

But there’s another example of the importance of knowing and asserting our rights in matters of faith I’d like to tell you about. It’s an example that predates Sears’s efforts by nearly 2000 years.

I’m talking about the Apostle Paul. On several occasions in the book of Acts, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to further the work of the Gospel.

The first is related in Acts 16. Paul, Silas, and Luke arrive in Philippi in what is now Greece. While they were there, Paul casts out of a slave girl what Luke calls a “Python spirit,” a reference to the serpent that guarded the oracle at Delphi.

The girl’s owners, angry at the loss of revenue from her fortune-telling, drag Paul and Silas before the local magistrates. The magistrates beat them with rods and throw them into jail.

The next day, the magistrates sent lictors, Roman police, to the jail to tell Paul and Silas that they’re free to go. Paul refuses to leave.

He tells them that he is a Roman citizen, and thus, had the right to a trial before being beaten and thrown in jail. He insists that the magistrates come to the jail and personally release them. Alarmed by Paul’s assertion of his rights as a Roman citizen, the magistrates do just that.

As William Kurz of Marquette University writes in his commentary on Acts, Paul’s assertion of his rights was “important for the reputation of the incipient Christian community as well as for the missionaries’ prospects for returning to Philippi.” In other words, he invoked his rights to protect the Philippians’ religious freedom.

Then there’s Acts 22. Following his return to Jerusalem, Paul’s opponents create a disturbance near the Temple. He is taken away by the Roman authorities to be “be interrogated under the lash.” Once again, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen.

This not only spares Paul the beating, it also ensures that he will be judged by Roman authorities and not the Jewish leaders who conspired to kill him.

As Kurz tells readers, “Paul’s recourse to the legal rights available to him sets a useful example for contemporary Christians who encounter discrimination, persecution, or even court trials, imprisonment, and martyrdom . . . [Paul] used the rights of his Roman citizenship to ensure that witness to Jesus would reach as far as Rome, the center of the empire.”

Similarly, Kurz tells us, “Citizens of democratic nations today also need to avail themselves of every political and legal remedy to fight for religious freedom and for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves: the unborn, disabled, sick, and elderly . . . As Paul did not hesitate to use Roman law to protect his Christian mission, neither should we be reluctant to use the laws of our country to protect our freedom to spread the gospel and to defend the human rights of all.”

This is why defending our rights, especially our right to religious freedom, is so important. It’s a gift God has given us to ensure that the witness to Jesus continues, both at home and abroad.



A Biblical Case for Defending Religious Freedom: Paul in Acts

Believers can take Paul as an example as we defend our religious rights for the sake of the Gospel. We are encouraged to always be ready to “make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. . . ” (1 Peter 3:15)



Find a BreakPoint radio station in your area–Click here.


Acts of the Apostles, commentary
  • William S. Kurz, Peter Williamson, Mary Healy | Baker Academic | February 2014

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Douglas Risley

    It never dawned on me that standing for religious freedom was Biblical! I’m embarrassed! Thanks, Mr. Metaxes and Breakpoint for waking me up!

    • Tom Sathre

      douglas risley, I’ve seen these self-same passages used to denigrate the “turn the other cheek” passage in Matthew’s gospel: if it was OK for Paul the Apostle to appeal to Rome, the argument goes, can’t we ordinary Christians appeal to judicial authority?

  • Phoenix1977

    Interestingly, the above argument strengthens my earlier argument about how trustworthy the bible actually is. If things happened the way they are described in the book of Acts Paul acclaimed rights he didn’t have. Yes, Roman citizens did have freedom of religion, if their religion was acknowledged by the Roman Senate. That didn’t happen for Christianity until 313 AD, after an imperial decree by Constantine the Great. So unless Paul managed to reach the respectable age of 300+ AND was still able to travel at that age he was not protected by Roman law but in fact violated it himself by adhering to a religion Rome did not acknowledge.

    • Sandra Joan Mason

      Paul wasn’t defending his right as a Christian or defending Christian rights, He was defending ( his ) right as a Roman citizen which would gave him more time to witness for Christ.

  • Joel Stucki

    I agree, provided that standing for religious freedom does not morph into a demand for political power. “Christendom” is a mockery of Christianity, and whenever the Church wields political power it does so at the expense of authenticity.

  • Allacin Morimizu

    Thank you for this helpful, clear biblical defense. One problem: I’d like to share this on Facebook, but the picture that comes up is not the one above of Paul in the classical setting, but of a scarlet book cover that seems to have nothing to do with this article. Would you fix this soon, please? Thank you.