We live in a day when the rights of Christians are under attack. The Apostle Paul experienced that also. Paul was under attack by members of the church in Corinth, and so in I Corinthians 9, he spoke openly about the fact that he had many rights. He mentions that he had rights as a free-born man under Roman citizenship laws. (Very few people in that day were truly free. Only those with Roman citizenship could travel and do as they pleased without severe restrictions.) Paul went on to say that he had rights as an apostle, that the fact that Jesus had appeared to him personally certainly gave him rights that others did not have, and that he also had a right to authority among them because he had planted their church. Finally, Paul mentioned that he had a right to be provided for by them in his ministry as he continued traveling to plant churches.
But then he told them that although all of these rights were his, he was going to insist on none of them. Why? Because, as he said in verse 12, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
This was Paul’s rule for himself: : “I will not assert my personal rights because I don’t want anything to hinder the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ.” He knew that people would go to heaven or hell, based on whether they were permitted to hear the gospel.
But there were two significant occasions when Paul insisted on asserting his rights.
On the first occasion, Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. Local governments could get away with that with the Peregrinus (the common inhabitants of the country). But Paul and Silas were Cives Romani (Roman Citizens), and no one could legally have them beaten without a trial.
The next morning, the local authorities sent word to release them from the jail, but Paul announced his Roman citizenship and refused to leave the jail until the authorities came down to the jail and escorted them out. This alarmed the magistrates, who had violated Paul and Silas’ freedom as citizens. They rushed to the jail to appease Paul and Silas, and then led them out of the jail, requesting (rather than commanding) that Paul and Silas move on from their area. Paul and Silas exercised their rights as free citizens by going back into the city to meet once more with the church and encourage them before departing for the next place on their missionary journey.
In this case, Paul insisted on his rights even though he usually did not do so. Paul wasn’t protecting himself, because he was about to leave anyway. Instead, we can see that he took this important step to protect and safeguard the rights of the local church. The magistrates would think carefully before trying again to persecute the believers in their town.
Religious freedom was so important to Paul that he made an exception to his own rule of not insisting on his rights.
In the only other example where Paul insisted on his rights, he was again beaten and again he declared that they had no right to do so. The alarmed Roman officer hurried Paul off to safety in Caesarea where the governor questioned Paul. But when the governor decided to send Paul back to Jerusalem where the Jews had tried to kill him, Paul strongly insisted on his rights when he said, “No one has the right to hand me over to them!” (Acts 25:11). He then appealed to Caesar (having been told by God to go to Rome), and so he was sent to Rome instead.
Paul never became hateful or mean-spirited in the face of opposition, but he always acted to protect his rights when the spread of the gospel was at stake!
How does this apply to you and me?
You are ministering in a culture where the people are hungrier than ever for the answers to life that are found in a relationship with Jesus. But you are living in a country whose government is more resistant to the open sharing of the gospel than ever in our history.
Think about that! Great spiritual hunger is a powerful societal force that is colliding with increasing governmental opposition to Christianity.
Like a warm front and a cold front coming together, we are beginning to feel the strong winds of change and seeing the storm clouds gathering. Secular news agencies are wringing their hands and asking themselves on camera where our country is heading.
At this critical moment, we need to stand up as strong leaders and peacefully assert our right to religious freedom. There will be reactions by some, and there will be threats. We may even get to suffer for the sake of the gospel! But even that is unlikely. If every Christian leader began to speak and to assert our right to openly live and share our faith, what would the world really do if millions of us spoke as one?
Come look with me at an unusual sight. There are two great mountains that stand facing each other, separated by a deep valley. In the valley are millions of lost people living miserable lives and trapped in their sins. They are crying out for a reason to live. They need Jesus. On one of the mountains stand the spiritual forces of hatred, shouting to the huddled people in the valley to stay where they are. The people on that mountain of hatred are also shouting across the valley to those of us on the other mountain, calling Christians names and hurling insults and threats at us. On our side of the valley is a great mountain-side filled with Christians who love Jesus. They stand restlessly, moving back and forth like a great wave on the ocean. They see the lost people in the valley below, and their hearts are moved to reach them. But in order to do so they will have to move forward, down from the mountainside and closer to the screaming ranks on the opposite mountain.
And so they hesitate, torn between self-protection and self-sacrifice.
But the days for cowering in fear are over. In fact, they should never have been started. Christians have a solemn duty to act like Jesus, who moved into opposition with courageous resolution to save us from our sins. It may cost us. But our attitude must be like the courageous and matter-of-fact response described in Revelation 13:10:
“Anyone who is destined for prison will be taken to prison. Anyone destined to die by the sword will die by the sword. This means that God’s holy people must endure patiently and remain faithful.”
You have many rights in this world. If you choose, you do not need to assert most of those rights. You may always choose to set aside your personal rights in order to advance the spread of the gospel. You may choose to sacrifice your free time and your money and almost anything else you choose to set aside.
But the one option that is not available to us is to simply choose not to assert our religious freedom rights. The New Testament makes that clear to us. If we were to do that, untold numbers of people in the valley of decision would spend eternity in hell instead of in heaven because our right to lead people to Christ would be ended here in our own country.
Brothers and sisters, stand up for our religious freedom! Stand up for it by exercising it! Assert our right to share the gospel with lost people by sharing it! And when it comes to that decisive moment, say as the Apostle Paul said, “No one has the right to take that away from me.”
“Take up the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground and having done everything, to stand.”