“At daybreak, the court judges sent officers with the instructions, ‘Release these men.’ The jailer gave Paul the message, ‘The judges sent word that you’re free to go on your way. Congratulations! Go in peace!’ But Paul wouldn’t budge. He told the officers, ‘They beat us up in public and threw us in jail, Roman citizens in good standing! And now they want to get us out of the way on the sly without anyone knowing? Nothing doing! If they want us out of here, let them come themselves and lead us out in broad daylight.’” Acts 16:35-37 (MSG)
Is there a place for “righteous” protests against social injustice in the Bible? Aren’t we called to submit to governing authorities in Romans 13? The answer to both is yes! While we are called to honor and respect governing authorities there is a place for civil protests of injustice in Scripture. In fact, Proverbs 31:8-9 (NLT) says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”
If you track the spread of the Gospel in the book of Acts, you’ll find many examples of “righteous” civil protests that brought attention to injustice and through peaceful and respectful means sought to correct that injustice. The Apostle Paul is a great example in Acts 16:35-37. As a Jewish “outsider” in the primarily Gentile area of Philippi, Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to take his small missionary team there and share the good news about Jesus. Jewish people were in such a minority in this major city in the region of Macedonia (northern Greece today) that Paul and his team went outside the city to a riverbank on the Sabbath to see if there may be any Jews meeting there for prayer. Historians tell us that inscribed on the arches outside the city of Philippi was a prohibition against bringing any unrecognized religion into the city, so this prayer gathering was held outside the city, beside the river.
Luke tells us that a group of women gathered there opened their heart to Christ and one of them, Lydia, invited Paul and his team to stay at her home. This began a fruitful ministry as they continued to minister by the riverbank outside the city. Soon opposition to the gospel arose when Paul prayed for a young slave girl to be free of a demonic spirit that her masters were using to exploit her. She was being trafficked for their financial gain. Seeing that they had lost their source of income they stirred up a riot in the city against Paul. Listen to their accusations against Paul as they grabbed he and Silas and dragged them before the authorities in the marketplace. “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted in verse 20. “They are teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice.” (Vs. 21)
The bible tells us that a mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas and “the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten and then they were thrown into prison.” (Verses 22-23) To secure them from escaping they were locked in the inner dungeon of the jail with their feet clamped in stocks.
Talk about injustice! The accusations were false! Paul and Silas were ministering outside the city at the riverbank. The real complaint was these men could no longer exploit a young slave girl for profit. Nevertheless, I find it amazing how Paul and Silas responded to this injustice. Rather than hurling verbal abuse at them, Paul and Silas began to sing praises to God while all the other prisoners were watching and listening. No one would have expected such a response! Sometimes God may permit injustice in our lives to use it as a platform to reveal His glory! Rather than taking it personally, Paul and Silas took their injustice to God and rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus sake as Jesus had suffered for them!
About midnight there was a sudden earthquake. All the prison doors flew open and the chains of every prisoner fell off! When the jailer realized he was about to lose the prisoners he attempted to take his own life! Once again, another remarkable response by Paul and Silas. Rather than letting him go through with it, they shouted, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself. We are all here!” (Vs. 28)
What an impression these two Jews had made on all the other prisoners and the jailer. That night the jailer and his whole household put their faith in Christ and were baptized! The next day, the city officials sent word that Paul and Silas were free to leave. Here’s where it really gets interesting to me. Rather than just taking the opportunity to leave and get out of Philippi, Paul does something that seems so strange. The New Living Translation puts it like this in Acts 16:37, “But Paul replied, ‘They have publicly beaten us without a trial and put us in prison—and we are Roman citizens. So now they want us to leave secretly? Certainly not! Let them come themselves to release us!’”
The city officials realized that they had violated the civil rights of Paul and Silas. As Roman citizens, they had the right to a fair trial. In addition, it was illegal to whip a Roman citizen. The officials apologized and then begged them to leave the city. Why would Paul protest the injustice he and Silas endured, instead of just leaving quietly when he had the chance? I believe he wanted to teach these officials in Philippi a lesson and protect the recent believers in the new church he planted there from receiving the same treatment in the future. Their public protest would ensure that believers should not be persecuted, especially if they were Roman citizens.
As we face injustice in our day, how may God want us to respond as Paul and Silas did? First, take the injustice to God in prayer and worship. This gives perspective and strengthens our faith and resolve that God is still in control. Then trust God to make a way. When He does, be bold and speak the truth in love. God can turn an injustice into justice and save many lives in the process. Maybe that is why the book of Philippians that Paul would later write to this city is so full of joy!