Political Hero from the Bible: Paul

In this series we take a look at 'political heroes' from the Bible and see what lessons we can take from them in today's political arena. This latest article looks at Paul.

The story of Paul is a remarkable one. In the course of his life he was imprisoned, exiled, beaten, stoned, starved and shipwrecked no less than three times. After all this, many would have opted for a quieter life. But Paul never took the easy way out and instead embodied persistence in the face of trials. But what’s this got to do with politics? Paul’s teaching and life had deeply political implications, which can help us as we engage with politics today. Here’s how:

Paul abandoned status

Paul was an enthusiastic member of the most active party in the Jewish political world and was almost certainly the holder of a key party office. He was a kind of roving representative of the Sanhedrin (the top governing body of the Jews in the first century AD) whose primary policy was to sniff out and kill Christians.

After his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus, where Paul comes face to face with Jesus, he quickly descends the social and political pecking order. Becoming a Christian meant Paul lost his status and potential career as a leading Pharisee. This dramatic descent due to faith is perhaps why Paul emphasises the divine’s own descent to earth and subsequent execution as a slave (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Paul’s fall from power in the world’s eyes, didn’t mean he disengaged from society. In the same way God led Daniel to Babylon and Joseph to Egypt, He led Paul to Rome: the political hub of the Roman Empire. Here he engaged profoundly with the world around him at all levels of society. When he commands disciples to put on the ‘Armour of God’, this isn’t a metaphor for disciples to disengage with the world but to be spiritually prepared for going into the world.  

Paul’s citizenship was with Christ

The reason why, despite his loss of status, Paul could engage so profoundly in the world around him was that his citizenship was with Christ (Philippians 3:20-21). Paul had full assurance in his saviour to the point that shortly before his death he wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This left no room for fear because God’s love had cast out all doubt.

While as Christians engaged in politics we have little to fear from persecution or threat of death, we are sometimes limited by fear of man. This means we are afraid to speak up for what we believe in, or show up in places of power, for fear of failure or what people may say. Paul teaches us that we are to live without fear and to fix our eyes on Jesus.

Paul understood the goodness of government

Romans 13:1-7, in which Paul states that everyone should submit to the government as it is instituted by God, is oft quoted in the context of a Christian's response to politics. Some have interpreted it as Paul telling Christians to be more concerned with their relationship with God and therefore simply submissive to the state. For others it has been used as a blank cheque for governments to do as they please as they have a higher authority. For Paul, neither of these interpretations are correct.

The state has its providential place in the established order of God, there to protect his creatures since creation through civil rules. This is true for ‘pagan’ and Christian rulers. In Isaiah, God appoints Cyrus even though he doesn’t know Him. Old Testament prophets such as Daniel and Jeremiah could also recognise God working through ‘pagan’ rulers. In Romans, Paul is carrying on this understanding of God’s sovereignty over all earthly authority.

Paul is also asserting that God instituted government to carry out justice and to restrain evil. When the state fails to do this, as is inevitable in a sinful world, the Christian is to stand up for God’s truth. In Babylon, Daniel didn’t submit to unjust laws (such as bowing down to statues) and Paul himself was imprisoned and killed for his refusal to comply with Roman law.

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