Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Apostle Paul: A Revolutionary Conservative

William Edgar


The view that the apostle Paul was a social conservative makes sense when reading a number of passages from his writings. One that comes readily to mind is Romans 13, where he urges everyone to be subject to the governing authorities because they have been appointed by God. Resisting those magistrates amounts to resisting God’s social order. Other passages supporting a similar message could be cited. To the Corinthians, Paul counsels staying within the calling God has assigned. Whatever one’s condition-- uncircumcised, unmarried, a slave-- “there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

According to this interpretation, Paul validates the Roman Empire as a legitimate mode of government, including its various institutions. When he affirms the need to pay taxes and “revenue to whom revenue is owed,” he is endorsing one of the Hellenistic Jewish traditions which has been in place since the return from exile: learn to live within the strictures of an occupying force, because for now this is God’s order.

In the matter of slavery, the apostle condemns trafficking as an abomination (1 Timothy 1:10), and he even tells enslaved Corinthians that if they can gain their freedom, they should. But these don’t appear to be the ingredients for social change, let alone for a revolutionary version of the Christian faith. Indeed, throughout his letters, Paul pleads not for emancipation, but for decent relations between slaves and their masters (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 4:1). He spends the entirety of one of his letters admonishing a believing slave owner to receive his returning fugitive slave as a brother, but still a slave (Philemon).

Were the many who justified slavery and other status quo institutions right to claim Paul for their views? Have they fairly represented the apostle? Further, how does their conservative Paul square with so many of his radical statements about change, about leaving the past behind, about entering a new community where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 4:28)? To the Philippians, he declares that Christ has replaced any kind of identity markers from his past. For Paul, circumcision on the eighth day, being of the tribe of Benjamin within the people of Israel, a Hebrew and a zealous Pharisee, all these are but “rubbish” compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:4-8). Is this still a part of his putative conservatism?

Citizenship in a Heavenly and Civic Commonwealth

One typical answer to this is that Paul makes a radical separation between the church and the rest of life. This view would hold that our citizenship is in heaven, and so our Christian duty now is to wait for our final transformation (Philippians 3:20). Any ethical implications of this heavenly citizenship would apply only to private life, or to the life of the believing community. Thus, when Paul tells his readers to “look to the interests of others,” he is addressing believers in their church life (2:4). Sisters such as Euodia and Syntyche, and others whose names are in the book of life must learn to “agree in the Lord” (4:2-3). But does this mean that others, who are not registered in the book, don’t have to practice teamwork?

Does Paul really mean for us to accept the norms of the Roman Empire and then simply try our best to live a high Christian ethic within the community? Are there no implications for transforming society? Were the Abolitionists wrong to see in his underlying presuppositions the dynamics of emancipation?

Here is an important clue. The word Paul uses for “citizenship” is politeuma, a statement of primary allegiance (3:20). The politeuma is a commonwealth. He had actually introduced the verbal form politeuomai earlier in the letter (1:27 – which should read, “[Regardless of my circumstance,] what really matters is that you behave as citizens of heaven.”)[1] It may not sound like it on the surface, but Paul is appealing to the Philippians’ sense of civic duty. Although they know the pride and responsibility attached to living in a Roman colony, they have a higher allegiance, one that calls them to faithful conduct within the colony and for the sake of the colony. “The term politeuesthe itself reminds us that Christian responsibility is not a transient affair but a permanent obligation.”[2] To be sure, this will mean tenacity in the face of persecution. It will mean being examples to the world (lights in a twisted generation). But it will not mean withdrawal into the tribe.

Paul is actually using political language. As citizens of the heavenly commonwealth, the Philippians are to act accordingly in the civic commonwealth. Dare we say this is transformative social action? Christian ethics are never merely private, but always affect the larger setting. When he asks his readers to “approve what is excellent,” and to enact the “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” he is hardly restricting such comportment to individual life or to church life (1:9-10). Just as his own incarceration affected the entire imperial guard, so his readers should be engaged in the same conflict, with the same transformative results (1:13; 1:30). While it may be true that Paul does not draw a direct connection between our belonging to the heavenly commonwealth and a list of obligations that are incumbent upon us, he builds his case on the character of hope that citizenship in heaven provides. (cf. 1 John 3:3; Romans 13:11-12; 1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Galatians 6:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6).[3] As we hope in Christ, we see his power beginning to subject all things to himself (3:21; cf. Hebrews 2:6-8).

Revolution as Renovation of Human Life

Once we see that the Christian ethic is not limited to the individual or to the church, we realize that Paul is not a typical social conservative. He is a revolutionary, not in the classic sense (exemplified in the French or Russian Revolutions), but as an advocate for change, gradual but radical change, across the entire social fabric. Unlike some Christians today, he does not commend paying taxes just so they will leave us alone, but because this is a part of the larger, long-term strategy to change society. Today, too many believers are hoping simply for the right to exercise their religious freedom. Indeed, upholding religious freedom for all is a precious American value. But it falls short of all that God would have us to do here on earth: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Consider the last part of Philippians, where Paul advocates the virtues-- whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and so on (4:8). He does say to think upon these things (logizomai), but this word means more than to know the virtues intellectually. It means to consider in view of acting upon them. In the next verse, he tells the readers to practice what they have learned (v. 9). While these virtues have some affinities with Greco-Roman ethics, Paul is certainly not telling his readers to act like good Romans. The higher allegiance to the heavenly commonwealth means these virtues are to be practiced far more faithfully and authentically, in every kind of setting, including the public square. They are life-changing, wherever life is lived.


Questions for Reflection:

1.  How do Christians often settle for less than a gospel strategy of transformation?

2.  Consider the word “revolutionary.” How does it apply to the renovation of human life? 

3.  How does heavenly citizenship connect with civic virtues?


- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.


[1] Moisés Silva, Philippians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, second edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005, p. 80.

[2] Ibid., 81.

[3] Ibid., 184.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”