A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Paul and Silas Enduring Abuse?

I don’t know if anyone else was hit with this, but I sure was. The following account was used to explain that the Apostles submitted to abuse even when they had a way out.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. (Acts 16:25-29 ESV)

The interpretation here was that even though there was a way out, Paul and Silas stuck around in order to honor God. I want to give my reasons why I think this is a poor application of this passage.

First off, this example stands in contrast to other accounts in acts where the Apostles did, in fact, flee persecution:

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12:6-11 ESV)

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. (Acts 9:23-25 ESV)

Second, this is historical narrative so we should be very careful extracting principles. As already pointed out the Apostles were not consistent in fleeing or sticking around when they had the option of freedom. What we see in all cases is that they suffered in joy and accepted their torture when they could not escape it, but this is the only case I know of where they had a chance to avoid suffering and instead chose to remain.

Third, I’m not even certain Paul and Silas were intending to stick around and continue being abused. From the moment the earthquake comes it appears that Paul is completely in control of the situation. Read the following, does he sound like a victim?

But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. (Acts 16:35-39 ESV)

It sounds to me that Paul and Silas were more intent on seeing justice done and misdeeds brought to light than they were on submitting to further abuse. How much knowledge did Paul have of what was going with the magistrates? Who knows? It is pretty clear, though, that the supernatural was involved and Paul was comfortable taking control of the situation. And this last point makes this completely inapplicable to abuse situations. The victim remaining in an abusive situation is not in control.

Now at this point, you might be wondering about the jailer who is in many ways the focal point of this passage. I purposefully did not address the jailer because I have a second entry dedicated to discussing his salvation; however, before we leave this topic we should note that Paul was always willing to suffer for the Gospel, evidenced over and over again in Acts. When people were unwilling to hear and became violent he fled, but when their were hearts open to the Gospel he endured at any cost to himself. I only want to caution that we must not make the mistake of believing all abusers are like the jailer and will repent when they see an abused person choose not to leave.

8 Comments

  1. JeffS – Yes, Paul was intent on putting these guys who had wrongly punished them on the spot. In addition, they had some pretty interesting verifications from God that He was protecting them: a personalized earthquake! Should an angel come down and effect something like that for an abuse victim, yes, she or he just might choose to stay put and see what else develops! Bring on the earthquake, then we might talk about staying in a particular situation.

    • Jeff S

      I just had an image of a man intimidating his wife and the earth starts shaking. I’d guess he might think twice about his next move,

  2. we must not make the mistake of believing all abusers are like the jailer and will repent when they see an abused person choose not to leave.

    Amen!
    If abusers repented when they noticed that their victims were choosing not to leave, abuse would not be a problem. Mild coercive control in a marriage would never escalate to more serious abuse, because the abusers would see that their victims haven’t chosen to leave, so they would repent and never abuse again.
    …. what a Pollyanna dream…

  3. Bethany

    Wonderful post. This passage has not yet been used on me, but thanks to you I now have the ammo I need if it dose get used on my or anyone I know in the future. Thank you :)

  4. Still scared

    I love the last passage you brought up about demanding justice. I started wondering a few months ago why I would get so upset when I saw justice not done, things pushed under the rug, etc. i realized it must have been deep down( unconsciously) I realized I wasn’t getting justice so was speaking up for all people who I saw that deserved justice.

  5. Anonymous

    You mention here that because it is “historical narrative”, we need to be careful about taking principles from it. Can you please explain and tell how we are to gather principles from historical narrative passages?

    • Jeff S

      Sure! What I mean is that we have certain type of scripture like the epistles that contain many clearly spelled out principles. In narratives like Acts we have to use a lot more inference when drawing principles, though we certainly can and should. For example, in this passage Paul stays in prison though he might go free. We don’t know why he did this. He may have had special revelation, it may be that he recognized the heart of the guard, it may be because he wanted to confront the magistrates. A lot of times people want to make assumptions that because someone behaved a certain way in the Bible, we must do likewise, but often we don’t know all of the surrounding details of why a person did what they did. The primary purpose of Acts is to tell us the history of the early church and the work of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, the epistles contain a lot of instruction and often give context to that instruction (responding to a statment in a letter received, for example), so it is much easier to reliably draw the correct principles.

      But when I say we need to be careful, I do not mean we shouldn’t do it– we just have to recognize what the purpose of the account is (to tell history) and factor that in to our understanding.

  6. joepote01

    Good post, Jeff!

    Yes, Paul and Silas stayed.

    However, they did NOT stay in an abusive situation. The abuse stopped with the earthquake.

    They did not stay for further abuse. They stayed to see the power of God and to see that justice was carried out.

    Thanks for sharing!

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