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CITIZENSHIP (Gr. politeuma, commonwealth). In the NT the word for citizen often means nothing more than the inhabitant of a country (Luke.15.15; Luke.19.14). Among the ancient Jews emphasis was placed on Israel as a religious organization, not on relationship to city and state. The good citizen was the good Israelite, one who followed not just civil law but religious law. Non-Israelites had the same protection of the law as native Israelites, but they were required not to perform acts hurting the religious feelings of the people. The advantage of a Jew over a Gentile was thus strictly spiritual. He was a member of the theocracy.

Among the Romans, citizenship brought the right to be considered equal to natives of the city of Rome. Emperors sometimes granted it to whole provinces and cities, and also to single individuals for services rendered to the state or to the imperial family, or even for a certain sum of money. Roman citizens were exempted from shameful punishments, such as scourging and crucifixion, and they had the right of appeal to the emperor with certain limitations.

Paul says he had become a Roman citizen by birth. Either his father or some other ancestor had acquired the right and had transmitted it to his son. He was proud of his Roman citizenship and when occasion demanded, availed himself of his rights. When writing to the Philippians, who were members of a Roman colony and therefore Roman citizens, Paul emphasized that Christians are citizens of a heavenly commonwealth and ought to live accordingly (Phil.1.27; Phil.3.20).——SB

The citizen had certain rights (iura), privileges (honores), and duties (munera) and these constituted its early political importance, an importance which eroded with the years and the coming of the principate. The ius provocationis (the appellatio, or appeal to Caesar) remained and was exploited by Paul. Among the duties was originally munus militare, or the obligation to serve in the army, but this disappeared. The vote or franchise (ius suffragii) became illusory under the principate. Senatorial honores could be expected only by the most eminent of provincial citizens. Certain civil rights of no mean value remained. The magistrates of Philippi were clearly alarmed to discover that they had imprisoned Rom. citizens without proper trial, and the centurion’s warning to Lysias revealed the serious concern in which the inviolability of a citizen was held. The same stories reveal the emerging importance of Rom. citizenship. In the six references involved, the word “Roman” is used for “Roman citizen,” and it is clear that the status was beginning to take shape as a symbol of imperial unity (Acts 16:37, 39; 22:25-27, 29).

The abstract term politeia occurred only in Lysias’ remark (22:28), but Paul uses the term politeuma for the Church’s spiritual citizenship or “commonwealth” (Phil 3:20), significantly applied to Philippi, a Rom. colony, with its provincial élite of citizenry. He exhorted the same people to “live as citizens worthy of the gospel” (1:27, original translation), using the cognate verb (politeuesthe).


A. H. J. Greenidge, Roman Public Life (1896), 132-140; A. N. Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship (1939).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

sit’-i-zen-ship: All the words in use connected with this subject are derived from polis, "city."

1. Philological:

These words, with the meanings which they have in the Bible, are the nouns, polites, "citizen"; politeia, "citizenship"; politeuma, "commonwealth"; sumpolites, "fellow-citizen"; and the verb, politeuo, "to behave as a citizen." Each will be considered more fully in its proper place.

2. Civil:

(1) The word for citizen is sometimes used to indicate little if anything more than the inhabitant of a city or country. "The citizens of that country" (Lu 15:15); "His citizens hated him" (Lu 19:14). Also the quotation from the Septuagint, "They shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen" (Heb 8:11; compare Jer 31:34). So also in the Apocrypha (2 Macc 4:50; 5:6; 9:19).

(2) Roman citizenship.--This is of especial interest to the Bible student because of the apostle Paul’s relation to it. It was one of his qualifications as the apostle to the Gentiles. Luke shows him in Ac as a Roman citizen, who, though a Jew and Christian receives, for the most part, justice and courtesy from the Roman officials, and more than once successfully claims its privileges. He himself declares that he was a citizen of Tarsus (Ac 21:39). He was not only born in that city but had a citizen’s rights in it.

See Paul; Tarsus.

How then had Paul, a Jew, acquired this valued dignity? He himself tells us. In contrast to the parvenu citizenship of the chief captain, who seems to have thought that Paul also must have purchased it, though apparently too poor, Paul quietly, says, "But I was free born" (King James Versions; "a Roman born" the Revised Version (British and American), Ac 22:28). Thus either Paul’s father or some other ancestor had acquired the right and had transmitted it to the son.

3. Metaphorical and Spiritual:

What more natural than that Paul should sometimes use this civic privilege to illustrate spiritual truths? He does so a number of times. Before the Sanhedrin he says, in the words of our English Versions, "I have lived before God in all good conscience" (Ac 23:1). But this translation does not bring out the sense. Paul uses a noticeable word, politeuo, "to live as a citizen." He adds, "to God" (to Theo). That is to say, he had lived conscientiously as God’s citizen, as a member of God’s commonwealth. The day before, by appealing to his Roman citizenship, he had saved himself from ignominious whipping, and now what more natural than that he should declare that he had been true to his citizenship in a higher state? What was this higher commonwealth in which he has enjoyed the rights and performed the duties of a citizen? What but theocracy of his fathers, the ancient church, of which the Sanhedrin was still the ostensible representative, but which was really continued in the kingdom of Christ without the national restrictions of the older one? Thus Paul does not mean to say simply, "I have lived conscientiously before God," but "I have lived as a citizen to God, of the body of which He is the immediate Sovereign." He had lived theocratically as a faithful member of the Jewish church, from which his enemies claimed he was an apostate. Thus Paul’s conception was a kind of blending of two ideas or feelings, one of which came from the old theocracy, and the other from his Roman citizenship.

Later, writing from Rome itself to the Philippians, who were proud of their own citizenship as members of a colonia, a reproduction on a small scale of the parent commonwealth, where he had once successfully maintained his own Roman rights, Paul forcibly brings out the idea that Christians are citizens of a heavenly commonwealth, urging them to live worthy of such honor (Php 1:27 margin).

A similar thought is brought out when he says, "For our commonwealth (politeuma) is in heaven" (Php 3:20 margin). The state to which we belong is heaven. Though absent in body from the heavenly commonwealth, as was Paul from Rome when he asserted his rights, believers still enjoy its civic privileges and protections; sojourners upon earth, citizens of heaven. The Old Testament conception, as in Isa 60-62, would easily lend itself to this idea, which appears in Heb 11:10,16; 12:22-24; 13:14; Ga 4:26, and possibly in Re 21.

See also ROME.