The Christian View of Rights

In the last several weeks I ran across several comments by well-meaning Christians concerning the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the whole concept of political and legal rights in general. The authors of the comments argued that, as Christians, we are not supposed to argue for human rights; such argument, in their view was taking the focus away from God and placing it on us as men. We have no rights as humans, the argument ran, we have only obligations to God, and our obligation to God is to witness to His glory and His Gospel. When we insist on our political and legal rights, our pride gets in the way, and God is not glorified, neither is His Gospel proclaimed. Therefore, one of the writers said, the Declaration of Independence was not a Christian document, because it was based on a false concept – our rights given to us by our Creator – whereas a Christian document won’t even mention rights but only give testimony to the glory of God.

Now, I won’t argue that the Declaration of Independence is necessarily a Christian document; it certainly is a product of a Christian culture, containing elements that can not be found in any other culture or religion but Christianity, but it is far from I would consider a full-fledged Christian document. But not because of the language of rights. To the contrary, I argue that the language of rights is the most Christian element in the Declaration. I also argue that while the argument above comes from well-meaning Christians, it is a fallacious argument. Rights, political and legal, not only have place in our Christian worldview, they are by necessity an inseparable part of our Christian heritage and of our Christian faith and testimony. Not only rights do not take away from God’s glory and His Gospel, they are a major part of that glory and of His Gospel. A Christian can not witness for God unless he also witnesses for human rights, because human rights are part of the Gospel of Christ. While the argument against rights may have some resemblance to humility and piety, it in fact is a fallacious argument with no Biblical foundation.

To start with, the opposite of rights is not humility, obedience, witness, the Gospel, or God’s glory. Neither of these things reject our rights, and neither of these things is impaired or diminished by the establishment of human rights in the society. The opposite of rights is wrongs. That means, when a society rejects rights, it establishes the legality of wrongs. When wrongs are legal, this is called injustice. We know a society is unjust when it treats its weaker members – the orphan, the widow, and the stranger – wrongly, not according to the righteousness of the Law of God, but according to the false righteousness of the laws of men. A culture where might makes right is a culture of wrongs, of injustice.

It is true that the orthodox Christian doctrine rejects any claims of man towards God. Man has no worth before God, and has nothing to claim when he faces God. Even if Adam and Eve had obeyed God, and if there was no original sin imputed to the generations after them; and even if men did not sin and fall short of the glory of God, they will still remain creatures, wholly dependent on their Creator, and His property by the virtue of being created by Him. Man can not deserve his place before his Creator even if he was perfectly righteous and never committed a single sin. And now, after mankind has sunken deep into sin, man has even less claims on God, having broken God’s Law and deserving only death.

So we as Christians submit to God and let His will control our life. But does that mean we are without rights before God? No, it doesn’t. To claims so would be to claim there is injustice in God. Our rights, indeed, are not in anything we are or can bring to the table; our rights before God are in His very Person, Who is Righteousness and Justice Himself. We do not claim rights before God because there is no need for it: God is Righteousness Himself, and He will always treat us in the most right way. Our claims can not change this fact, and in fact, our claims before God can only lead us to substitute our self-righteousness for His Righteousness. Our testimony of God is not based on His omnipotence to do as He pleases; it is based on His nature to act according to His nature, which is righteous and just. And that’s why in the First Table of the Decalogue – the Commandments that regulate the relation of man to God – the obligations are entirely on the man; God is not expected, by His very nature, to act unrighteously toward man; and therefore man is protected from wrongs by the very nature of God.

But whether one agrees with the concept of our “rights” before God implied in God’s righteousness, the more important part of the argument is our rights according to the Second Table of the Decalogue – the Commandments that regulate our relation to our fellow man. It is there where the Christian doctrine of rights has created a true revolution in culture, a revolution that has transformed the political, legal, economic, and relational realities of Christendom and has made its culture completely different from both older pagan societies it replaced, and modern non-Christian societies.

Unlike God, we do not expect our fellow men to always treat us with righteousness and justice. We all know it because every one of us is also a party to the interpersonal and inter-institutional relationships in the society; and we know very well how we fall short of any ideal of perfection when it comes to loving our neighbor. We carry in ourselves the consequences of our sin and alienation from God. We hate, we lie, we cheat, we harm our neighbor, we steal, we envy, we murder, we despise, and we are negligent to the needs of our neighbors. Given the opportunity, we will take advantage of our neighbor’s distress and poverty and deprive them of the little they have. We devise legal systems and then we use them to our own advantage. In short, in the area of human relationships, if left to ourselves, we will violate every single precepts of the Law of God; we will turn into moral monsters.

The Decalogue, and its case application, the Law of God, are given to us to “restrain our madness,” to quote John Calvin. The Second Table of the Law sets the obligations of man to his fellow men by limiting his behavior and also enjoining certain acts of righteousness, justice, mercy, and kindness that set the standard for our behavior, and are also a testimony to God’s character.

What is important to understand here is that every Commandment in the Second Table – and the case laws for its application – has two parties involved: a human and another human. The Commandments decree obligations for each one of them; and the obligation for each one of the parties is a right for the other party. “Do not murder,” says the Sixth Commandment, and this restraint on the murderous nature of the sinful man immediately establishes the right for every man to be secure from assault, kidnapping, insult. “Do not commit adultery” establishes the right of every person to be secure in their most important human covenant, the family. “Do not steal” establishes the right of a person to be secure in their possession of lawfully acquired property; etc., etc. Every commandment that establishes an obligation on man, by default establishes a right for his fellow men to be treated justly. The Law of God, not limited to the Ten Commandments, has specific applications of the Commandments, where every man is obligated to help their brothers in times of distress and poverty. (An example is Deuteronomy 22:4: Your neighbor has the right to your help when he needs it in time of trouble, just as you have the right to his.)

These Commandments and laws are even more important when an individual is confronted by an institution – the church or the state – or when one institution is confronted by another institution. Many of the case laws relate to the powerful of the day, those who for one reason or another – whether economic, legal, or political – are in a position to commit injustice without fear of reprisal. When a person has the state on their side, their power to inflict harm and commit injustice can be unlimited. And yet, God doesn’t change His commandments and laws to suit those in power. Individuals and families under the Law of God retain their rights to be secure from wrongs in the hands of those who have the legal use of the sword. The obligation outlined in the Commandments and in the case laws apply to the state and the church as much as they apply to the individual and the family. And these obligations on the civil magistrate and the church minister to do righteousness and justice are the basis of our Christian theory of rights.

No other religion has this concept. It is no coincidence that Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and many other historical documents establishing the rights of the individuals versus the state have originated in the Christian world. Only in the Christian worldview we have the individual rights protected by an equal obligation on all – individuals and institutions alike – under God. Other religions or philosophies don’t have such a concept. Atheism, Marxism, evolutionism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, natural law, etc., have no such concept; for some of them the individual doesn’t exist as a notion at all; for others, there are no absolute rules binding equally on all men and their institutions. The uniqueness of Christianity when it comes to legal and political theory is in this double principle of social order: equal obligations on all under God, and therefore equal rights of all versus other people and institutions.

Hence my statement above that the language of rights in the Declaration of Independence is the most Christian part of it. Not necessarily the specific rights listed (I would prefer the original formula of Property to Pursuit of Happiness) but the very idea that men have irrevocable rights, under their Creator.

The Throne of God is established on the foundation of Righteousness and Justice. We live righteous lives toward God, and we treat our neighbor justly. When one of these is lacking, our testimony is truncated. The Gospel is not only about going to heaven, and it is not only about living a righteous life; the Gospel includes justice, including social justice according to the Law of God (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

Therefore, it is impossible for us to bear witness for God while excluding the idea of rights. When we reject the notion of rights, we by default establish the legitimacy of injustice; we declare that we as Christians care nothing about the protection of the weak from the injustice of the powerful, and we care nothing for the obligations God has put on all members of our society. When rights are removed from our testimony, then there is no moral compass for any aspect of our society, and especially – and most importantly – for the areas of civil government and justice. When Christians remain silent in these areas, the result is tyranny. And how does tyranny and injustice bear witness to God?

So, the above argument against rights is fallacious; it may have an appearance of humility and selflessness but in reality it is an argument in favor of injustice and lawlessness. As Christians, more than any other group in the society, we must proclaim the rights of all people under their Creator against the tyranny of the state. Our testimony will be truncated if we fail to uphold the standards for righteousness and justice revealed in the Word of God; our proclamation of the Gospel can not omit these standards. To omit them will be to remain silent about an important part of God’s revelation to the world. We must stand up to the powerful of the day and declare the rights of the weak to be secure in their life, liberty, and property. If we refuse to do it, limiting our Gospel to a few spiritualized concepts only, we will in fact side with God’s enemies against God.

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