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This morning I want to talk about something that makes big headlines these days. Things your coworkers and peers might be talking about, and maybe have had conversations with you about. It is a subject constantly being debated in the media. It is a subject that people feel very strongly about. The topic is, as you might have guessed from our title is “Rights”.

There are all kinds of different rights. To name a few, there are:

  • gun ownership rights
  • gay rights
  • women’s right to choose
  • animal rights
  • free speech rights
  • privacy rights

Rights are granted to the citizens of this country. The countries’ founders loved their rights so much that the constitution on which this country was founded was amended to explicitly declare a number of rights its citizens are granted. It doesn’t seem like such a bad thing on the surface — after all, what’s the harm in protecting what people perceive as basic freedoms? However, as we’ll see this morning, thinking in terms of rights is something we, as believers, should think carefully about.

So let’s look at it from another perspective. What happens if we look at rights as entitlements? I don’t think it’s as much of a stretch as you might think. Let us look at one example: a citizen of the United States has the right to free speech, which is something citizens expect and depend on in this country. In that sense they know they are entitled to free speech. However, when we frame it as a matter of entitlement, it takes on all sorts of connotations and we can actually see such issues of rights from a whole new perspective. After all, at their core, “rights” are a matter of what people think they are entitled to — this country has granted its citizens an immense privilege to enjoy these rights, or entitlements.

Rights we are owed

The founders of this country believed that our Creator endowed us with “certain unalienable rights”. In light of the fact that we can view “rights” as entitlements, do we accept that we were created with a sense of entitlement? Just what “rights” exactly were we supposedly endowed with? We read:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so” (Gen 1:26-30). 

With this passage, God endowed his creation with two privileges as far as I can see:

  • Dominion of all the animals and plants and trees on the earth
  • The ability to populate and fill the earth

And later, as Paul attests in Rom 1:23-24, the Creator allowed His creation to choose the god they would serve. Whether it be pagan gods, or the god sitting on the desk in our home-office, or the god perhaps hanging on the wall above the fireplace or sitting on the entertainment stand, or the gods pictured all over the magazines at the grocery store, or the gods sitting on the store shelves at your local electronics store, or whatever activity or cause to which your undying attention is devoted. These are the gods we can choose to serve.

Our Creator, of course, hoped we would choose Him to be our God. He wanted willing subjects that would serve with His son in the coming Kingdom. He did not want to conscript anyone into His service. He instead granted to us the choice of whom or what we serve.

In my mind, however, I wouldn’t describe these privileges God granted us as rights. To me, calling them “rights” would create the association with entitlement, and the reality is, we are not entitled to them.

The one, true thing to which we are entitled — that we can expect to receive in this life — is death. From dust we were created and to dust will we return. Entitled to death though we may be, we have the privilege to choose whether or not it is our ultimate end, and the man who enabled this choice is the one who we are here to remember this morning.

Rights: a fleshly way of thinking

Whatever individual rights we, or the founders of this country, or anything else think we have or are entitled to as citizens of this county, we forfeited them when we chose to put on the name of Christ, and we forfeited them for good reason:

For one, we are to no longer identify with the country in which we reside. We are to be as strangers sojourning in a foreign land. We wait for a political order not yet established.

Secondly, arguments about these rights, as we already said, tend to keep everyone busy, taking focus away from what really is important.

The mind of the flesh wants to occupy itself constantly with matters of rights. It spends so much time talking about them, defending existing legislation that protect these rights, or writing new legislation to protect or create new rights. Simply put, to think of things in terms of “rights” is a fleshly mode of thinking.

In Christ, even though we have certain liberties, we are not to preoccupy ourselves with these ultimately trivial matters of rights — our focus is to be on understanding Scripture and developing the mind of Christ. And isn’t that why we’re here this morning — to seek to understand Scripture and help us to develop the mind of Christ by remembering his life and sacrifice?

Examining our rights as disciples in Christ

In ecclesial life, we must be careful about using whatever rights we may think we have, whether in Christ or otherwise. The brethren at Corinth thought they had all sorts of rights. Paul had to write them a letter to correct their way of thinking. What were some of the rights they thought they had?

They thought they had…

The right to choose which apostle they followed, that they could choose their own leader (1Cor 3:4-7)

The right to slander Paul and speak evil against him, that they could speak however they wanted (1Cor 4:5)

The right to be sexually immoral and to tolerate sexual immorality (1Cor 5:1)

The right to take their brother to court (1Cor 6:1-8)

But when Paul wrote them to them, he told them they did not have…

The right to choose their own leader (1Cor 1:13, 24). He says that Christ was not divided, therefore neither should be the body. All who are called are answerable to one leader and that is Christ. So we can’t choose our own leader.

The right to slander Paul and speak evil against him (1Cor 4:19-20). When he returns, Christ isn’t going to recognize the speech of those who are arrogant, puffed up, or who have spoken things without regard to or consideration of heavenly principles. So we can’t say whatever we want to say.

The right to be sexually immoral and to tolerate sexual immorality (1Cor 5:1). Speaking of those engaged in sexual immorality, Paul says to remove the person from them, making the comparison of casting out a little leaven, lest it should leaven the whole lump. So we can’t be sexually immoral and free with our bodies in that regard.

The right to take their brother to court (1Cor 6:1-8). Paul doesn’t mince words on this point, saying this is utterly a fault, that it is completely wrong for brethren to try each other in a court of law. So we don’t have the right to take our brethren to court.

Are you starting to get the picture? Whatever rights we think we have, we probably don’t.

Our rights’ impact on brethren

1Cor 9 is an account of Paul surrendering his rights. Paul knew that under the Law of Moses he had rights. In fact, the law outlined all kinds of rights and he also knew there were liberties in Christ he could take advantage of. He even made the case that because he was a sower of spiritual food, he was entitled to reap material benefit.

He could have gone the opposite direction and made that chapter a declaration of his rights, declaring what he was entitled to, being an apostle. But he went the other way. Precisely because he was in Christ, he did not make the chapter about affirming his rights. He chose not to exercise those rights — “nevertheless,” Paul says, “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” (1Cor 9:12, ESV) — this statement tells us the attitude Paul had toward his own rights. He viewed them as an obstacle to his brethren.

He even said as much when he cautioned the brethren of Corinth about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1Cor 8:9). It was something they had the right to do; they could eat the meat freely without sinning. But the risk in exercising this right was that it could become a stumbling block to brethren of lesser faith and understanding. And that’s the danger in expressing things in terms of it being a right of ours. It gives us a sense of being entitled, and feeling that we are entitled to something, can lead us to act without regard for others.

By way of example — we may feel we have the right:

To watch movies or TV shows with no redeeming value

To spend significant amounts of time in activities that provide no spiritual value

To spend time with people of questionable moral character

It is within our freedom in Christ to do all of those things. But Paul writes,

“ ‘All things are lawful’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1Cor 10:23-24, ESV). 

So we must weigh the benefit – or lack thereof – to our brethren when applying such liberties. Paul elaborates in Romans 14, exhorting us to “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (vs. 13, ESV). In exercising a right we believe we have in Christ, we may be creating a problem for our brother.

We mentioned that Paul had all kinds of rights which he surrendered. Paul said that if anyone was entitled to confidence in the flesh because of the rights they had, it was him. He writes:

“For we are the circumcision, which worship god in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;” (Phil 3:3-10). 

He wasn’t in it for the rights. If ever there was a believer who could take advantage of their rights, it would have been Paul. What I want to key in here is that Paul counted all these rights, all these privileges, as meaningless.

Christ and rights

Jesus was himself no stranger to the subject of rights. He was questioned by the men of his day who demanded to know by what power — or by what right — he had to teach and to heal (Matt 21:23).

They were incensed and perhaps felt as though Jesus, by preaching and performing miracles, was trampling on their rights and thus demanded of him what right he had to do so. But we know by what authority he had the right to teach and to heal. It was the same authority he could have appealed to the night before his crucifixion when a great multitude came with swords and clubs, led by the chief priests and elders.

It was fully within Jesus’ rights as the son of God to summon to his aid more than 12 legions of angels (Matt 26:47, 53). If we think about the situation, if ever there was a time in Jesus’ life for him to exercise his rights, it would have been at this moment. Here when he was to be unjustly seized and tried before a people that would not rest until he was dead.

Jesus didn’t summon more than 12 legions of angels that night

He didn’t exercise his right, he didn’t make a stand

We will never be in the situation Christ was in that night. Our need for our Father’s aid will never be greater than it was for Christ that night. How then can we ever find just cause to brandish our rights in our own lives?

This morning our exhortation is to lay down our rights as we follow the example of the one who for us laid down his rights — until he come whose right it is (Ezek 21:27).

Dan Langston (Moorestown, NJ)

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