Of Christians And Rights

One of the crucial questions in our current moment of governmental overreaches has to do with how we understand our rights as Christians living in this world. Many of our current discussions evidence a great misunderstanding of our calling as believers in this world in times when the culture or governing authorities begin to oppose us. For some, if social media evidences at all the current trajectory of Christian thought, their sole purpose in our turbulent times seems to be to stand up for their rights against governmental overreach.

Little reflection appears to be given to the New Testament data in how the apostles thought when they faced the trampling of their rights in this world. There are, of course, rights that are afforded to the people by the constitutional laws of the governing authorities, but all Christians should recognize that the freedoms we have and the rights that we enjoy in this life are under God’s sovereign discretion.

We were told way back in the Old Testament that governing authorities have the propensity to trample rights and take from the people (I Sam. 8). But when someone becomes a Christian, there is a distinctive perspective one is to have in how rights are used in this world. When we came to Christ, we surrendered all of our rights to Christ who sovereignly governs our earthly lives for a much greater end than our own happiness. Christ may certainly give us to enjoy earthly rights in our time on this earth, or he may, in his providence, allow them to be taken from us for a cause that is much greater than us. The question is how the biblically inspired writers handled themselves when their rights were taken.

On the Loss of Rights

Of great importance to this question is something that is said in Hebrews 10:34: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Notice carefully how these believers were commended for their faith by joyfully accepting the confiscation of their earthly belongings. I confess, this is a hard statement for me to read. These early Christians were facing unlawful seizure of their property due to official actions by magistrates for the reason that they were Christians. Yet, they joyfully accepted such abuse? Read more»

Chris Gordon | “Paul and His Roman Constitutional Rights” | December 17, 2021

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20 comments

  1. Dear Sir,
    Your explanation “Of Christians and Rights” makes me wonder if you indeed think the founding of America was therefore unbiblical? I recall many pastors that fought in the Revolutionary War against an earthly power that usurped the rights of the Colonists.

    • Jim,

      You’re responding to a quotation from Chris Gordon. I didn’t write this post.

      That said, I agree with Christ but I don’t think it follows from what he said that the founding of the American Republic was illegitimate. To be sure, taking up arms against the magistrate, even a tyrant, is no small thing. Our Reformed fathers gave a lot of thought to this question.

      Theodore Beza (d. 1605) wrote a treatise on it as did others. I think our Founders were right but they were not like a mob at the capital. They worked out a careful justification (following Calvin; see Institutes 4.20) of resistance to tyrants by “lesser magistrates.” The American Republic was formed by a congress. That Congress was a legitimate representative assembly with law-making powers.

      Some resources on this:

      1. In Order for Leviathan to Flourish He Must First Kill Natural Law
      2. Malthus or Althusius? An Introduction To A Pioneering Reformed Social Theorist
      3. Resources On Natural Law
      4. Resources On The Twofold Kingdom
      • Thank you for your response. I agree wholeheartedly that taking up arms against a tyrant is no small thing.

    • I wonder why one might feel the need to justify the American revolution as a biblical warranted revolution.

      I am comfortable saying that those who fought in the revolution were thoughtful men who may or may not have erred. Not being an expert on colonial America, I cannot say one way or another.

      I do find it interesting though that one might feel that somehow the founding of the United States must be biblical. There seems to be a need to make the founding a Christian founding.

      • Daniel,

        Thanks for this. This is a good point. The founders didn’t justify the Revolution on biblical grounds (though I suppose some figures did) as much as they did on natural law grounds. To wit: the Declaration.

  2. Chris Gordon’s argument is a difficult one to make. The Apostle Paul did not live in a representative republic. Neither did Theodore Beza. There is a great deal of distance between Paul, Beza and Christians living in 21st century America.

    • Paul,

      I’m uncomfortable with this response as it almost carves out the American Republic as so unique that the NT examples can no longer speak to us. I don’t think this was your intent but that is how some could read your comment. Surely, we American Christians can learn from Paul’s example in Acts 16 just as we must learn from Romans 13. It’s not as if we may say to ourselves, “Well, Paul wrote about Caesar in Romans 13 and we have an elected president and elected representatives so it does not really apply directly.” You can’t possibly be implying that, can you?

      As to how to apply Acts 16, I responded at length to Jim on this.

  3. Daniel, Chris Gordon’s argument seem to promote a position of pacifism as the only option for Christians. I think that scope is too narrow. Calvin’s initial position on persecution was similar. But his position changed after he saw first hand the suffering of his brethren. Our great father in the faith, Augustine, developed “Just War Theory”. My concern is not to “make us a Christian nation” by finding some divine call that warranted revolution. That position would lead to a close minded “America-right or wrong” position. Rather, it is to take the full council of scripture and apply it to all areas of life. On a personal level, can I seek justice if I have been wronged? Without the administration of justice our society will quickly slip into anarchy. On a national level, without the moral ability to conduct offensive operations against evil, we would all be speaking German now.

    • Jim,

      As the late glimmer of Christendom fades in the West we need to think and pray carefully about how we respond. The allegation of “pacifism” is not helpful especially when you have not engaged Chris’ arguments. Please read Acts 16:19–40. Was Paul a pacifist?

      Pacificism is the wrong category. I get the same sort of pushback from an essay I published here on the HB:

      Paul, Philippi, And Mask Mandates

      Paul prioritized his mission over his civil rights. In that post (and in the comments) I explained Paul’s standing as a citizen and his rights under Roman law. He clearly chose to suffer indignity at the hands of the Philippian city authorities, even though he had the right, under Roman law, to be treated very differently. He chose to suffer for the sake of Christ, his gospel, and his church. He chose to suffer as the means of advancing the gospel and the church in Philippi.

      Do you know who else had rights but who set them aside for the sake of our salvation? God the Son incarnate. This is why Paul wrote what he did in Philippians 2. “Who being in nature God…”. He chose to pour himself (not he deity but his life) out like drink offering for our sakes. Paul says, “have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.”

      Here is where understanding the “twofold kingdom” is so important. I learned it from the pacifist John Calvin. We live in two spheres simultaneously. We are constantly balancing our responsibilities in both spheres. Paul models this wonderfully. After suffering he asserted his rights a Roman citizen. He modeled Christ for the Philippians. He waited, knowing how they would respond when he informed them of his Roman citizenship. He knew that they would know he suffered voluntarily, for the sake of Christ. He set an example for the church in Philippi. He set an example for Euodia and Syntache (almost certainly founding members, perhaps they were among the ladies he met at the river), with whom he would later remonstrate. They needed to re-learn to be willing to set aside their “rights” for the sake of the Kingdom and the Christ.

      There may come a time when the government forces our hand and we must assert our natural, God-given rights once again. Certainly Christians should be involved in government and in civil life. We should reason with people about civil life, about justice, about living together peacefully but, there are times when, for the sake of Christ and his gospel, when we are in a state of confession, we might do better to choose to suffer.

      Were the early Christians, who were tortured and martyred for the sake of Christ “pacifists”? Did they fail to do their duty? There were insurrection movements in the 2nd century but they were not populated with Christians. They were populated by Jews who sought to restore the glory of Herod et al. In one such movement, some Christians were martyred by Jewish insurrectionists. The “weakness” of the Christians disgusted the Romans, who only understood “power” and conquest.

      As we face a rising neo-paganism on both the right and the left, we Christians had better get used to being despised for the sake of Christ because it is going to happen.

  4. Paul and Jim,

    I’m sorry but you hardly engaged the piece. What is my argument? That we should use our rights with wisdom and prudence and think of others first? After all, I did say, “ Christians have every right to appeal to the governing authorities to uphold their own standards of law and justice. Please don’t miss this point. We should. Can we ever appeal to them for our own advantage? Certainly. But Paul thought of others first, recognizing that they might be taken, by Jesus, for a time, to save a jailor and his family.”

    Paul, but in our current discussions, the apostle is appealed to everywhere for fighting for his rights. Rome had very similar laws to protect the people. Asking how Paul used his rights under Roman law is a fair comparison.

    Jim, am I promoting pacifism? Would you charge the saints in Hebrews with this who joyfully “accepted the plundering of their goods?” Or Jesus himself who kept his mouth shut when struck? I’m not prepared to call them pacifists but rather as those who submitted to the will of God for a greater end then themselves. That’s just what Christianity is all about. There’s some things you can’t stop and when they happen, living by faith is a pretty good option in the face of loss. But go ahead, appeal to your rights, hopefully you look more like Paul, though, than Peter who tried to cut off ears. There are priorities.

    • Chris:

      I’m sorry you feel as though I did not engage. I engaged.

      In a representative republic, when I exercise my rights, I secure yours. I fail to understand your concern.

      PG

    • Dr. Clark: I quote from your answer to Jim above: “ There may come a time when the government forces our hand and we must assert our natural, God-given rights once again.”

      • Bob,

        I would not try to make the argument from scripture or certainly not from scripture alone.

        1. in Romans 1 and 2, among other places, Paul does appeal to the existence of natural law and natural revelation. This is a precondition for what follows.

        2. There is a long tradition in the west, of recognizing natural rights as God-given. For example, it is, according to the American founders, self evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. that humans have a right of self-defense would seem to be self evident. It is also, I have argued, a principle that is revealed in scripture:

        On Self-Defense

        3. The pagan and Christian natural law traditions have inferred from the natural order of things other self evident rights.

        4. I have not tried to enumerate Rights from Scripture but from natural revelation in the same way I have argued from natural revelation against same–sex marriage.

        5. I am impressed with the Reformed commitment, traditionally, to the idea of universal sense perception. This is sometimes described as part of the “common sense realism” tradition. I think we live in an ordered universe/world and can perceive patterns and truth in it.

    • Dr. Clark: Isn’t this perception of common sense realism what makes it so difficult for us to “turn the other cheek” and to not defend ourselves as Jesus refused to do.

      • Bob,

        You’ll have to explain your question a little more fully. CSR is an epistemology, a conviction about how we know what we know. The Reformed (e.g., Turretin) thought that our senses are certainly affected by sin and not the final source of truth (empiricism) but they did think that our senses are sufficient to perceive the world accurately (as Alvin Plantinga says), assuming our epistemic equipment is functioning properly. All this is to say that we’re not skeptics. Paul says that we can see nature operating. We know certain important things from and by nature.

  5. Dr. Clark:

    Chris put a little more on the table than law and order and Paul’s behavior at Phillipi.

    PG

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