I am going to say up front that laying down one’s rights — particularly in the context of a Christian — is not synonymous with disobeying the commands of Christ. Unfaithfulness in the name of appeasing someone is not the same as faithfully thinking of others as more worthy than yourself to be served in the name of unity and truth.
So if you read this and want to make the argument, “This means Christian bakers should just bake cakes for gay weddings” then I need to up front say that there is a fundamental difference in the Bible when it comes to a person, say, owning guns and what marriage is defined as by God. One is very concretely defined and the other is open to discernment within the context of a society. I could go into more depth on this, but just want to start by saying what my post is not about. It is not advocating that all things are open to interpretation, and something is certainly not open to our own interpretation if there is an explicit command or teaching that Jesus has given us as revealed through Scripture.
Individual Liberty: What’s the Bible Say About It?
I was at lunch today with a friend, Luke Dockery, and this idea came up and I felt it was worth writing what will hopefully be a short(er) post on it. Our world is consumed by individual rights. One of the largest reasons that we have no peaceful discourse is due to the fact that everyone is demanding their individual rights be honored by everyone else.
That is, of course, going to lead to inevitable conflict as converging rights refuse to give way before one another. It is important to say that having converging individual rights is actually normal and not in and of itself a bad thing. There’s room for some diversity in opinion on certain things. The Bible is comfortable with this fact as Romans 14:1 says:
Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.
The key word there is “disputable,” which indicates some things are not clearly defined in Scripture. The Lord has left some categories of life where different courses of action are faithful (or unfaithful) depending on the context of a situation, and He calls people to respond in whatever way will accomplish the Lord’s will in that moment. That’s not to say God is whimsical, just that some things can go either way depending on a person’s background and the needs of those around us.
For example, someone may really love drinking a beer multiple times per week, and another person may abstain from alcohol completely because of alcoholism in their recent family tree or some other reason.
Both can absolutely be faithful (and also unfaithful) in that moment, and the Lord will not be disappointed with either of them for their decision if it is done to the glory of God the Father. (Romans 14:5-8)
But what happens when these liberties collide? What happens when the person who loves a good beer sits down with someone who abstains? Or, perhaps more culturally relevant, what happens when someone who is a proponent of gun rights sits down with someone who is a proponent of pro-choice/reproductive rights — I don’t want to call these women’s rights as that seems to imply a much broader category than this post really is meant to get into — sit down at a table together.
For this post’s purposes I’m going to ignore the conversation of whether either of these things can be called sin, although that’s an important conversation, but I’d rather focus on how people ought to operate when their conflicting rights collide. To start us off, Galatians 5:13-15 says this:
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
To simply sum this up, the point is that people exhibit the most freedom not by indulging their own self-centered desires, but when they lay down their rights in the service of one another. Paul again brings up this idea in 1 Corinthians 9:19:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.
Again, Paul makes it clear that, in Christ, a person is totally free.
To put this in the context of America, let’s just say that while we are not totally free as Americans, we have many, many freedoms. It’s not quite the same, but it will suffice for now.
We actually, as Christians and Americans, exhibit the most freedom when we lay down our rights in the service of others. Again, this doesn’t extend to every category of life.
For example, America is too philosophically inclined towards representative politics for it to become a monarchy. You could not be the same nation fundamentally if you make that shift. That’s what I was getting at with my opening disclaimer. You cannot fundamentally change the format of our government without destroying our government just as you cannot disobey what you know to be true without desecrating the truth. But within the structures of government and truth, there is potential diversity that can be explored and even celebrated.
So one example of this is that states — or colonies may be more accurate — used to manage their own state-specific currency. While there’s nothing specifically against that in the framework of our Constitution, it’s pretty clear that everyone benefitted as states laid down that right for the sake of the nation’s ability to function as a unified whole. Can you imagine the horror of traveling from Fayetteville to Tulsa, having to pay a toll, and realizing your Arkansas currency has depreciated and you don’t have sufficient funds for the toll booth?
This just is an example of my main point; that we actually prove that we are a free people when we lay down our rights freely in the service of others. At first this seems counterintuitive, but as we think on it for a while we quickly realize that the person with no freedom doesn’t have the choice to serve anyone. Such a person is either rendered incapable of serving someone or they’ll be forced to serve someone.
That’s not freedom. Freedom is when a violin, a beautiful instrument in its own right, plays a simple pattern so a cello can play a solo and vice versa. That’s freedom. That violinist cannot be coerced to play in a way that benefits the cellist, but if they didn’t then we’d never experience and enjoy the beauty of a symphony.
To recap this principle, Martin Luther’s quote sums up this principle well:
A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.
What’s This Mean For Americans and Christians?
To apply this principle to a clearly modern context, the recent shooting in Florida has made me realize how both our major political parties have talking points that they handle very similarly. On the political left, you have reproductive rights or pro-choice rights. On the political right, you have gun rights.
If you listen to rhetoric from both sides, they sound eerily similar. If you don’t agree with me, then I daresay you probably have your ears plugged up to one side or the other. They’re scarily similar. They both sound like political parties pandering for votes. Or as Luke said at lunch, they are “peddling fear” in order to obtain votes. I hope all of us agree that this is at least part of what is happening in our political climate today.
So let me just ask the following question of my fellow American, and especially of my fellow Christian regardless of what party affiliation you may have. Why aren’t you willing to lay down your rights and demonstrate how free you truly are?
Republicans, do you really think Democrats will see you as pro-life when you’re not even willing to listen to talk about re-evaluating gun rights? I’m not even asking you to give up all gun rights. But children died. That must break our hearts. Isn’t this tragedy worth at least lending your ear towards and seeing if there’s wisdom to be found in a voice that might come from an opposing party? Is your desire for your own security, or hunting, or whatever else someone might want a gun for worth giving up if it would save the life of one child from gun violence? Wouldn’t you gladly give it up if you could know that one child would reach old age as a result?
Democrats, do you expect Republicans to think you care about children when you passionately support the right to murder countless thousands of babies each and every year? And, yes, at this point I think you’re fairly blind on the issue if you can’t recognize that we’re killing babies. If you want to keep doing it, that’s another discussion. But for a party that raves about being the party of science, you ignore that modern technology keeps confirming earlier and earlier that those “cells” in a woman’s body are acting, unsurprisingly, similar to what we’d expect a baby to do. You conveniently ignore that child’s rights even though we use fetal tissue to test for potential solutions to advance human medicine. The assertion that we’re not taking the life of a human seems immensely illogical. So do you really believe that Republicans actually think you care about the protection of children when your body’s rights are much more important than the unborn cries of a helpless child?
Maybe both sides would give a resounding, “No, I will not give this up!” In fact, I worry that’s exactly what they will say. I’m terrified that nobody is actually listening to anyone else anymore. At least, fewer and fewer people seem to be really listening.
I’ll also ask Christians some questions; will you sacrifice your integrity for political expediency? Are you so unwilling to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others?” (Philippians 2:4) In fact, Paul in a continuation of 1 Corinthians 9:19 says this in 9:20-22:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
So Christians, where was your outcry that our congress has failed to update our immigration policy so that those under DACA would be encouraged and helped to stay in our country? Those are people who, by all accounts, seem like they’d make fine additions as citizens to our country.
Christians, why do you support a government that has restrictive immigration policies that seem to indicate that we’re afraid of Muslims, Hindus, and people of “color” in our country? Are we the very same Christians whom the Bible says “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”? (2 Timothy 1:7)
Yes, I understand that if we believe Christian morality is the truth, then a government that operates largely out of that truth will be most beneficial to human flourishing. But are we so afraid of what others may bring to the table? Are we so afraid of what others claim is truth that we’re uncomfortable with it living next door?
I don’t know how this lines up next to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. In fact, I actually can imagine Paul salivating at opening up our borders so that those people might come to him! He’d be eager to do evangelism amongst the nations, and he wouldn’t even need to travel!
Is that the spirit most of us Christians have? Why is it not our spirit? Are we not willing to lay down our American comfort and security to practice Christian love and pursue winning as many to the Gospel as possible?
If we are not willing to lay down our rights, then I want to actually draw our attention back to the end of the Galatians passage:
If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Doesn’t that sound oddly like the world we’re living in? The world certainly bites at and devours one another. Just go read a Facebook argument sometime. It’s unsettling.
Friends, whether Christian or not — although especially if you’re Christian — let’s practice this easy Christian principle found in James 1:19:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Let’s all start off by making sure we’re actually willing to listen to one another. Some things we will not agree on, and some things there will be a dividing line on.
But in many, many of these things can’t we look to see how we might exhibit our true freedom by laying down our rights in the service of others?
What would the country look like if this was what we all brought to the table? Christians, we of all people need to start becoming the first to lead the way in this. Unfortunately, Christians are not perfect and can go astray and be influenced by culture. I think this has happened as we demand our rights be asserted. Let us be the first to lay down our rights and demonstrate just how strong our freedom is. Perhaps it won’t save the country. Perhaps the United States has gone too far down this rabbit hole of biting and devouring, and perhaps the only outcome is the destruction of one another.
But at least we Christians, if we will lay down our rights where they do not conflict with the law of Christ, might at least win some to the Gospel by the conduct of our lives and the proclaimed power of the Gospel.
To end this, I just want to submit the Biblical standard for wisdom that we all ought to apply to every process of thinking. It is found in James 3:13-18:
Who is wise and understanding amongst you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy or selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
Lord, give us wisdom in this country. You know we certainly need it.