Letter From Tim Martens
July 26, 2020
What are "rights" anyway? What does the Bible say about rights?
From time to time I hear some folks disparage the idea that people have "rights." Apparently they do not really understand what "rights" actually are or I suspect that they would choose their words differently.
The Bible speaks of rights from cover to cover, yet it employs other terminology to make clear the principles of God's law. The first five books of the Bible are called the books of the law or the Torah. Torah simply means "the teaching" or "divine guidance." This Torah is teaching us how to live - a course in divine guidance about principles that lead to a happier, more productive life. Following God's laws will lead us to love ourselves better, love our neighbors more, and prepare us to thrive in the coming Kingdom of God.
We commonly think of the Ten Commandments when we refer to God's laws. When we review Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, one of the main words that comes to mind is "respect." God expects each of us to respect Him, respect ourselves, and respect our neighbor.
So, how is that respect actually carried out? The first three of the Ten Commandments detail how to respect God as he establishes direction and limits. In short, we must put God first in our lives, not make graven images of God, and not use God's name in vain.
The fourth Commandment has elements of respecting God, ourselves, and our neighbor by outlining Sabbath-observance, the Sabbath being a special time created for mankind (Mark 2:27). Similarly, the fifth commandment calls for respectful behavior toward parents that yields very good results, both physical and spiritual.
Commandments six through ten establish limits to human behavior that lead us to live in harmony with each other. We know that the world would be a happier, more productive place if everyone would respect themselves and others by keeping these commandments.
Keeping the Ten Commandments is how we respect God, respect ourselves, and respect others. But, does everyone have a right to respect? In creating the commandments, God says we all deserve respect - respect for our lives, respect for our liberty, and respect for our property (although obviously not all attitudes and conduct deserve respect).
Mankind does not have a very good history of respecting God, self, or neighbors. After 5,000 years of the human experience, and in the midst of the Dark Ages, there arose a king of England who was so bad that even today - over 800 years later - schools still teach that evil King John was the worst monarch.
Historians tell us that evil King John had a well-earned reputation by being an inveterate liar and a philanderer who stole nobles' wives and daughters. He over-taxed the people and performed gross miscarriages of justice by spurious charges and punishments. He falsely accused and imprisoned his targets, and then starved them to death. One nobleman escaped the clutches of evil King John, but the nobleman's wife and son were seized, imprisoned, and thirsted to death.
Why would we examine the story of evil King John? King John was the fourth son of the previous king. He connived to get the throne of England. And then he declared that he ruled by divine right - that whatever he did was okay with God because God put him into the kingship. However, because King John was so evil, twenty-five English nobles stood together and confronted him - forcing evil King John to sign the Magna Carta - the Great Charter -- in 1215 A.D.
Something good (the Magna Carta) came out of something bad (the rule of evil King John). The English nobles listed 63 items to which the king must agree. Most importantly, the king had to follow the law. He also had to allow jury trials - the king could no longer be the accuser, the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner. King John also had to agree that taxes could not be increased without consent of the nobles.
In short, the Magna Carta brought an end the concept that the king was authorized by God to rule as he pleased without restraint. The so-called divine right of kings (of England) was over. The nobles would provide a check on excessive powers of the king. The nobles, perhaps unwittingly, recognized that the people had divine rights that could not be abrogated by the king.
The Age of Enlightenment, or Renaissance, came into full swing following the Medieval Age. People's interest in science and the arts, including literature, was increasing. In the 1450s the Gutenberg Bible was mass produced after the invention of movable metal type. For the first time in history potentially everyone could read the Bible. In 1611 King James I of England produced the Bible we know as the King James Version. That very KJV Bible became available to the English-speaking world. The newly published Bible started with the Torah - teaching the law of God, which is based upon respect.
In the late 1600s English physician and philosopher John Locke famously wrote his book, The Two Treatises on Government, in which he codified the respect spoken of in the Bible by describing that the reason for government was to protect people's life, liberty, and property. For a tour of these Biblical concepts, the reader may wish to review the 44-minute video sermon entitled, Life, Liberty, and Property https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHVX_XFzpuw
Then in 1689, which was 474 years following the Magna Carta, a new king and queen came to power in England - William and Mary. As a precondition to becoming the richest, most powerful monarchs in the world, William and Mary agreed to sign the English Bill of Rights -- a restatement of the principles outlined in the Magna Carta. The English Bill of Rights is based upon principles of respect for all people. Others had a right to be respected and secure in their persons and property.
Ever since 1609 Great Britain had colonies in North America. Unfortunately, the British parliament decided that the English Bill of Rights did not apply to those living in the American colonies. Eventually Great Britain's rule over the American colonies became oppressive, and the fledgling Americans decided to seek freedom and rule themselves. In 1776 the Virginia colony adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Virginia writer George Mason based this document on rights listed in the 1689 English Bill of Rights.
Shortly thereafter, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson was tasked to draft the United States Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The issue of respect loomed large in the text of the Declaration of Independence with a long list of usurpations of human dignity by the British. My history and government students are assigned to list out at least 35 reasons for the separation of the United States from Great Britain. In each item listed, the Americans decried the lack of human dignity and respect as causes for America to govern itself.
In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson leaned upon John Locke's understanding of the purpose of government - that God had given rights to people and that governments were established to protect those rights. Rights are not granted by governments. Indeed, a few years later when the U.S. Constitution was being considered, it became apparent that the Constitution would not be adopted without the promises spelled out in a specific Bill of Rights - a list of governmental limitations specifying what the government could NOT do to individuals. In the Ninth Amendment this Bill of Rights also referred to unlisted rights that were reserved to the people individually - that just because a right was not listed did not mean that people had given up those rights.
We can refer to the respect given to others as outlined in the Bible as "rights." God has given us commands which are for our well-being (Deuteronomy 6:24). We all want to be secure in our persons, homes, and possessions. It is reasonable for us to expect others to respect the limits placed upon them by God.
Romans 13 informs us that government may reward good and punish evil. But government has no authority to violate a person's right to justice and safety by punishing good and rewarding evil.
Following is a checklist of God-given rights. Let's see where they are in the Bible.
Right to life is codified in the Ten Commandments by setting a high bar of protection - You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17). God provided the breath of life to mankind (Gen. 2:7). We are expected to keep the commands of God (Deut. 6:17), God hates the shedding of innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-17). Human life is so sacred in God's sight that God's first law after the Noachian Flood was the institution of capital punishment for murderers (Genesis 9:5-6).
Right to liberty. Jesus Christ announced that He was sent on a mission to bring liberty (Luke 4:18). Upon His return, Jesus Christ is bringing the kingdom of God to this earth and will proclaim liberty (Isaiah 61:1). Proclaiming liberty to our neighbor is a responsibility for each of us (Jer. 34:17). Of course, the biggest part of liberty is to be free of the slavery of sin (John 8:34).
Right to property. We are to respect other people's property - and not steal it (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19). Nor should we look upon other people's property with an inordinate lust or desire, which is coveting (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). When the Kingdom of God is established on earth at Christ's return, people will have their own property (Micah 4:4: Zechariah 3:10). God set up the 50-year Jubilee for the very purpose of proclaiming liberty and restoring property to the families who were the original owners (Lev. 25:10).
Right to justice. We are to do justly and therefore should expect justice (Micah 6:8). We are to have honest scales, weights, or measures so as not to defraud anyone from their property (Lev. 19:36; Proverbs 11:1). There is a process to determine guilt and reparations (Deut. 17:8-9; Deut. 19:15; Ex. 22:1). Justice is so important that it is valued more than sacrifice (Prov. 21:3). Justice comes from God (Prov. 29:26). The establishment of the Kingdom of God will bring with it judgment and justice, forever (Prov. 9:6). The sense of justice is the foundation for the principle of "due process" before anyone can be deprived of life, liberty, or property. The apostle Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to due process in the pursuit of justice (Acts 25).
Of course, with rights come responsibilities. If people expect to be afforded the above-listed rights, then they also need to respect the rights of others. The American "Bill of Rights" refer to the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. There are 35 sub points to those ten amendments that spell out operational details to remove ambiguity. Just as God spells out clearly in His Word how we are to conduct ourselves, we are to apply those Constitutional principles accordingly to our daily lives.
We all should be profoundly thankful that we live in a nation that was founded on the principle of the rule of law. As a nation we have been blessed beyond measure because the founders were biblically literate and recognized the rights ordained of God. These rights include freedom of speech and the right to practice any religion of one's choosing. The United States of America was founded because people were not universally afforded the rights to life, liberty, and property in Europe. They came to America by the thousands and millions. The foundational rights enshrined in American law are crucial to facilitate the end-time preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God.
When someone despises or mocks our basic rights, they are really despising or mocking God. Our creator is also the creator of rights and the purveyor of justice through due process. We should remain gentle with such folks. Some people make pointed remarks that actually serve to despise God and others because they don't realize the correlation of rights with the precepts of God. As the day draws nearer for the return of Jesus Christ, many people will "sigh and cry" about the injustices, longing for the justice that is afforded by God. We look forward to the day when Jesus Christ will return to earth and establish law, justice, human rights and peace throughout the world! (Isaiah 2:1-4). That rule or measure will include the unbending rights and responsibilities that will bring peace and happiness to mankind. ________________
Tim Martens, pastor of the United Church of God-Northwest Arkansas, has long taught college-level U.S. History and U.S. Government & Politics classes in high school.