As culture becomes more and more oppressive to Christian views, I hear a particular argument more and more. I hear Christians making the case that Christians who speak out about rights, especially rights for Christians (freedom of religion), are making an idol out of their rights and are not being Christlike. At the same time, believers are observing the greatest wave of depraved philosophies and actions that has ever swept through our culture. It feels like we have to say something. It feels like we have to do something. But many times what we say and what we do involves fighting to keep our rights to speak and live out our faith so that we can help our culture see that Christ is the better way.
That’s where the conflict arises. Some remind us that because Jesus laid down His rights and sacrificed Himself, we should just do the same (Phil. 2). But is that the correct use of the principles laid out in Philippians 2? There is no doubt that Philippians 2 teaches us to put aside our own comfort to bless, reach, and serve others. There is no doubt that Paul makes the case that we should put others' needs (Does this apply to “wants” or "demands" as well?) ahead of our own. Philippians 2 shows us that Christ’s sacrifice saved multitudes. There was a redemptive purpose to His sacrifice. Jesus’ mission involved death. It was the means to His goal.
Many look at Philippians 2 and declare that believers should never talk about rights. We should never be concerned about how we are treated. We are to submit to the government. Therefore, when the government starts taking those rights away, we should be happy to surrender them and say nothing. The only problem is that the guy who wrote those words in Philippians 2 didn’t seem to take that same approach, so we might be going beyond Paul in our interpretation of the passage.
Paul stood up for his rights several times
In Acts 21-22, Paul is back in Jerusalem and there are a lot of rumors swirling around about what Paul has done and taught. The Jewish authorities are concerned that Paul is not keeping the law and is leading others to do the same. They are also saying that he has brought Gentiles into the Temple. Naturally, they have him arrested. This is a great moment for Paul to say nothing in his defense, just like Jesus. This is a great moment for Paul to lay down his rights and let the authorities do with him what they will. But he does not do that. He asks if he can address the angry mob that is “canceling” him. In chapter 22, he makes his case, including how faithful he has been to Judaism and explaining how he encountered the resurrected Lord. However, once he mentions that Jesus sent him to reach the Gentiles, the mob stops listening and insists that he be taken away.
Now he is taken to the “barracks,” so he is fully in custody. This would be a great time for Paul to give up his rights and just submit to whatever happens. The Commander issues the order for Paul to be flogged. But before the flogging begins, Paul asks a simple question, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen?” Wait, Paul is now invoking his “right” as a Roman citizen to not be flogged without being first found guilty. Did he forget what God inspired him to write in Philippians 2?
The Commander now takes Paul before the Sanhedrin to see what exactly he is accused of doing. After a short outburst where Paul goes too far and then apologizes, Paul makes his case pointing to the doctrine of the resurrection, which divided the Sadducees and the Pharisees. This leads to a group of people being commissioned to kill Paul as he’s being transferred. So the Commander sends Paul on to Felix the Governor.
When Paul stands before Felix, he makes his case that he has not stirred up any disturbances, and asks for his accusers to show up and say what they are charging him with. Felix avoids doing anything with Paul and just leaves him in jail until Festus succeeds him.
As soon as Festus starts his new job, the chief priests immediately inform him of the charges they have against Paul. They asked to have him transferred back to Jerusalem so they could have him killed. Clearly, there is a lot of corruption in the ruling systems. But as a Christian, Paul should not worry about corruption and just submit to his fate, shouldn’t he? Festus gives Paul a hearing and again the text says, “Paul made his defense.” Paul was fighting all along the way. Festus asks if Paul is willing to be sent back to Jerusalem, but Paul invokes his right to have his case moved along in the Roman system and go before Caesar.
“I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” Acts 25:10-11 (NIV)
King Agrippa happens to visit Festus, so he takes the time to hear Paul’s case while he is there. Again the passage says Paul made his defense before him. Agrippa and Festus agree that Paul has done nothing deserving of death and give him his wish to be sent on to Caesar. Over and over again, Paul “makes his defense” and invokes his rights.
Christ and Paul surrendered rights when it advanced the Gospel
Why didn’t Paul lay down his rights and accept his fate? Was he being un-Christlike? First of all, Jesus did not lay down all His rights, all the time. He laid down His rights when it advanced His goal to redeem mankind. Paul did the same. In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul says that he laid down his right to be paid as a preacher to have fewer hindrances on the spread of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12). In Romans 9:3 (NIV) Paul says, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.” Here Paul is willing to give up his own salvation if it means the Jews would turn to Jesus. Obviously, that’s not a trade he could make, but it shows that Paul will give up anything to reach people. His whole life proves that. He is putting the interest of others ahead of his interests to spread the Gospel, as he endures persecution, sickness, prison, and pain. That is a perfect picture of what Philippians 2 tells us.
I recently read an article provocatively titled, “Christians have no rights.” The author pointed to Jesus calling His disciples to “Deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow Jesus.” The author made the case that when we accepted Jesus, we gave up all rights. Is that what the passage says? Or does it say that we must surrender our wills, our plans, our passions, and our resources for the mission of Jesus? We are no longer in charge of our lives, Jesus is. It is true that we have no rights in terms of surrendering to whatever Jesus calls us to. However, too many are applying these principles to our civic rights. It seems to me that Jesus and the apostles were happy to sacrifice and even lay down their lives if it meant more people coming to Jesus. But where do we see them saying things like, “The most Christian thing to do is to give up my right to speak out, while the enemy's message is progressing”? Does that message fit with Paul’s example?
The answer to the question asked earlier is simple: Paul didn’t just lay down his rights and accept his fate because it did not appear that doing so would accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God. In fact, Paul may very well have pressed the issue of his rights because of the way that the charges against him were portraying Christians. Paul was not the only Christian being accused of opposing Caesar or being a blasphemous Jew. These accusations were causing Christianity to be looked on with suspicion to the point of even provoking persecution. More than likely, Paul is taking it upon himself to help all Christians by doing what he can to set the record straight.
Many rights that affect Christians are the foundation for a stable, free, and safe society
I was recently listening to the Dr. Jeff Show podcast1 with Dr. Jeff Myers, the President of Summit Ministries, as he interviewed Mike Berry, Vice President of First Liberty Institute. First Liberty Institute focuses on fighting for religious freedom, especially in the military. Mike makes the case that religious freedom is foundational to every other freedom. He mentions that it is the very first freedom the founders wanted to protect. He says that when you strip away religious freedom it is very easy to strip away every other freedom. He mentions that the first thing totalitarian regimes take away is the right of their citizens to follow and worship a higher power. Why? They don’t want anything taking precedence over their rule. They don’t want to be accountable to anything other than themselves.
In the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights, our founders didn’t want the government to have the ability to tell people what to believe or limit what they could say. They understood that religion becomes about propaganda and control when governments force certain religious ideas on the people or limit freedom of speech.
Willingly giving up our rights to assemble, to share our faith, to be true to our convictions, or to speak freely does not open up more opportunities to spread the Gospel (I do understand that God has used often used persecution to spread the Gospel, I just don’t see anywhere that we are encouraged to give up those rights without a fight). However, losing those rights would likely usher in a totalitarian government that tells people what to think and persecutes anyone (not just Christians) who questions it. Individual liberty is extremely important to a safe, free, and stable society. The choice comes down to individual liberty or collectivism, which has produced the most evil regimes in history. That may very well be what God was so concerned about at the tower of Babel. Revelation 13:16-17 shows a great example of what this choice looks like. When the government is demanding that every person take the mark of the Beast, should those who have chosen to follow Christ in the tribulation just go along with it? Won’t demanding their right to not comply hurt their testimony? Of course, they should not comply or submit their freedom to choose otherwise. There will be consequences for not complying to be sure, but the fight is spiritually valuable.
Interestingly, many Christians are so quick to say that we don’t have rights in culture, but they pray earnestly for persecuted Christians. How hypocritical. If we had a chance to stop the persecution in the first place and didn’t, why should we pray that it will end? Or what about the responsibility of believers in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russian2? When they began to see that free speech was being limited or that worship was being controlled by the government, should they have said something before their governments became murder machines? It sometimes feels like those who decry standing up for basic rights as idolatry are more concerned about being popular with the current culture than standing for what is truly best for all people.
We have seen that we are called to give up rights and comforts to help others (by God’s definition of good, not just what others say they would like) and advance the Gospel. However, conceding individual rights that empower the government to be all-powerful and unaccountable will only cause evil to run rampant and destroy lives.
One of the reasons for this new push to not stand up for rights is that it has felt like Christians are more concerned with getting what we want politically than we are with loving people and connecting with them. Our main focus should be on spiritual transformation. Jesus and Paul didn’t focus on overthrowing tyranny, but rather brought about cultural transformation by changing hearts with the Gospel. But as we have just seen from the life of Paul (And you could look at Daniel’s situation in Daniel 1), he did fight for his rights if laying them down did not serve a Kingdom purpose. By calling any attempt to stand up for one’s rights idolatry, we are creating a false dichotomy. Idolatry is putting something ahead of Christ and His Kingdom. That doesn’t mean that anything we focus on is an idol. There are many things we must focus on in life, but they don’t have to take precedence over our commitment to Christ. Does God want you to focus on your marriage? Absolutely! But your spouse shouldn’t come before God. Do you need to focus on getting an education at some point in your life? More than likely! But education shouldn’t mean more to you than God. Should we, at times, stand up for our rights? Yes, but that decision should be filtered first and foremost through its impact on others spiritually and on the Kingdom of God. We are called to balance freedom and humility. We should never be hateful in how we stand for basic freedoms. We should be willing to even lay down our lives if it means that the Gospel advances. However, we are not called to just walk away from all our rights all the time when it serves no Kingdom purpose.