What Are Rights?

bill of rightsWe live in a rights obsessed culture. At every turn someone is claiming they have a right to something. Unfortunately people rarely think about what it means to have a right. Most of the time “I have a right to” is interchangeable with “I want.”

Rights come in two flavors – positive and negative. Much of what is demanded today are positive rights. Positive rights are the right TO HAVE something, the right to a job, to health care, to a certain vendor for your wedding flowers, etc.

On the other side are negative rights. Negative rights are the right NOT TO HAVE something (mostly not to have something done to you by the government.) Among these are the right to freedom of speech, religion, the press, etc. In the case of negative rights, the government in enjoined FROM doing something. With positive rights, the government is enjoined TO do something. The rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the one’s our Founders labeled “inalienable,” are all negative rights.

Why is that? Why does the Constitution not list the right to a job or to a place to live or to food to eat? After all, those things are pretty important, right?

It has to do with how rights are enforced.

In the case of negative rights, enforcement places no burden on the citizenry. If government fails to provide these rights, such as in attempting to censor the media, the courts get involved to rule on the constitutionality of the action. If it is determined the action violated someone’s rights, all that needs to happen is for the government to stop doing what they were doing. In other words, to leave people alone.

With positive rights it’s different.  If I have a right TO something, say a job, then someone else has an obligation to provide one for me. Since government creates no capital, they must either force someone in the private sector to hire me or hire me themselves using money appropriated from the private sector via taxes. Positive rights for one group always encumber another group with obligations.  Bottom line, enforcement of positive rights requires government to use force against one part of the citizenry on behalf of another part.

Positive rights are therefore often at odds with negative ones. For example, I cannot have freedom of speech at the same time someone else has the freedom to never be offended. The two are mutually exclusive. Which is why guarantees of positive rights are not among those in the Bill of Rights. We have, from God, certain inalienable rights. But among them is not the right to never be disagreed with or the right to the fruit of someone else’s labor.

When negative rights are respected and enforced, individual flourishing increases and government dependence decreases. But with a decrease in government dependence comes a decrease in government power, which goes a long way toward explaining the emphasis on positive rights so prevalent today.

In order to return our culture to health, we must recover the understanding of positive versus negative rights and restore negative rights to their place of honor.

What is the Mark of the Beast?

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. – Revelation 13:16-18

What is the Mark of the Beast?
“The Number of the Beast is 666” by William Blake

This passage has caused much speculation among Christians through the years. People are keen to know who the beast is and what it means to take his mark. The two questions have to be answered simultaneously because what you believe about the beast determines what you believe about his mark and vice versa.

Two things must be remembered about Revelation to properly understand it:

  • Revelation was written to people in the first century as a warning and an encouragement. Therefore, what is written had meaning for them in that day and not just for people in some far distant future time (Rev. 1:1).
  • Revelation is written in apocalyptic style meaning it is highly symbolic. We must be careful when reading it not to do so as if it is the newspaper or an historical narrative.

If Revelation was written as a warning and an encouragement to the first century church and to the church throughout history, then the beast and his mark must be something relevant to both groups. I believe the beast is a specific person in ancient history, a persecutor of the church, perhaps a Roman emperor. However, in warning the church about this person, John also warns future Christians about those who govern the same way. There may also be a final manifestation of this type of ruler before the return of Christ who is worse than all those before him. So he could be a specific person in the future as well.

However, our concern needs to be identifying the characteristics of the ruler described rather than identifying an individual by name. Kim Riddlebarger in his book “The Man of Sin” says:

It is more important to understand what the number means than to identify the individual to whom it is referring.”

Several characteristics of the beast are mentioned in the extended passage but I want to concentrate on those associated with his mark.

The mark is required to engage in commerce. In other words, this ruler requires people to have the mark in order to make a living, buy food, etc. The mark is equivalent to the ruler’s name. So the ability to buy and sell is related to the person’s support for and acknowledgment of the ruler. The mark is to be placed on either the hand or the forehead. This last point is especially interesting.

Why the hand or the forehead?

Think back to God’s instructions concerning His law after freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt:

You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. – Deuteronomy 6:8

The Lord’s commands were to be with the people of God always. They were the guide for their actions (hands) and thoughts (foreheads). Their ultimate allegiance in all things was to God. So in describing the locations of the mark, John reveals it is usurpation of God that the beast seeks – the desire to be worshiped and to be the source of ultimate authority.

I believe the beast is any government or ruler who sets themselves up as God and demands ultimate allegiance. Nazi Germany was a manifestation of the beast as are the communist governments in places like China and North Korea. The beast has risen and fallen many times throughout the history of the world and will continue to do so until Christ returns.

His mark is not necessarily physical, not a tattoo or a computer chip or a bar code. It is something more sinister. We take the mark when we acquiesce to the state’s demand to be worshiped, when we remove Christ from His throne and replace Him with a golden statue of the state. This is why first century Christians refused to worship Caesar even under penalty of death – because to do so was to dishonor the Lord and abandon the faith.

Those claiming to be followers of Christ in the United States have by and large not had to make this choice. But, recent events remind us that the beast is crouching at our door. The day will soon come when he will demand that we choose whom we will serve. My prayer for the American church is that we be given grace and strength from the Holy Spirit to choose as Moses did, “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.

On Christians and Civil Disobedience

On Christians and Civil Disobedience

Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 to obey the government. But does this mean government is to be obeyed no matter what?

Periodically our church does something called “Grace Talk” where the pastors take time during a Sunday morning service to answer questions submitted by the congregation. When can a Christian, in good conscience, engage in “civil disobedience?” was a question I recently addressed in that forum. Here’s an overview of my response:

When Must a Christian Disobey the Government?

Christians must disobey the government when the government forbids something God commands or commands something God forbids. Some biblical examples of this are:

  • Hebrew midwives in Exodus chapter 1. They were ordered by the government to kill male Hebrew children at birth and refused to do so.
  • The Apostles in Acts chapter 4. They were ordered by the government religious officials to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. They also refused to do so, saying they must obey God rather than men.

A contemporary case would be if churches are told they must perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, obedience to Christ would require them to refuse such a command.

When May a Christian Disobey the Government?

When we may disobey the government is not as black and white as when we must. Let’s start with what the Bible says about government:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  – Romans 13:1-4

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. – I Timothy 2:1-2

Thus says the Lord: “Go down to the house of the king of Judah and speak there this word, 2 and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:1-3

These passages don’t just talk about the responsibilities of citizens but of governments as well. Government is ordained by God to:

  • Reward good and punish evil
  • Do no evil itself
  • Keep the peace so the church can flourish and the gospel be preached

The question then is, what should our response be when the government ceases to do these things or even worse, does the opposite?

As Christians, we believe right and wrong are absolutes, not dependent upon popular opinion or circumstances. If that is true, it follows that governments cannot make any laws they choose. There are such things as unjust laws. For example, the state cannot just decide one day that killing your neighbor and taking his belongings is legal. But, this is exactly what happened in Nazi German in the 1930’s and it’s what almost happened to the Jews in Persia during King Xerxes reign, but for the intervention of Esther – which we’ll come back to in a minute.

So, do we have to obey unjust laws? It depends.

In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus tells the people this:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”

Yet we know He engaged in what we could call civil disobedience with regard to the Pharisee’s stringent Sabbath-keeping laws. On more than one occasion, He healed someone on the Sabbath in direct violation of those laws (not in violation of God’s law, however).

Of course part of the reason for this is because of His authority as God and being Lord over the Sabbath, something we certainly cannot claim. But there’s another element at play as well.  In Matthew 12:9-14 we read this:

“He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”

In other words, human lives, health and safety are more important than the letter of the law.

Taking all this into consideration, here are the principles I came up with, recognizing that some Christians may disagree:

  • The default position is to obey the government, even if I don’t like the law, am inconvenienced by the law or am even wronged by the law. I can still oppose the law using legal means, however.There is nothing un-biblical in exercising my rights as a citizen. The Apostle Paul did that more than once. There’s also nothing wrong with publicly calling the government’s actions evil when they are. John the Baptist did this, losing his head as a result.
  • However, if necessary to protect and serve others, I can, in good conscience, insert myself between them and an unjust law, refusing to comply. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legally required people who encountered runaway slaves to return them to their masters. Many Christians during this time refused to obey this law.

The trigger for civil disobedience should not primarily be indignation over personal wrongs but over harm or potential harm done to others. It’s the difference in running a stupidly placed stop sign because I’m in a hurry and don’t want to be inconvenienced and running it because I’m on the way to the hospital with a seriously injured person.

Back to Esther, she disobeyed the law that prohibited entering the king’s presence uninvited because the lives of her people were at stake. Key to this is that she was willing to accept the consequences of her ‘civil disobedience’ and we must be as well if we choose that route.