“Yet to all who received in Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12)
Much of the church in the Western world holds a teaching of “surrendering your rights” or “yielding your rights to God”.
This teaching seems to have come about at least in part as a reaction against the increasing demands in Western society by unbelievers for the “right” to do things we regarded as sin without facing the penalty of law. Rightly-regarded and not taken to an extreme place, the teaching can be a beneficial correction to the prideful and individualistic Western notion that I can do whatever the crap I want and no-one gets to tell me I can’t.
However, the more I actually look at what the Scripture says, the more convinced I become that this is far from the whole story.
The Bible doesn’t talk about rights very much; certainly not in the way we conceive of them. The idea of rights in that sense presupposes a far more individualistic mindset than existed at the time the Bible was written.
Nevertheless, the concept is there. The commandment “Do not murder” presupposes that you have a right to your own physical person; that is, another person does not have the right to take your life from you or violate your personhood. The commandment “do not commit adultery” presupposes that you have a right to expect faithfulness from your spouse. The commandment “Do not steal” presupposes the right to personal property. The commandment “Do not bear false witness” presupposes that you have the right to the reputation you deserve; that is, that another person does not have the right to slander you or bring false accusations against you, and furthermore, that you have a right to expect not to be deceived.
“Laying down” or “surrendering” any of these rights leads us into a very weird place indeed. It sets us up for victimhood, remaking God into the image of a tinpot dictator, a Ba’al (or “Master”) of worthless slaves rather than a loving Father of redeemed and beloved children.
Very few people go that far, though there have been those that do. Believing that is obviously taking things too far.
But what of other rights? What exactly do we mean by “laying down our rights” anyway? And does the Scripture actually teach the idea at all?
What most Christians seem to mean by “rights” is the sense of entitlement that so often goes with being a sinner. The idea that I don’t have to bend for anyone else; the idea that I am the sole authority in my life and no-one can tell me what to do. The idea that everyone else has to conform to what I think. The idea that I deserve preferential treatment because I’m so wonderful.
I have no problem with the surrender of this attitude. Indeed, it’s rooted in arrogance and needs to be brought to the cross. But this isn’t the “surrender of rights” but the confession and forgiveness of a self-centred attitude of pride.
The “rights” that are being surrendered here are ones that we arrogate to ourselves, not ones that actually objectively exist. I don’t, in fact, have any “right” to preferential treatment or to expect everyone else to fall into lockstep with what I believe.
The other way the word “rights” tends to get used in this teaching is to mean “privileges”. The special treatment you might get because of the position you hold. The way kings and queens have a right to be called “Your Majesty” and the President gets to be called “Sir” out of respect for their position. Or “Ma’am”, when in the course of time we eventually get a female one. The expected treatment that we feel we ought to receive.
This is a thornier issue. On the one hand, Jesus did not come as a son of privilege. He gave up His visible glory and was born as the son of a poor carpenter, the subject of rumours and one with no majesty by which we might be attracted to Him. Paul at times did not make use of his rights as an apostle to be supported by the church, to take a believing wife and so on.
But at other times he exercised his rights as a Roman citizen. He demanded the privileges due to him on account of his position, requiring that the city magistrates of Philippi personally come and escort him out of the city after they beat him without trial.
The idea of “surrendering rights” is that to be truly like Jesus we must never make use of any of our privileges. We must always lay them down, always taking the lowest possible place, letting other people walk over us. We must allow ourselves to be wronged rather than make any unChristlike demand to be treated properly.
And yet this may be a misreading of what the Bible says, and a confusion as to what rights actually are.
It’s not prideful or unChristlike to insist on fair pay for an honest day’s work; it’s God’s attribute of justice. It’s not a failure to yield rights to insist on being treated as a human being; it’s God’s valuing of the human person. It’s not a false entitlement to refuse to let other people take advantage of you and abuse your generosity with time and resources; it’s wisdom in the use of resources and refusing to be an enabler.
Undoubtedly there are all sorts of bogus “rights” that people claim in the name of human selfishness, and we do need to watch that we aren’t straying into an attitude of entitlement.
But there are also real, legitimate rights, and those are not up for surrender.