Self-Study: Individual Rights
In this study we will examine the concept of legal rights. In particular, we will look at some of those rights which are given to us by God and their legal importance. These God-given rights, usually denoted inalienable rights, form the foundation upon which the traditional American view of rights has been based.
Recently, though, some Christians have questioned whether God intended to give people legal rights, and a few have concluded that the concept of rights is contrary to biblical teaching. One line of reasoning holds that everything we receive from God is a matter of grace, thus, we have no rights with respect to God. By analogy, perhaps we have no claim to earthly rights either.
The question of whether God has given us legal rights is important. Our nation's founders believed that the primary purpose of civil government was to secure our God-given rights. But, if we have no such rights, what is the major function of the law, or the primary purpose of government? Indeed, one may well ask, if there is no such thing as God-given rights, can there be any such thing as a definite "wrong"?
If legal rights are merely a human invention, then arguably there is no guaranteed or certain right to anything, nor any definitely wrong behavior (i.e., a violation of rights). Any theory of rights based on this assumption would view all rights as being relative, not absolute. However, our nation's founders, many of whom were Christians, believed in the existence of absolute rights created by God, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Who is right?
- Read Num. 23:19-20.
- When God makes a promise to someone, is it a matter of grace whether He makes the promise or not? Is it a matter of grace, or obligation, that God keeps His word? Does God retain the right to void a promise once it has been made?
- To what extent do we have the right to rely on God's promises, even though He was under no obligation to make them? To what extent are any of God's promises enforceable?
- Read Heb. 6:13-20. Was God under an obligation to covenant with Abraham? Did Abraham have a right to rely on God's covenant with him? To what extent may the descendants of Abraham today claim a legal right to the "Promised Land" because of God's covenant? See, Gen. 12:1-7.
- Read John 1:12-13. To what extent does a Christian have rights with respect to the kingdom of God? Are these rights enforceable?
- Read 1 Cor. 9:3-12,18. To what extent did Paul believe he had certain rights with respect to the churches where he labored? Were these moral rights or legal rights? Was Paul looking to God for the enforcement of his rights, or to someone else?
- Read Lev. 25:29-33. What was the nature of the right of redemption in ancient Israel? Was it a right given by God? To what extent was it enforceable at law?
- Read Deut. 21:15-17. What is the right of the first-born? Is it a moral right or a legal right? Is it a God-given right? Is it a right peculiar to ancient Israel or is it a natural right applicable in all nations?
Many people have understood that legal rights are a function of legal authority, that is, what one has the authority to do, he also has the legal right to do. Consequently, our concepts of where and how we derive authority for all that we do will greatly determine our view of what legal rights we have.
Historically, this idea has had two significant consequences. First, the authority we receive directly from God gives rise to inalienable rights, the exercise of which people may not alter, prevent, punish or regulate. This is because no one is authorized to take away or deny the exercise of authority which God has given.
Second, where authority is lacking, a legal right does not exist. More to the point, where the law validly prohibits certain behavior, a person can never have the legal "right" to engage in such behavior. Thus, a person cannot have a right to do anything which is unrighteous under God's law, or for which authority is lacking.
- Read Gen. 9:1-3.
- Did God give mankind authority to eat meat? To what extent does this give rise to a legal right to eat meat?
- Could a legislature validly require everyone to abstain from eating meat, or force everyone to eat meat against their will? To what extent does civil government have any jurisdiction, or legal authority, over the eating of meat?
- Read Acts 10:42.
- Is the preaching of the gospel something we are authorized by God to do? Is it a legal right? Is it a right that non-Christians have?
- To what extent can people delegate their God-given rights to civil government, that is, to authorize public regulation of the exercise of their duties to God? Would your answer be the same with respect to eating meat as preaching of the gospel?
- As between eating meat and preaching the gospel, is either one more inalienable, more enforceable, or more "legal," than the other? Do Christians have legal rights that non-Christians do not have?
- Read Ex. 21:7-11. The word "right" is nowhere used in these verses. Yet, to what extent, if any, do these verses describe the legal rights of a female slave in ancient Israel? What is the relationship between limitations on the master's authority and the legal rights, if any, of the slave?
- Read 1 Cor. 6:9-10. What is the relationship between certain wrongful behaviors and the right to inherit the kingdom of God? Do people have a "right" to disobey God's law? Do we have the authority to disobey it?
- Read Lev. 20:9-16. Can a person forfeit their own God-given rights, even their right to life, by engaging in certain unlawful behavior? Can people enter into a lawful agreement to violate God's law?
To whom has God given authority and/or rights? Historically, there were a number of recognized limitations on who could claim to have received any God-given rights. First, it was recognized that animals have no legal rights. This was founded on the belief that God granted animals no authority, nor placed them under any duty, the performance of which is owed solely to Him.
Second, at least in America, it was recognized that all inalienable rights were the rights of individuals, not groups of people. Thus, civil government, as a corporate institution, was believed not to have been granted any direct authority from God. The founders of our nation expressly rejected the notion of a "divine right of kings." Rather, civil governments were believed to have only powers, as distinguished from rights, all rights being inherent in the people alone, as reflected in the 9th and 10th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Both of these limitations on rights have been substantially challenged in recent years. Conventional wisdom holds that there is no distinction between rights and powers as applied to civil governments. And, especially in the area of familial authority, civil government is viewed as being the source of rights. Further, much of current environmental policy debate has focused on the rights of other species compared to human rights.
- Read Gen. 1:27-28. What is the authority relationship between people and animals according to these verses? What does it mean for people to "rule over" the animal kingdom? Are animals merely property?
- Read Gen. 2:7. Notice how Adam is referred to as a "soul" or "being," whereas animals (in Gen. 1:28) are referred to as "things." Does the Bible ever refer to people as "things," or to animals as "beings"? Were animals made in God's image? Is it proper to refer to animals as "persons"?
- Reread Gen. 9:1-3. What do these verses suggest, if anything, about the legal rights of animals compared to people? Does an animal have the right or authority to eat a human? See also, Ex. 21:28-32.
- Read Gen. 9:9-17. To what extent is the animal kingdom a party to the Noahic covenant? How does this affect the question of animal rights?
- Read Rom. 13:1-7. To what extent do civil rulers receive a divine commission of authority direct from God?
- Does God actually choose which people should occupy public office in the United States?
- To what extent do God's laws constrain the actions of public officials?
The traditional view of the primary purpose of civil government is to protect the inalienable rights of private citizens. However, this view also held that inalienable rights could not be regulated by civil government. This is due to the distinction made between inalienable rights and civil rights, and the corresponding distinction between moral duties and legal duties.
The reasoning goes something like this: Every right (or authority) gives rise to certain duties (or responsibilities) for the exercise of that right. However, these duties are owed solely to the person who granted the right. Thus, rights granted by God give rise to duties which are owed only to God, and are enforceable solely by Him. These duties are merely moral. On the other hand, rights granted by government give rise to civil duties, and are civilly regulable. These duties are legal.
Thus, the primary legal question with respect to any right is whether it is of civil or divine origin. Take, for example, the duty of parents to educate their children, or to "train up a child in the way he should go." Holding parents accountable to civilly imposed educational standards presumes that the authority to educate one's own children is state delegated. On the other hand, if the duty is of divine origin, then parents are accountable for the discharge of that duty to God alone.
One modern trend in legal rights theory has been to blur the distinction between civil rights and inalienable rights, viewing all rights as essentially state granted. Another modern trend has been to blur the distinction between legal and moral duties, viewing all duties as essentially owed to the state. The phrase, "you can't legislate morality," used to mean public officials could not enforce duties owed solely to God. But today, what does it mean?
- Read Prov. 31:4-9. To what extent did King Lemuel view the protection of rights as a primary purpose of civil government? To what extent are these verses a normative statement for all civil governments?
- Read Deut. 16:18-20 and Isa. 10:1-2. What is the relationship between justice and securing individual rights? Can justice result when rights are denied? How does a bribe affect the security of legal rights?
- 1 Tim. 5:3-8. Does a widow have a right to be supported by her children and grandchildren? Is this a legal duty (enforceable at law) or a moral duty (enforced by God alone)?
- Read Mat. 5:21-30.
- Does anyone have the right not to be hated? If so, is it an enforceable right? What are the implications for "hate crime" legislation?
- Does anyone have the right not to be an object of lust? If so, is it a legally enforceable right? What are the implications for sexual harassment laws?
- What happens when society tries to enforce by legislation merely moral duties?
* Copyright © 1995, 2006 Gerald R. Thompson. Used by permission.