Right off the bat, let me say, I am all for rights. I was there in spirit on April 19, 1775, when embattled farmers stood against British tyranny and fought for their rights. I was also there on April 19, 1975, where we used our rights to gather lawfully to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of that important event, to gawk at President Ford in person, and to protest the war in Vietnam. Three rights in one day! (My best memory of that day was watching a protestor who may not have been in his right mind, step right up, break through the security line, and get gang-tackled by three secret service agents who had him dead to rights before he’d gone ten feet). And I could go on to substantiate my claim that I am all in favor of rights, and it would serve you right to have to read paragraphs upon paragraphs; but I am going to do the right thing and just get to the point. I don’t care how American you are; if you are a Christ-follower, demanding your rights is almost always wrong.
Look at Jesus. Jesus had all sorts of rights. After all, he was the Son of God, the Messiah, and Israel’s true king; but he never used any of his rights for his own advantage. The whole point of the hymn in Philippians 2 is that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something he could use for personal gain, but instead, he made of himself nothing and took on the very nature of a slave (it’s easy to miss one of the major implications here, so let me just say it out right: slaves don’t have rights). And we see this mindset throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. While he could have demanded his rights on numerous occasions, he never did. It was within his rights to make bread out of stones. It was within his rights to demand worship. It was within his rights to demand that Rome abdicate its throne. And it was his right to forgo the cross or to choose another less painful way to die. But he chose none of these things. Jesus had all sorts of rights, but he never used them.
It is the same with Paul. In Iconium, there is an uprising against Paul and Barnabas; but instead of claiming Roman citizenship to escape the riot, he chooses instead to flee to Lystra. In Lystra there is another uprising, but once again Paul refuses to assert his rights. But this time, instead of fleeing, Paul allows himself to get stoned. Had he chosen to claim his Roman citizenship, he probably could have avoided the stoning; but he didn’t. Now, in Philippi, Paul does assert his rights, but only after he allows himself to be badly beaten, jailed and then released with a warning. Now, that seems strange. If you were going to play the “rights” card, wouldn’t you do it before being beaten and incarcerated? Why did Paul claim his rights after everything was all over? The only answer that makes sense is that Paul wasn’t so much concerned about his own wellbeing. He was concerned for the church; and by asserting his rights after the fact, he gave the fledgling church in Philippi some social legitimacy, a powerful testimony and an open door for conversations. Read Acts. Read the Pauline epistles. This is the pattern that you see. Paul forgoes his rights in every situation, unless by asserting his rights he can actually serve the church.
For example, look at 1 Corinthians 9. In this chapter Paul talks about his rights as an apostle: his right of financial support, his right to bring a wife along on his missionary journeys, his right of remuneration and his right to material benefits from his work. But he refuses to use any of these rights. Why? Because he wants to preach the gospel free of charge and doesn’t want anything to become an obstacle. In 2 Thessalonians 3 Paul talks about how it is his right that the church in Thessalonica supply him with everything he needs (money, food, drink and shelter). At least, that is how the world looks at it. Paul is their spiritual father; it is his right to demand they care for his needs. But Paul will have none of that. Instead, he forfeits his rights and refuses to take any support from the church. Instead, he works a side job so that he is not a burden to anyone. He even insists on buying his own food. Why? Because he wants to provide an example for the church to follow. If someone can work, they should, so they are not a burden on anyone and so the church can minister to those who are really in need and unable to help themselves. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of a vision he had. Since it was the truth, he could boast about it. It was his right to do so. But Paul refuses to boast because he doesn’t want anyone to think more highly of himself than is warranted.
Ask Jesus or ask Paul about how we are to view our “rights.” It doesn’t matter who you ask because both answers would be the same. Instead of asserting our rights, we have a responsibility. We are to have the same mindset that is in Christ Jesus and do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Instead of insisting on our rights, we are to humble ourselves. Instead of valuing our rights, we are to value the needs of others, even over and above our own wants and desires. Instead of holding on to our rights for dear life, we are to look to the interests of others. Let me say it this way: instead of asserting our rights, we have a responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Does that mean we should never make use of our rights? Not at all. We should use every right at our disposal for the good of others. Do we have the right to protest an unjust situation? Absolutely! But we do so, not for ourselves, but for the good of the oppressed. Do we have the right to legal protection? Absolutely, and we should make sure everyone has that right. Do we have the right to free speech? Absolutely, and we should use that right to speak up for those who have no voice. But do we have the right to blabber on about how our constitutional rights are being violated by requiring us to wear a mask, stay socially-distant and refrain from having a full-blown worship experience together during Covid-19? No. We follow Jesus who called us to love our neighbor and to serve the people around us even if it costs us something. In every situation, we follow Jesus, who being in the very nature God made of himself nothing.
See, the Constitution is nice, and the Bill of Rights are great. And I love the Declaration of Independence with its great line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But, we are Christ-followers first and Americans with rights second and that means that at every turn, instead of asserting our rights, we need to seek to fulfill our twin responsibilities to love God with all of our hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves. And when we see serving the needs of others as more important than asserting our own rights, then we will know we are on the right path. Why? Because loving one another is always the right thing to do.