Do Christian Abuse Victims Have Rights?
Have you ever heard someone say, “Christians should surrender their rights?” Does the Bible really teach that? How can this idea be used to keep a domestic violence victim in bondage?
The following was shared by Leslie Vernick as a guest blog by Rebecca Davis:
One of the things I write about on my website www.heresthejoy.com is untwisting teachings that have been used to keep Christians in bondage.
Though I’ve addressed the subject of rights before on my own site and elsewhere, this blog post is a slightly modified outline of a talk I gave earlier this month at a conference put on by Called to Peace Ministries in Raleigh, NC, www.calledtopeace.org, “Developing a Church-wide Response to Domestic Abuse.”
The teaching that Christians should surrender their rights, sometimes taught as “Christians have no rights,” is one that can be absolutely devastating in cases of domestic cruelty.
I’ve researched a number of books, blogs, and speakers and have boiled down the “surrender your rights” teaching to this:
Anger is sinful and is caused by insisting on personal “rights.” The solution to anger (which is always sinful) is to surrender or yield our “rights,” which means living as if we have no rights, like Jesus. When we surrender our “rights,” then God will bless us and bring us joy.
Notice that this teaching assumes that anger is always sinful, but the Scriptures show us there’s a place for righteous anger. In addition, grief can often look a whole lot like anger too. Also, notice the “scare quotes” that many of the no-rights teachers use, the quotation marks that imply that we have rights only in our imaginations, not in reality.
What does this “no-rights” teaching miss?
There are several things, but I’ll mention five here.
1. This teaching typically confuses vertical and horizontal relationships
The no-rights teaching usually says you should “surrender” all your rights to God (in what I call the vertical relationship), but what it ends up looking like is so-called “surrendering your rights” to other people (in what I’m calling the horizontal relationship).
Instead, a better perspective is for us all to remember that God has ultimate authority over everything, but this doesn’t mean a Christian should necessarily passively acquiesce to someone else doing whatever they want to do.
Therefore, let’s separate how we relate to God from how we relate to other people when we talk about rights. Also, it’s important to keep this in mind when we think about the word “surrender.” When a defeated army surrenders their weapons, they don’t have them anymore—the victorious army now has them. When a person surrenders anything, it is no longer theirs—it now belongs to the other person. Christians who have tried to “surrender their rights” have invariably found that the ones oppressing them violate their rights more and more and more.
2. This teaching misses the definition of “rights.”
The concept of rights comes from the concept of “what is right.” Even the word justice is related because it means “setting things right.” There are three kinds of rights that I know of:
Human rights are true across time and around the world. The advancement of every civilization has come in large measure because of an advancement in their understanding of human rights.
Human rights are God-given, like facial features, and can be “surrendered” about as easily as you can surrender your facial features.
Here are a few human rights that the majority of citizens in Western countries would agree on:
✓A right to life. This includes a right to safety and security.
✓A right to be treated with the same respect with which other humans are treated. This would include equal and just treatment under the law and a right to protection against unjust attacks on one’s honor and reputation.
✓A right to liberty, which would include a right to freedom of thought, including conscience, religion, and opinion.
✓A right to property. This includes a right to be free of invasion of the home and personal effects.
The Bible strongly proclaims human rights. Here are two examples:
Proverbs 31:8-9 says,
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Isaiah 1:17 says,
Learn to do good; seek justice [setting things right], correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Some examples in the Bible of people who believed in human rights were David, when he ran from his authority Saul who was trying to kill him; Paul, when he escaped over the wall in a basket from the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill him; and Moses’ mother, when she hid Moses in the basket on the river from the authority who wanted to kill him. In each case, each person was acknowledging and valuing the right to life as more important than obedience to an authority.
Civil rights are bestowed by a government, ostensibly to reflect human rights. The closer the leaders of a nation are to the ways of God, the more the civil rights of their nation will accurately reflect human rights.
Someone in the Bible who stood on his civil rights was the apostle Paul when the Roman soldier was going to beat him in Acts 22. He told the soldier he was a citizen of Rome and shouldn’t be beaten. Clearly, Paul knew he had civil rights and had no problem claiming them.
Recently someone told me she had heard another Christian say, “In Christ, we have no rights.” But the opposite is true. In Christ, we have amazing spiritual rights. For example, John 1:12 tells us we have the right to be called the sons and daughters of God. Hebrews 4:16 tells those who are in Christ that we have the right to go to the Father’s throne in prayer.
Notice the following about the three kinds of rights:
Human rights are yours by virtue of being a human. They are God-given to all who live.
Civil rights are yours by virtue of being a citizen of your country. They are bestowed by the government.
Spiritual rights are yours by virtue of being a Christian. They are given to you in Christ.
In the case of civil rights, the government can take them away, or they can be rejected as a package by renouncing citizenship. In the case of the other two, human rights and spiritual rights, it is just as impossible to surrender them as it is to surrender your facial features. They are part of who you are.
So, this still leaves us with some questions. Like . . . .
What about Jesus “surrendering His right” not to be treated unjustly?
What about Paul “surrendering his right” to have a wife?
What about all the other “rights” that need to be “surrendered,” like my “right” to a certain parking spot at work?
That’s where the no-rights teaching fails in three more ways:
3. This teaching fails to acknowledge that genuine rights can be violated
If someone steals my car, I will acknowledge that God is over all and has known about this since the foundation of the earth and has all things under His control. But that submission to God’s wisdom and will doesn’t negate the fact that my human right to my own property has been violated.
Jesus lived a completely sin-free life, obeying all the laws of both God and man, but men beat him and pulled out His beard and put a crown of thorns on His head and nailed Him to a cross. We know that He endured all this to accomplish the prize and joy of our salvation. But this purpose of His doesn’t negate the fact that on the horizontal level, He still had a right to be treated like the completely innocent man He was. On the horizontal, His rights were violated.
When a wife is degraded in the bedroom, used for violent pornographic sex, defiled in her mind and harmed in her body, she might tell herself she needs to yield her rights, or she doesn’t have any rights. But this is wrong. Her rights are being violated.
4. This teaching fails to distinguish that we can refrain from making use of our rights
Bob lives in the U.S.A. and has the right to own a gun. He doesn’t own one for reasons of his own, maybe because he believes in Christian nonresistance. This refraining from making use of his rights does not mean that he has surrendered those rights. The rights are still his, and he could later change his mind and go buy a gun.
Sue has the right to vote. She decides not to vote in this election for reasons of her own, possibly to make a protest against government corruption. This refraining from making use of her rights does not mean that she has surrendered those rights. The rights are still hers, and she could change her mind at the last minute and go vote.
The apostle Paul had the right to have a wife. He decided not to make use of that right because he lived a dangerous life as he spread the gospel around the world. But the right was still his; till the end of his days he still had the right to marry.
Jesus had the right to call twelve legions of angels in order to avoid having to die. He didn’t make use of that right because He wanted to secure our salvation, but it was His right until the end.
If a marriage covenant has been rendered null and void through violation of the covenant, the offended party has the right to divorce. Even if he or she chooses not to make use of that right, for any of a number of reasons, it should still be clear that in the eyes of God divorce remains the right of the harmed spouse.
5. The no-rights teaching fails to distinguish between rights and desires
When I see no-rights or surrender-your-rights being taught, it has often been small, petty, or even ridiculous issues that have been presented as “rights.” For instance, as I mentioned earlier, they might talk about surrendering your “right” to a certain parking spot at work. Or they might mention your “right” to “do things your way.” But hopefully it’s clear from the discussion above that these things aren’t even rights at all. They’re only desires.
Rather than telling a person to surrender her rights and then leaving the definition of “rights” fuzzy enough to encompass almost anything, let’s help her distinguish what her true rights really are. And then when we’re talking about desires, we can encourage each other in our desires becoming more and more aligned with the heart of God. This part really isn’t about rights at all.
There’s another problem I’ve seen from the no-rights teaching . . .
Double standards are created. The “no-rights” doctrine applies only to certain rights, not others
In all the many books and websites I read that tell readers to surrender their rights, in the front of every one of those books and at the bottom of every website was the line “All rights reserved.” This is a double standard.
Let’s say a woman is in an abusive situation trying to “surrender” her right even to freedom of thought because her husband checks to make sure her opinion matches his. Then she hears her husband complaining to someone about how the government is curtailing gun rights. This is a double standard.
The “no-rights” doctrine applies only to certain people, not others
The no-rights teachers might compare the Christian life to traffic, saying that just as in traffic we yield the right of way, so Christians should “yield” our rights in life. But what they’re missing is that if every driver were to yield in traffic, no one would ever get anywhere. When one driver is yielding, the other driver is going.
In the Christian world, if everyone is told to yield their rights, then in practicality the ones who will end up “yielding” their rights will be the ones with sensitive hearts who think this practice will help them be the Christian God wants them to be. But in actuality, when they live as if they have no rights, these Christians are allowing their rights to be violated with impunity.
In every case of domestic cruelty I’ve seen, it’s the one who is being abused who has to give up the rights, while the one who is the abuser retains the rights. Make no mistake about this: When one person is “yielding,” another person is “going.” When one person is “surrendering” rights, another person is taking rights.
So instead . . . how can Christians encourage each other in the Lord?
Help Christians understand the truth about rights
✓Help them understand the meaning of “rights” and help them see what their actual legitimate rights are: human, civil, and spiritual.
✓Show what it means for rights to be violated.
✓Help them make wise decisions about whether or not to make use of their rights.
✓Help them distinguish between rights and desires (and help them in their maturing process of getting to know the Lord through His Word and listening to the Holy Spirit, who will lead their desires to be more and more aligned with the will of God).
✓Assure them that God is still over all and will eventually set all things right, executing ultimate justice.
✓Know that in the meantime, we as His people are not called to look on passively as others suffer, telling them to give up their rights. But we are called to help others, in accord with Psalm 82:3.
Give justice to the weak and fatherless. Maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Question: Have you ever been told you “must” give up your rights?
I pray that this blog will give you clarity about what the Bible actually says about human rights.
Bless you all,