This is a Bible study that I did for Liberty’s Light Forum.
I wanted to start saying what I think, but I decided to do a Bible study on how the Bible views the concept of ‘rights,’ in context with how the Founding Fathers viewed them. My results were very interesting and fascinating. God’s Word is indeed a treasure trove!
First off, I want to point out what I mean when I use the word ‘right’ in this context. The word has many different meanings and applications depending on context.
Webster’s 1828 dictionary in its 5th definition of ‘right’ in its noun form: Just claim; legal title; ownership; the legal power of exclusive possession and enjoyment. In hereditary monarchies, a right to the throne vests in the heir on the decease of the king. A deed vests the right of possession in the purchaser of land. Right and possession are very different things. We often have occasion to demand and sue for rights not in possession.
In simple, a ‘right’ is the noun of the adjective ‘right.’ Meaning that which it is right to do or have, and which it is wrong for someone to stop you from doing or having. Basically: a liberty.
But is this concept found in the Bible? Or is the idea of ‘rights’ only a modern semantic fallacy, and should be replaced with some other term like ‘responsibility.’ Surprisingly, when the Declaration of Independence stated that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the Founders were squarely resting on the Bible.
There are several words in both the Greek and Hebrew that mean ‘right,’ which are translated as ‘right,’ and used in the same way that the Founding Fathers used the term ‘right’ in the Declaration of Independence. But I will only go into two of them.
Strongs Hebrew 4941
mishpat — mish-pawt’ — from 8199; properly, a verdict (favorable or unfavorable) pronounced judicially, especially a sentence or formal decree (human or [participant’s] divine law, individual or collective), including the act, the place, the suit, the crime, and the penalty; abstractly, justice, including a participant’s right or privilege (statutory or customary), or even a style: — + adversary, ceremony, charge, X crime, custom, desert, determination, discretion, disposing, due, fashion, form, to be judged, judgment, just(-ice, -ly), (manner of) law(-ful), manner, measure, (due) order, ordinance, right, sentence, usest, X worthy, + wrong.
Many different applications of the word is used, but we can notice a couple things. 1) It is talking about a civil magisterial context and 2) it uses the terms ‘right’ and privilege’ in the definition. This is a civil liberty, as I stated above. A liberty which is to be recognized by the civil magistrate. A right.
This is used and translated in this sense many times.
Deuteronomy 21:17 But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated [for] the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he [is] the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn [is] his.
Psalms 9:4 For thou hast maintained my right and my cause; thou satest in the throne judging right.
Psalms 140:12 I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, [and] the right of the poor.
Isaiah 10:2 To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and [that] they may rob the fatherless!
Jeremiah 5:28 They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.
Jeremiah 32:7 Behold, Hanameel the son of Shallum thine uncle shall come unto thee, saying, Buy thee my field that [is] in Anathoth: for the right of redemption [is] thine to buy [it.]
Jeremiah 32:8 So Hanameel mine uncle’s son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the LORD, and said unto me, Buy my field, I pray thee, that [is] in Anathoth, which [is] in the country of Benjamin: for the right of inheritance [is] thine, and the redemption [is] thine; buy [it] for thyself. Then I knew that this [was] the word of the LORD.
Ezekiel 21:27 I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no [more,] until he come whose right it is; and I will give it [him.]
Malachi 3:5 And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in [his] wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger [from his right,] and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts.
Now for the Greek word that I will study:
Strongs Greek 1849
exousia — ex-oo-see’-ah — from 1832 (in the sense of ability); privilege, i.e. (subjectively) force, capacity, competency, freedom, or (objectively) mastery (concretely, magistrate, superhuman, potentate, token of control), delegated influence: — authority, jurisdiction, liberty, power, right, strength.
This is even more clear in its delineation of a ‘right’ as a ‘liberty.’ It is translated as ‘right,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘power,’ and ‘authority.’ in the following selection of verses. Very clear.
Hebrews 13:10 We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.
1 Corinthians 8:9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
Acts 5:4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
Luke 20:2 And spake unto him, saying, Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority?
Now I want to clarify some things about how we ought to view our rights. There is a popular sermon among preachers that condemns the modern concept of rights and the constant griping about our ‘rights being infringed.’ Some preachers even go so far as to say that the whole concept of rights is wrong. This conclusion is obviously wrong as I have shown. But how should we view them?
Matthew 5:38-47 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have [thy] cloak also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others?] do not even the publicans so?
Romans 12:17-21 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance [is] mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
These two passages make it very clear that we ought not, as Christians to try to defend our own rights. We ought to suffer for Christ, and not complain, and show that our peace transcends our circumstances. However Romans 12:19, quoted above, gives us a clue about what place our rights ought to have. We must leave our rights up to God: but what then?
Romans 13:1-5 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore [ye] must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
The civil government is God’s minister to do the avenging that is mentioned in the previous passage! So it is the government’s responsibility to defend our rights (by punishing those who attack them, I.e. punish crime). So if we are a civil magistrate, or if we are discussing civil magistrates, we need to be discussing our rights. That is when we should be discussing our rights. Responsibility is the right term to use when looking at the government’s end of things: it is their responsibility to defend our rights, but rights is the right term to use as well when you are discussing our end of the government.
I hope that that assists us in semantic clarity.
With joy and peace in Christ,