Christian discipleship and individual rights

Guest commentary

Over the last few months, I have heard a lot of people talking about “individual rights” or “individual liberties.” As a pastor, I am trained to use my faith and the biblical witness as a lens to view the world, and I am called to lead others to do the same. So I started to reflect on these notions of individual rights and individual liberties and how they intersect with the biblical witness and our call to follow Jesus Christ.

I turned to my Bible and sought out the phrases “individual rights” and “individual liberties.” I couldn’t find those words. So I pulled out my concordance and looked further, also to no avail. Not one to give up easily, I decided to go back to the original biblical languages, so I grabbed my “Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon” looking for those words, and I still found nothing. Then I pulled my “Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon” off the shelf and had another fruitless search.

I decided to take a step back and think about the concepts of individual rights and liberties and reflect on how those might be expressed in the Bible.

The narrative arc of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is dominated by motifs that teach God’s people to organize our lives and our societies around צדקה‎, tzedakah, a spiritual and ethical obligation to do what is right and just for our neighbors (see Genesis 15, Leviticus 19 and 23, Numbers 15, Deuteronomy 10 and 24 and 27).

Similar ideas are expressed in the Exodus narrative, beginning with Moses’ exile that stems from his reaction to a slave master beating his slave, and continues as Moses is directed by God to return from exile to confront Pharaoh. Pharaoh is stubborn; even when pressed hard by plagues, he resists releasing the slaves because he cannot imagine a society in which his own well-being is not paramount. God punished Pharaoh for this self-centered focus and provides an alternative to it for the Israelites. Later in Exodus, God establishes order for the Israelites as a free people, teaching them to prioritize the needs of others above their own individual rights and liberties through the Ten Commandments. They are introduced in Exodus 20 with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The freedom granted to them by God is undergirded by the creation of a social order that prioritizes love and care of others over individual freedom and liberty, the basis of which is founded in the Ten Commandments. God’s people are giving up some of their individual freedoms and liberties in order to follow God and ensure the good of their community.

The Old Testament prophets pick up on this theme and consistently criticize people who prioritize their own individual liberties over the needs of others, particularly the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalized.

  • In Amos, the people have rejected their call to communal living and following the standards of the community (including care for the vulnerable) in favor of their own individual rights and liberties (see Amos 2:6-8 and Amos 8:4-6). God pronounces judgement on them for this through the voice of Amos.
  • In Micah, you read a similar condemnation of prioritizing individual rights and liberties over the needs of the community. In Micah 3, we read a diatribe against the false prophets who seek to serve themselves over their community. The oft-quoted Micah 6:8 reminds us that God is not looking for sacrifices offered for self-serving needs, but instead we are required to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” This admonition points us outward, away from individual rights and liberties and toward an ethic of working for justice for others and walking in humility. Humility, by its very definition, points us away from ourselves and toward the needs of others.
  • Isaiah picks up on this theme in Isaiah 1:10-15, where we read a similar critique of the emptiness of sacrifice without obedience to God and the standards and norms that God demands: taking care of the community. Isaiah 5 continues along this line, decrying the greedy who accumulate more than they need at the expense of the poor. Isaiah 10 offers a stern warning about depriving the oppressed of justice, which can be understood as a critique of putting individual rights and liberties over the needs of the community. Isaiah 58 continues this line of thinking; instead of demanding a ceremonial fast from eating, God demands a “fast” of prioritizing the needs of the community over the needs of the individual. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

This same theme can be found in many of the other Old Testament prophets, including in Jeremiah 22, Ezekiel 16 and 22, Zechariah 7, Malachi 3 and others.

Moving to the New Testament, we find many verses that reflect on freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). What is this freedom Paul is talking about in this newfound Christian community, and what does it have to do with individual rights and liberties? Paul answers that question a few verses later stating: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14). This is a clear critique of prioritizing individual rights and liberties over the needs of others; Christian freedom is grounded in selfless love for one another, not in individual liberties and rights.

Jesus makes similar claims throughout the Gospels. There are three statements of Jesus that form the basis of the Christian ethical system and speak directly to this tension between individual rights and liberties and our call to Christian discipleship:

  • Some version of the greatest commandment, or the double love command, occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels. Matthew 22:34-40 reads: “When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
  • John 15:12-14 offers a similar perspective: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
  • Matthew 16:24-26 describes what it means to follow Jesus: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

These three sayings of Jesus sum up what it means to be a disciple. When we hold these words of Jesus up to the current debate about individual rights and individual liberties, the message is clear. Being a disciple of Christ means that we put the needs of others above our own needs. Jesus uses ἀγάπη (agape, or unconditional love) as the basis for this, and makes it clear that the ultimate act of love is to give up your own rights and liberties and to “lay down your life for your friends.” Following Jesus means to deny ourselves, deny our own needs, desires and individual rights and liberties in order to take up our cross and follow him.

As debates rage on in our country about individual rights and individual liberties, those of us who claim to be Christians are called to ground our response to those debates in Scripture, and the biblical witness is clear. The narrative arc of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation instructs us that we are to prioritize the needs of others in our community, particularly the vulnerable and marginalized, over our own needs. Our “freedom” is grounded in selflessly giving up our rights and liberties for the well-being of others. Christian discipleship calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, lay down our lives for our friends and deny ourselves in order to follow the way of Jesus.

GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska.