posted by Rebecca (First published at Here’s the Joy fall 2014, republished in part on Recovering Grace. Though we believe Bill Gothard first introduced the concept of Christians having no rights, we believe that this teaching has permeated much of certain branches of Christianity and needs to be addressed here.)
I didn’t know, back when I passively accepted some of these false teachings—it didn’t even occur to me what the grim outworking, the rotten fruit, would be. But now . . . I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the lives of people I love.
In some Christian circles people are taught, “When you get angry, it’s because you thought you had rights, and you thought those rights were violated, but that just shows your pride and self-centeredness. Everything you have belongs to God, so if you’re unhappy, you’re claiming a right you should have given up, and you’re in sin. You’re not entitled to anything, but God will give you everything you need. So that should make you happy, and if you’re not, you’re in sin.” (This is paraphrased from an explanation of the concept that I found in a forum. My impression was that the one explaining it was a proponent of the teaching.)
So imagine you’re a vulnerable person (for example, a child, or a naïve young woman) in an outwardly Christian home or institution that is covertly extremely abusive. (These are far more common than you might think.) You’re taught that you have no rights.
Then you’re sexually violated. Again and again. Besides whatever threats and manipulation and lies the evil offender might snarl or whisper in the dark or write on the wall with your blood, in your ears is ringing the dictum, “You have no rights. Christians have no rights.”
The fallacious nature of this argument and the odious results are—or should be—painfully, painfully obvious. But someone asked me to please address this issue from a Biblical perspective, because she grew up thinking that the Bible taught that she had no rights. (“We had no right to expect safety. We had no right to defend or protect ourselves. We had no right to be angry. We had no right to feel sadness.”)
The Vital Concept of Human Rights
– Human Rights in the Bible
The last six of the Ten Commandments—the laws regarding human interaction with each other—implies rights. Do not kill implies the right to life. Do not commit adultery implies the right to faithfulness in one’s spouse. Do not steal implies the right to property. Do not bear false witness implies the right to an honest presentation of one’s reputation. Do not covet again implies the right to property.
Here at BJUGrace we’re especially interested in the Scriptures that talk about the rights of the underdogs. It’s pretty clear that these people have rights:
Psalm 82:3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Proverbs 31:8-9 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 Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
A definition of justice from Webster’s 1828 dictionary: The virtue which consists in giving to every one what is his due [his “right”]; practical conformity to the laws and to principles of rectitude [“rightness”] in the dealings of men with each other.
Jesus was the All-Powerful God who never exploited the vulnerable. He specifically stated that he came to proclaim freedom for prisoners, to set the oppressed free—oppressed because someone had ignored and violated their basic human rights. Someone else had used a power to take over a person’s freedom. He even told a parable about a widow before an unjust judge who was seeking justice because she believed she had rights—probably based on the Scriptures that clearly asserted it.
I Corinthians 9 may seem to indicate that Paul gave up his rights (especially because in the ESV the heading says “Paul Surrenders His Rights”) , but he never did. Acts 22 makes that clear—he told the Roman captain that he was protected from being flogged without a trial by virtue of his rights of Roman citizenship.
Interesting word, citizenship. The captain’s response was, “With a great sum I obtained this [my own] freedom.” It’s the very same Greek word translated citizenship.
To the Roman world, the concepts of citizenship and freedom were interchangeable, because the rights of Roman citizens were of such great magnitude. With that in mind, here’s an expanded definition of citizenship that would fit with the meaning everyone would have understood at the time of the New Testament—being a member of a group who works together under a common ruler, with definite responsibilities and very important rights, which include the right of freedom and respect from other members of the community.
With that understanding, see that in Philippians 3:20, Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” We are members of this heavenly community, along with other Christians. Though suffering and tribulation are to be expected from the outside world, they are not to be expected from the community of heavenly citizens.
So if those who claim to be Christians are treating each other this way, then what are we to do? Is there no recourse? Absolutely there is. Following Paul’s example, because he was a citizen of the country of Rome and we are citizens of that heavenly country, we speak out, with dignity and clarity.
The Bible supports human rights.
– Human Rights as a Foundational Part of Our Great Nation
In one of the blog posts I found teaching that rights for Christians is wrong (even going so far as to put the word rights in quotation marks), the author, Dan Leningen, says, “Jefferson got one thing right which was that rights come from the Creator.”
Yes, that’s why they’re called inalienable. They can’t be taken away. We’re born with them—in fact, they are ours before we’re born. They called these inalienable rights Natural Law, since God gave them and no one can take them away. Natural Law can be boiled down to two parts: (1) Do not encroach on others or their property (the basis of criminal law) and (2) Do all you have agreed to do (the basis of civil law). Anything that oversteps these laws has in any free society been considered a violation of the rights of another.
If someone encroaches on another or his property, then in a just society he’ll forfeit his own rights–for example, to freedom of movement, since he’ll be incarcerated. This is a wise justice system at work. Our founders knew that if you violate individual rights, then ultimately you’ll be tampering with the structure and function of families, communities, and societies. They knew that power grabbers would be held in check by the recognition and exercise of individual rights.
I teach English as a Second Language. One time when subbing in a class I seized an opportunity to discuss the basic human right to freedom of thought. In that class were students from about five different countries, including China and some Middle Eastern countries. As you can imagine, the discussion was very lively.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes in the world when it comes to freedom of thought, living as they do under sharia law. People have been killed for thinking or believing in a way that is contrary to what the government declares is acceptable. Most who are reading this would agree that this is a violation of a basic human right to freedom of thought and belief, perhaps the most important contribution of what made our nation great in its inception.
The most obvious way this can be displayed is in the matter of the unborn baby, the rights of whom are agreed upon by most Christians. Since he can’t speak for himself, we advocate for him in the truest sense of the word. We agree that on a horizontal level, before man, he has a right to life.
How can we teach children the rules about what’s “right” regarding the rights of others, even beginning in the nursery, and then teach them that they themselves have no rights in the Christian community?
So Where Did It Come From?
The concept of giving up your rights is nowhere taught in Scripture, nowhere taught in history, unless you’re studying the most tyrannical regimes. Research seems to indicate that this teaching originated in Christianity with Bill Gothard in the 1960s. Before that, it was apparently unheard of (if this is incorrect, we’d appreciate a correction), being as antithetical as it is to Scripture, common sense, and the foundational teachings of our nation.
Biblical and Logical Misunderstandings Used in Propounding that Christians Have No Rights
–Failing to Distinguish Horizontal Relationships from Vertical
This one appears to be the foundational misunderstanding. Talking about our rights before God is very different from talking about our rights before man. In our relationship with God, we have rights only as they are granted to us in Christ (for example, the right to enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to make our request known before God). Over our lives, our property, we have no rights before God. He has all rights.
Before our fellow men, though, every one of us has basic human rights. All humans do. This is clear from Scriptures, from common sense, and from the foundational tenets of our nation.
The concepts of rights in our vertical relationship—before God—and rights in our horizontal relationships—with other people—have to be distinguished from one another in order for us to be able to make sense of the concept of our rights as Christians. However, the ones who teach the no-rights doctrine regularly and often mix these two concepts together, causing confusion and wrong conclusions.
In the aforementioned blog post, for example, Dan Leningen says, “Demanding your ‘rights’ is pride in expecting that you deserve to be treated a certain way. Ultimately, we deserve nothing but judgment for our sin.”
Well . . . this might sound logical . . . at first glance. After all, it’s true that before God—vertically—outside of Christ we deserve nothing but judgment for our sin. . . .
Sorting out the difference between the vertical and the horizontal relationships is crucial here.
In horizontal relationships, in regard to other people, it’s completely different. Each person has rights. That includes “you.” You absolutely do deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. You deserve to be able to keep your body private. If Dan Leningen were to be screamed at and called degrading names by his boss every day and even violated in the most degrading manner, he might think about these rights and realize that it isn’t just pride to expect them, but simply human dignity.
In what may be the quintessential explanation of the no-rights doctrine, Bill Gothard says, “yielding our personal rights and expectations to Him helps us resolve irritations, anger, and worry.” Yes, this sounds good. Emphasis on the “to Him.” To God. Not to other people.
Gothard goes on:“In the areas of life where we have responsibilities, we also have personal rights and privileges—things we believe we deserve. . . . Based on these rights, we construct expectations of others . . . . Just because you are alive, you probably believe you have the right to be accepted as an individual, to express opinions, . . . to control your personal belongings, and to make decisions.” Gothard then goes on to teach that it’s wrong, even sinful, to think this way.
Is this as disturbing to you as it is to me? (Which means, really, really disturbing.) He’s teaching that you don’t have the basic human right before your fellow humans to be accepted as an individual. He’s teaching that you don’t have the basic human right to express your opinion to your fellow humans—freedom of thought. He’s teaching that before your fellow humans, you don’t have the right to control your personal belongings, which translates, to the vulnerable and oppressed ones as including their bodies.
Sort it out, vertical vs. horizontal. Before God, we understand that our acceptance as an individual is grounded in the glorious and full acceptance of Jesus Christ. Before God, we understand that our opinions are subject to His truth. Before God we understand that our personal belongings, including our bodies, belong to Him, and any decisions we make are subject to him.
But before our fellow humans, we have human rights, just as they do! We are all equal in value before God—can you even imagine telling someone that he or she does not have a right to be accepted as an individual? You have a right to protect your belongings from marauders, including your body from those who would invade it.
–Failing to Distinguish the Right to Life, Liberty, and Property from the Life Liberty, and Property Itself
In Leningen’s blog post, he says, “[A]s Christians we are called to give up a right to our life to serve God and others (Matt. 10:39;16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25).” This is false, and his piling on Bible verse references doesn’t change it.
What Paul, for example, talked about giving up—and in fact he talked about it over and over—was not his rights, but his very life.
Don’t think of this as a nitpicking distinction. It’s crucial. Because if Paul truly had no rights, then when he was “encroached upon,” through stonings, imprisonment, threats of murder, no wrong would have been done. For him, there would have needed to be no justice system. If he had given up his rights, then there would be no wrong to be judged.
But his rights were very much intact.
If you look up all the Scripture references that Dan Leningen references in his statement above, you’ll find that nowhere do any of them say anything about rights. The Bible doesn’t admonish Christians to give up their right to life. The Bible admonishes those of us able to make a mature decision to be willing to give up our very lives, for the advancement of the Kingdom. God the Just Judge will care for their rights that have been violated and will accomplish justice.
The violation of the rights of the vulnerable is a grave crime, not only in the eyes of just earthly judges, who, after all, should only be reflections of the Heavenly Judge. This is why, instead of telling those widows whose houses were being devoured, “Didn’t you know that you really don’t have any rights? The fact that you’re upset about this shows that you’re in sin.” Instead of that, our Savior, our Just Judge Jesus Christ, echoed the words of John the Baptist, who warned those abusers, the Pharisees, “Generation of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
What did he say about the children? “He who causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the sea.” There is a just and right and loving protection around these vulnerable ones, because before God, yes they do have rights.
And again, to refute Bill Gothard Jesus did not give up His right to wealth, but the wealth itself. The right was still His. He didn’t give up the right to a good reputation, but the reputation itself. The right was still His. He didn’t give up the right to physical comforts, but the physical comforts themselves. The right was still His.
In another example, in this blog post, Bryan Crawford says, “Jesus . . . had the right to come off the cross. After all he was being executed unjustly.. . . Jesus could have called legions of angels to come off the cross. I believe he had that right. But the beauty of the cross, and therefore the beauty of the gospel, is that Jesus laid down his rights, died, that we might live! So that the very essence of the gospel is the . . . laying down of rights.”
Again, this is wrong. Jesus never laid down his rights. Never. If He had laid them down, then they would not have been violated, but they were. He kept His rights till the very end. What he laid down was His life.
– Thinking that Turning the Other Cheek Means Being a Doormat
When Jesus told His hearers that when they were struck on one cheek, to turn the other, He was not telling them that they had no rights. The striking on the cheek wasn’t a violent punch (from which someone would need to be protected), but a degrading slap. Turning the other cheek is a way to show the self-respect that says, “I will not respond in kind. I will show this man that I am a person of dignity, every bit his equal.” It would be akin to—when a cruel boss shouts at you and calls you terrible names—turning and walking out of the room with dignity instead of lowering yourself to shout back at him.
Interestingly enough, Jesus Himself, when He was slapped at the time of his trial, instead of wordlessly turning the other cheek, spoke to the man who struck him. He spoke mildly, but he spoke. “If I have done wrong, then bear witness of it. But if I haven’t, then why have you struck me?” Thus Jesus maintained his dignity and showed his abuser to be the guilty one.
In this article, Bill Gothard teaches, “Jesus Yielded His Right to Make His Own Decisions. Perhaps the most difficult right to yield is that of making final decisions. Yet, if we do not fully yield this right to God, we will not develop a spirit of meekness or walk in true humility before God. Jesus lived in complete surrender to God’s direction.” Gothard’s examples of this teaching are (1) Christ’s yielding of Himself in obedience to His parents when He was a child, and (2) Christ as an adult yielding Himself to God the Father (the vertical relationship).
He doesn’t happen to mention anything about the child Jesus rebuking His mother when He was exercising His right to teach in the temple. He doesn’t mention anything about the adult Jesus yielding His rights to other people in the horizontal relationship—because He didn’t. In fact, He very clearly and emphatically stated in John 10:18, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
A person who unquestioningly takes this no-rights teaching to heart will end up having all freedom of thought be crushed by the one in a position of authority over him or her. The Recovering Grace website has made it plain that Bill Gothard believed that for the people in his employ he needed to make both major and minor decisions. That may be the reason it was important to him to indoctrinate others that they should give up their rights to make their own decisions.
As a final example, this blog post is written by a woman for whom my heart breaks. Her husband is apparently a serial adulterer, leaving and returning, leaving and returning. Because she believes she has no rights, she even acknowledges that she is being a doormat, but believes that is the way of Christ. Oh, my sister, it’s not.
The Bad Fruit of the Teaching that Christians Have No Rights
After about forty or fifty years of this teaching in our churches, we can draw conclusions with a reasonable level of certainty regarding the way this teaching works out in practice.
In theory you teach that Christians have no rights. But in practice, the no-rights teachings applies only to obeying certain earthly authorities (usually the authority in the family or church or ministry structure). It doesn’t apply to other rights violations such as murder or large-scale theft or especially rights violations by the government. It seems difficult to imagine anyone refraining from reporting a murder of a Christian to the police on the basis of the notion that that Christian had no rights. Or if a car was stolen? I’ve never heard of someone simply accepting that—nor should they. Finding and bringing to justice those who commit crimes is a vital aspect of living in a free society. When Christians live in a society where the government is repressive and will not come to their aid—or are criminals themselves—then we determine not to take vengeance into our own hands but instead cry out to God the Just Judge and trust Him to do right. But in the society of the United States, with the Bill of Rights? Ones who claim that Christians have no rights may very well still cite the right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and other important freedoms that are guaranteed protection in this society according to the government established by our founders.
There appears to be a double standard.
Again, in theory, you teach that Christians have no rights. But in practice, Vulnerable Christians are the ones who have no rights. Powerful Christians always retain them.
Often the victim is either young and naïve or else very traumatized, and thus doesn’t catch, sometimes for years, the obvious double standard.
I mentioned that Bill Gothard appears to have been the founder of this false teaching, which has filtered through many branches of Christianity. As we’ve seen through the last three years of the Recovering Grace website (www.recoveringgrace.org), Gothard, who taught the no-rights idea so vehemently, made it clear to his staff through word and deed that this concept didn’t apply to him. He had many rights, including the right to silence dissenters through threats and firings, claiming that “the ministry” was more important than they were.
This is what we’ve seen. And we’ve seen it again and again, not just in Gothardism, but in other branches of Christianity. The man with the big name abuses someone. Others with big names gather to protect him. They use many tactics on the victim, and one of them is this one. You really have no rights. Christians have no rights.
The powerful are protected. The vulnerable are crushed, confused, broken, hopeless. Maybe they have no anger, like good little girls and boys, but maybe that’s because something in them has died.
This is not the heart of God. Rather, this is a noxious stink in the nostrils of God.
Dan Leningen ends his blog post with these words, with my own thoughts inserted in brackets:
Releasing your ”rights” to be treated well, hold a grudge, or exercise your freedom of choice will bring you incredible peace and joy because you won’t feel slighted when you are treated poorly. [But will you feel shattered when you’re violated and believe that you have no recourse? Will you feel self-hatred when you’re violated and believe yourself to be the worthless piece of trash you’ve been described to be? It is not releasing your rights that will bring you joy, but trusting in the just Judge who will ultimately make all things right.]. . . When we pridefully demand our rights, there is always contention. [What about when we humbly demand our rights? Wasn’t that what Paul did with that Roman soldier?] Only when you release you rights will you have the mind of Christ, be able to walk in the Spirit, and see His fruit produced in your life. [This is easy for Dan to say in the theoretical. But if his car is stolen or his wife is raped, would he refrain from reporting the crime to the police because he and his wife have no rights?] Our only right is to serve and obey God. [Really? No, outside of Jesus Christ, we don’t even have a right to do that. But because we are in Christ, you know what we have a right to do? We have a right to go boldly into the holy of holies to present our case before God, knowing that, because of Christ, our cries will be heard. We can have Great Expectations in Him.]
Though our rights will be violated by the evil of men—sometimes even evil men in the midst of our churches—don’t forget that those rights are still intact, and our just Judge is watching and will bring all to account. If justice is not served here on earth as it should be, it will still be served. As we beseech a just and good God for justice, we also remember that He will ultimately do right.
There is a far greater way of joy than this false one of “giving up your rights.” As citizens together of that heavenly community, Real Christians love each other, help each other, encourage each other, respect each other, and work together for the advancement of the good news of the glorious Kingdom of God through our victorious Savior. We make sure we don’t “Hurt the Cause of Christ” by being unafraid to assert our right to speak the truth out of hearts filled with His love.
And we’ll end boldly and unashamedly with these words: Any organization that teaches that individuals do not have rights either is a cult or is in danger of becoming one.
Though for the sake of Christ you may surrender many things, don’t ever let anyone tell you that, before God, with other people, you have no rights.
Update October 2016: The concept of Christians having rights is enlarged upon and developed further in Rebecca Davis’s new Justice Keepers Publishing book, Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. She is also the collaborating author of Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church and Tear Down this Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches.