As Christians, we know that God is sovereign. He rules over the world, and all people are subject to Him as their maker and owner. Every human being is under a huge moral obligation to submit to and acknowledge Him.
In the light of God’s sovereignty, I am very concerned that large numbers of Christians seem not to have grasped that the worldview of mainstream, modern Western society is very different from a Christian worldview. Even many who are devout and mature in the faith seem not to have understood this.
Whereas a Christian worldview sees God as in authority and human beings as under that authority, it seems clear that in reality – if not necessarily always in theory – the mainstream Western worldview sees humans existing and acting as if they are the highest authority. The authority of God is essentially nowhere to be found.
It is troubling, then, that in Western countries loud Christian voices are often heard supporting the values and aims of these countries, apparently without stopping to ask if these things are pleasing to God.
Failure to recognise the big differences between a Western worldview and a Christian worldview can often be seen in what is said. There are a number of signs that all is not well. The attitude of Christians to so-called “human rights” is one of the clearest of these, and this is what I will say something about in what follows.
As everyone will be aware, Western society today is full of talk about human rights. Mainstream Westerners are constantly appealing to this concept to try to make some point or other.
All too often, Christians just seem to assume that points made by appealing to human rights are valid. Instead, we need to test what people say to the best of our ability (1 Thessalonians 5:21), to see if it meets with God’s approval.
RIGHTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Before going any further, there is a point of definition that I need to make.
When mainstream Westerners use the term “rights” without any qualification, unless the context shows otherwise, they clearly mean the same as they mean by “human rights.”
So, for example, when someone says that young children who are forced into employment are having their rights violated, they could just as well have said that they are having their human rights violated. If other types of rights are in view – for instance, legal rights – that will be obvious from the context.
Unless the context indicates otherwise, then, in normal speech in Western countries “rights” or “a right” mean the same as “human rights” or “a human right” respectively.
WHAT DO PEOPLE MEAN BY HUMAN RIGHTS?
Next, we need to ask what people mean by human rights.
I have done a little research looking into what people mean by this term, but it didn’t lead me anywhere. It seems that some moral philosophers accept the existence of human rights, while others deny their existence, and those who accept that they exist have various theories about exactly what human rights are. I don’t have the relevant expertise to enter into such a technical discussion.
However, I don’t believe that my lack of technical expertise on this subject will prevent me from giving a fairly good definition of what people mean by human rights. The vast majority of people who can be seen and heard in the media talking about human rights are not experts themselves, but they obviously have a pretty good idea of what they mean by the term. I feel confident that those of us who listen to what they say can also gain a good understanding of what they mean when they talk about human rights.
What human rights are not
Before giving my attempt at a definition, it is worth saying what people do not understand human rights to be.
Those who say that a person has a human right to do something are not usually simply saying that the person should not be prevented from doing that thing. Similarly, those who say that a person has a human right not to be subjected to something unpleasant are not usually simply saying that it is wrong for the person to be subjected to that thing.
It is true that for some people, this may be all that they mean when they talk about human rights. However, for most people it seems obvious that something much deeper is meant.
Defining human rights
It seems clear that when people talk of a person having a human right to do something, they usually mean the following:
The person, because they are a human being, has an authority to do the thing in question. It is also implied that that thing is something legitimate.
Similarly, when people talk of a person having a human right not to be subjected to something unpleasant, they usually mean the following:
The person, because they are a human being, has an authority that would be denied proper expression if they were subjected to that experience.
To be sure, most people who talk about human rights will never have thought through exactly what they mean by the term, and people’s understanding of it will vary to some extent. Nevertheless, I think it would be fair to say that usually when someone refers to a person having a human right, they have in mind an authority of this kind, and they think too that denying a person the opportunity to express that authority is immoral.
DO HUMAN RIGHTS EXIST?
So, do human rights, understood in this way, exist? Do people really have some sort of authority of this kind within themselves?
I will admit that I am very unsure of the answer to this question.
However, even if human beings do have some sort of human rights, as Christians we would need to say that these rights are derived from God. Any rights we have must be under the umbrella of the Lord and His rights.
Yet when mainstream Westerners speak about human rights, God is left completely out of the picture. In the standard Western understanding of human rights, it is the human being, not God, who stands in the place of ultimate authority. So even if human rights exist, the Western understanding of these rights is surely badly flawed.
Anyway, in this article I don’t intend to discuss whether human rights exist, because there is no need. Regardless of whether or not these rights exist, the Western concept of human rights has become a huge idol in Western culture, an idol that has deeply affected the church, as I will explain.
FAR FEWER LEGITIMATE APPLICATIONS
Firstly, even if human rights exist, the times and places that they legitimately apply are far fewer than people in Western society tend to realise.
No human right to commit a sin
To begin with, as Christians we would surely have to say that it is inconceivable that people have a human right to do something sinful.
It is true that we have free will that we can use to sin, if we so choose. However, human rights, as they are understood, are a much more positive concept than simple authority to use free will. So we should be in no doubt that people do not have human rights to commit any sort of sin.
No human right to practise the religion of our choice
Most Christians would have no hesitation in agreeing that no one has a human right to commit a sin. And yet many would contradict this with what else they say.
One clear example of this is when Christians claim that people have a human right to practise the religion of their choosing.
There is badly confused thinking going on here. This is an area where Western culture has had a very harmful influence on the church.
Importantly, if people have a human right to practise the religion of their choice, this would mean that they have a human right to practise a religion that involves worshipping idols. But worshipping idols is one of the sins that is most condemned throughout the Bible. And it is unthinkable that people have a human right to commit this sin.
Furthermore, in the Bible we find God commanding all people to believe in His Son, Jesus Christ (1 John ). We also find refusal to believe in Christ or rejection of Him being condemned (John , 36; ; Hebrews 12:25; 1 Peter 2:6-8 etc.). To practise a form of religion that does not say “Jesus Christ is Lord” is therefore to do something that is opposed to the will of God, i.e., to commit a sin. And again, it is not possible that people have a human right to commit this sin.
There should be no question, then, that people have absolutely no human right to practise the religion of their choosing.
In fact, there are surely few things more arrogant than for someone to think that they have a human right to practise whatever religion they want. How dare they suppose that they have an authority to worship God in any way they like?
That many Christians would claim that people do have a human right to do this just goes to show how much the human rights agenda of modern Western culture has entered the thinking of Christians in the West.
I need to stress here, however, in the strongest possible terms that my point is only that people have no human rights to practise the religion they want. I am not trying to imply that people should be denied legal rights to practise non-Christian religions.
The world we live in is a complex place, and if something is opposed to the will of God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Christians should attempt to deny people the legal right to do it. Quite apart from anything else, if Christians in Western countries were even to try to criminalise the practice of non-Christian religions, the backlash of persecution against Christians in other parts of the world would be severe. Therefore, we should attempt no such thing.
So we can support people being given legal rights to practise the religion of their choice. But we must absolutely reject the idea that people have a human right to practise the religion they want. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, every human being is under a huge obligation to believe in Jesus Christ.
No right to our opinion
There are other situations too where Christians often wrongly think that people have human rights.
For example, how often have you heard someone say, “He has a right to his opinion” or “She is entitled to her opinion” or something similar?
Those who use these phrases usually seem to be thinking of human rights. They seem to be saying that people have some sort of authority within themselves as human beings that gives them an entitlement to give their opinion on the matter in question.
In such cases, these words are another sign of the human-centred worldview that has elevated human rights (even if they exist) far beyond their station. Unless we believe that God is more or less neutral on a matter, then far from having any authority to have an opinion, we are actually under obligation to do our best to find out and submit to the mind of God on that matter.
It may often not be easy to know God’s mind on an issue, but that is beside the point. The point is about the fundamental relationship of human beings to God. He is the one in authority and we are the ones who are duty bound to do our best to fall in line with Him.
There are many more examples of where human rights, even if they exist, are believed to apply when really they don’t.
Claiming that people have human rights when this is not actually true is one way in which these rights have become an idol in our day. In many situations where people should be submitting themselves to the authority of God, the human rights agenda of modern Western culture has misled them into believing that they are the ones with authority. And the result of this is that people often appeal to human rights to justify things that are opposed to the will of God.
In Western society of our day, this type of idolatry is extremely common, and Christians are often guilty of it.
TINY IN COMPARISON WITH GOD’S RIGHTS
There is a second way in which human rights are idolised today. Even if these rights exist, and even in situations where it is possible that people really do have human rights, it is almost never acknowledged that these rights are tiny in comparison with God’s rights.
As an example of this, take the case of a woman who experiences violence from her husband. Mainstream Westerners will say that this man is violating her human rights. And they will usually focus their attention on this as they make their criticism.
In a Christian perspective, however, things look very different. Even if human rights do exist and a violent husband is violating this woman’s rights, what is much more important is that he is violating the rights of God!
God created that woman out of nothing, He owns her more than you or I own anything, and He loves her more deeply than you or I love anyone. If her husband mistreats her, quite apart from any small rights of hers that he may be violating, he is violating the enormous rights of almighty God! That is a far, far more serious matter!
Or take the example of malnourished children somewhere in the world. You can often hear people saying that children in this situation have a (human) right to be helped.
However, even if they do have this human right, their rights are as nothing compared with the rights God has for them to be helped. And if someone fails to help children in a condition like this when they should do, they are violating God’s huge rights as the one who created, owns and loves those children.
Even, then, in areas where people do perhaps have human rights, or, if human rights don’t exist, in areas where there is a desire for something legitimate, in Western thinking human rights have muscled in on God’s rights and forced them out of the way.
This is an extremely un-Christian way of looking at the world. It implies that the authority within human beings is greater than the authority of God. It is another huge idol in our day.
In this article I have tried to show that there are two ways in which so-called human rights have become big idols in Western society:
(1) People are wrongly believed to have authority to do or believe something, when they should instead be submitting to the authority of God. This often results in justifying things that are opposed to the will of God.
(2) Even when there is a desire for people to do or experience something legitimate, there is usually a failure to recognise that God’s rights are most important.
In mainstream Western thinking – by which I mean actual thinking rather than any theory – people, and not God, are in the place of ultimate authority. The human rights agenda of Western society ties in closely with this wrong thinking.
We Christians must not allow ourselves to be drawn into this way of looking at the world. We should be unembarrassed about seeing and speaking of our world as a place that is full of God’s rights.
When people say that they have a human right to do something sinful, we should be unafraid to tell them that they have no human right whatsoever to do anything that is against the will of God.
When they tell us that people have a human right to practise the religion of their choice, we should tell them that nothing could be more arrogant or further from the truth (although we should be extremely careful here to distinguish between human rights and legal rights).
And when they say, for example, that children who are starving are having their human rights violated, we should be bold to say that it is God’s rights, at least mainly, that are being violated when children are allowed to suffer in this way.