Reading through 1 Corinthians 8-9 this morning, I was struck (again) but just how incredibly counter-cultural the Bible is when it comes to thinking about our personal ‘rights’.
The language of ‘rights’ is everywhere in ethics and morality today. In large part, it flows out of the intense individualism that has enveloped our society. If you’re arguing for a particular position on any contentious issue, the quickest route to success is to establish that what you’re arguing for is ‘a basic human right’. Once you’ve established that someone has the right to do something, it’s game over, case closed. Anything that we have the right to do is automatically okay, so it seems.
The Bible takes a completely different perspective. Personal rights do exist, but instead of standing up for our own rights, we should be ready to relinquish those rights for the sake of others. Our lives are not about achieving maximum happiness for ourselves. They are about serving others in love, particularly as it involves the sharing of the gospel – even (or especially) if that means giving up our rights to do it.
In 1 Corinthians 8-9, Paul discusses the whole issue of ‘rights’ at some length. He establishes, for example, that Christians have the right to eat meat that has previously been sacrificed to idols – because, after all, idols are nothing, and there is only one true God (1 Cor 8:4-8). As an apostle, he argues that he has the right to ‘eat and drink’ (9:4), to marry (9:5) and to be paid for proclaiming the gospel (9:6-14). The Christian has many rights.
However, having established these rights, does Paul insist that his rights be fulfilled? Does he tell the Corinthians, “Follow my example, and don’t you dare let anyone deny you your God-given rights”? Is the Christian church meant to be a community driven by people who know their rights and who make sure they get their fair share?
Not at all! In fact, it’s just the opposite. The very reason Paul establishes his rights is to show that they’re not ultimate. “I have made no use of any of these rights,” he says (9:15). In his situation, his rights give way to what he sees as a powerful obligation, a necessity that is laid upon him: the necessity of preaching the gospel of Jesus. The great apostle to the Gentiles, a man endowed with powerful, God-given rights, lays aside those rights and willingly makes himself ‘a servant to all’ (9:19) in proclaiming the gospel. He lays down his life for the salvation of others.
And this way of life isn’t just for Paul. It’s exactly what he tells the Corinthians to do, too.
Many of the Corinthian Christians had thought through the issue of food offered to idols, and had realised they could eat whatever they wanted with a clear conscience. But again, Paul’s conclusion is radically different from the one our society would have reached. Our culture would say, “Take care that you don’t let anyone take away or impinge upon your personal rights!” But Paul says, “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (8:9)
If it’s going to help someone else, give up your rights. Let them go, and do it willingly. Ask not what you can get away with or what you are entitled to; ask how you can serve. Ask how you can care. Ask how you can love. Ask how you can sacrifice for the sake of someone else.
How far is Paul willing to go? “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (8:13) Did you get that? Here’s the mark of true love: for whom would you give up bacon?
More seriously (if there could be anything more serious than giving up bacon), Paul will finish this section of his letter by urging the Corinthians to, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1) Jesus himself set the ultimate standard of what it looks like to forego personal ‘rights’ for the sake of others. The God of the entire universe willingly took on flesh and blood, the nature of a servant. He made himself nothing, and went to a humiliating, painful death on the cross, where he bore the wrath of God that I (not he) deserved, so I could be forgiven by turning to him in trust.
The call for us to give up our rights for the sake of others is a call to reflect what our Saviour did for us in whatever (very) small ways we are able. Forget WWJD. The real question is: WDJD? What did Jesus do? He (literally) gave his life for the salvation of others, laying aside his rights and entitlements in the process. And he calls his people to do the same.
It’s a simple idea, but in a world that is obsessed with personal rights, it will make Christians radically different. And it has the potential to make Jesus look magnificent to the world around us.
So which of your rights can you willingly set aside today, for the sake of someone else? How can you lay down your life so someone else can meet Jesus?