Biblical Rights and Responsibility

For this post I want to start with a brief consideration of the Old Testament verses that do address the rights of the oppressed. These are the verses that most clearly indicate that God himself does sanction and support an idea of rights. Then, for a narrower “Christian” perspective, I want to consider rights related verses from the New Testament. Then I will wrap up this post with a discussion rights and responsibility in general. This will consider the practical application of rights in bible times, the same way they apply now, when they do work and to the extent they work.

Old Testament Rights

For considering Old Testament of rights of the oppressed, we have these verses:

Job 36:6 * 9 / God gives [sees to / delivers on] the rights of the oppressed

Pr 31:5 * 10 / Charge not to deprive oppressed of their rights

Pr 31:8 * 11 / Charge to speak up for rights of destitute

Pr 31:9 * 12 / Charge to speak up, judge fairly, defend rights of poor and needy

Ecc 5:8 * 13 / Don’t be surprised at rights denied to the poor and oppressed in corrupt situations

Isa 10:2 * 14 / Condemns withholding rights and justice from poor and oppressed

La 3:35 * 15 / The Lord sees it if people denied justice and rights

These, I think, are the Old Testament verses which most clearly indicate that the biblical authors are assuming God presumes rights, or are where the authors are presuming God assumes rights. Assuming that the text is always addressed to the reader or audience, and allowing that the readership and audience may vary, the text is still always “to” whoever is reading or hearing it. None of these verses have to do with one’s (the readers’ or hearers’) own rights, but always have to do with looking out for the rights of others. Given that these are always addressed to the reader/hearer, then to the reader/hearer the common underlying presumption is one of responsibility of the reader/hearer; the responsibility to take of others by way of respecting and looking out for the rights of the other. Anyone who reads or hears these verses IS “the audience,” and to the audience, it is never about their own rights, but their (presumed/assumed) responsibility to the rights of others. No one can read or hear these verses read without being the audience. As such, no one can read or hear these verses from the perspective of the “other” whose rights are to be recognized and protected. Anyone who reads or hears is the audience, and to the audience, it’s about responsibility to the rights of others, not one’s own rights. That’s the perspective of the Old Testament verses that most clearly indicate God as being on-board with the whole notion of rights. And the bottom line turns out not to be the rights of others, but the responsibilities of the audience, responsibilities to look out for the others. So the focus to the Old Testament Hebrew audience was never about one’s own rights, but always about the responsibility to look out for the (rights of the) other. The rights of the other had to do with recognizing how to care for them, as the other.

And I think the New Testament comments on rights begin to accentuate, confirm, or validate my point here, for an overall “biblical take on rights thinking.” Let’s turn now to review those New Testament verses that address rights.

New Testament Rights


1: Mt 20:15 / Jesus’s parable of vineyard workers and farmer’s right to generosity

2: Jn 1:12 / Right of practicing Christian believers to become children of God

3: Jn 18:31 / Jews protesting to Pilate that they have no right (under Roman occupation and authority) to execute anyone

End of Gospels

4: Ac 25:11 / Paul relying on his Roman citizenship to protest there is not Roman authority to turn him over to Jews for execution / appeals to Caesar

5: 1Co 6:12 / Freedom in Christ, right to do anything, but warning not all beneficial

6: 1Co 8:9 * 16 / Warning against allowing one’s own rights to cause problems for others

7: 1Co 9:5 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

8: 1Co 9:6 / Paul and Barnabas “lacking right to not work for a living” – Rhetorical

9: 1Co 9:12 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

10: 1Co 9:15 * 17 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

11: 1Co 9:18 * 18 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

12: 1 Cor 10:23 / Freedom in Christ, rights to all, but not all beneficial

13: Heb 12:16 * 19 / Reference back to Esau selling birth rights in Gen 25:31-27:36

14: Heb 13:10 / Altar / those who minister have no right to eat.

15: Rev 2:7 / Right to eat from tree of life / be children of God

16: Rev 3:21 / Right to sit with Jesus on throne as he sat with God on His throne

17: Rev 22:14 / Right to tree of life, into heaven city, eternal life

The first verse is a parable used to illustrate God’s right to be generous.

The second, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth verses all have to do with claiming an explicit God granted right to practicing Christian believers, that they are given a right to inherit eternal life, or become children of God, so to speak. Note that this right is not one against other people, but against God, His to grant people if He wishes. If anyone chooses to believe that, it’s nothing they exercise “against” any other human. It’s between them and God, if God exists. The main potential for loss with this right is possibility that there is no God, and no such right, but a person mistakenly believes both. But if that would be a loss, it would be a potential loss to that mistaken believer, not anyone else. Across the entirety of the Bible, this right for practicing Christian believers to become children of God is the only right I can find that is explicitly, expressly granted by God to any human being. And that’s not a right against any other human, but only against God, and only because He grants it. This may be the only right that is not included in the stop-gap I will mention near the end of this post. So, if this right is a right, it’s distinctive in a couple of ways. 

The third and fourth verses have to do with Jewish protests to occupying Roman authorities that Jews under that Roman occupation do not have the right (Roman authorization) to execute Jesus. Then Apostle Paul relying on his Roman citizenship to insist that the local Romans do not have Roman authority to turn him over to the Jews for execution.

The fifth and twelfth each address rights to do anything (freedom in Christ) but they both do so in the process of implying responsibility to refrain from non-beneficial or harmful uses of one’s own rights.

The sixth verse is a warning or admonition to refrain from using one’s own rights to the detriment of others. It’s assuming a preeminent responsibility to look out for the benefit of others, even at the expense of one’s own rights.

The seventh, through eleventh verses are all about the Apostle Paul recognizing and exercising his responsibility to a greater good (The Gospel) ahead of or even in place of his rights. He’s putting his responsibility in front of his rights so as to refrain from abusing the rights. So here, for Paul, responsibility is relied on to steer his use of rights or refraining from use of rights. Again, audience, personal responsibility is the bottom line.

The thirteenth verse warns again trading off one’s eternal inheritance (right) in the way Esau squandered his birthright in the story of Genesis 25-27.

And finally, the fourteenth verse

For both Old Testament and New, audience, personal responsibility is shown to drive the boat on rights. We don’t have to think about it very long or very deeply to see how and why that would be the case. Whether we are talking about the relational rights of the pre-civilization hunter gatherer tribe, rights of primogeniture from the Old Testament, or the right to keep and bear arms from the United States Bill of Rights, practical application for the current and historical conception of rights works the same way, about the only way it can work, when it works at all.


Allowing that rights are historically and presently about protections for people, they serve as markers or boundaries for the care of and well-being of people. Even IF God grants everyone on the planet all the rights in the world, WE are the ones who get to decide whether they do anyone any good or not. And if we decide they are going to be allowed to do anyone any good depends on our own recognition of our responsibility to honor those rights (of the other) for their benefit. The rights are not the good of the other. The rights are the markers for the good of the other. If the markers are missing, we’re still responsible for the good of the other. Only to the extent that we recognize that responsibility and practice accordingly will any right serve any beneficial purpose whatsoever. I can have a property right. If I live in a community of 30 or 30,000 people it only takes one person to fail in their responsibility to recognize that right for all of us to have a thief living in our midst. With a thief amongst us, none of our property rights are secure. I can have the right all day long and into next week. But if I’ve lost the property, particularly if it is a consumable, so what? I’ve just lost the property. Even if the perpetrator is caught and punished, my property is gone. The right failed to do me any good, because the perpetrator failed to recognize or honor a responsibility to me, the responsibility of honoring my right.

And the New Testament in particular explicitly takes it a good deal further than this. The New Testament makes it pretty clear that responsibility supersedes rights, particularly one’s own rights.

So, for the biblical audience, that being anyone who reads or hears it, the focused emphasis, or dependency is not on rights, but responsibility.

In Post 4, Rights 3 I have a sidebar regarding B.F. Skinner and his challenges of human freedom and dignity. If we start and end with “our own rights to” freedom and dignity, they become the problem he noted. If we start and end with our responsibilities for allowing freedom and dignity to others, they are not nearly so problematic. They both become recognizable as blessings (perhaps intended by God) that we allow to one another, this by recognizing our responsibilities for allowing them and choosing to doing so. But whether they are blessings intended by God, and whether or not it is actually a responsibility for us to grant those blessings, they only matter, they only offer protection to the extent that we choose grant them for others. If I take your bowl of soup, pour it out on the ground and break the bowl, you lost the soup and the bowl. You can have all the rights in the world to that bowl of soup, maybe even rights granted by God Himself, and maybe not, but so what? If there is a God, and if He did grant you those rights, I may answer to Him for those violations. But none of that does you any good. None of that helps the YOU that rights are about protecting. You’re minus the bowl and the soup. And if that bowl of soup happens to be your freedom, your dignity, or your life, oh well. Right denied. The Bible defines and assigns responsibility more explicitly than anyone’s rights. And the main way I denied your right was by rejecting my own biblical responsibility. If I live up to my biblical responsibility toward you, you don’t need any rights against me. Any rights you would try to claim against me beyond my biblical responsibilities are out of line anyway. If I, or anyone else in our community fails at the recognition and honoring of that responsibility, or at the very least fails at a choice of granting and honoring a right, we’re all out of rights-luck. Anyone’s rights to anything are, in practical application, entirely dependent on the responsibility of everyone else, or a choice to recognize, honor, or even to afford protection even without any responsibility for doing so. That’s the only way rights work to anyone’s benefit: everyone else honors them. That’s their responsibility at work, when it works.

Biblical Rights and Responsibility

The bible, I think, plainly enough takes the side of responsibility; the Old Testament implicitly so (at least) and the New Testament explicitly so. This is why the core of the Law of Moses is a Bill of Responsibility (10 Commandments) rather than a Bill of Rights (U.S. Constitution). And this is why the 2 Great Commands of Jesus, the 2 on which all the law and the prophets hang, are both responsibilities. Nobody’s right is worth any more than everybody else’s responsibility to honor it. This is why the 10 Commandments of Moses and the 2 Commands of Jesus are all responsibilities. If everyone adhered to those 2 Judeo-Christian sets of responsibilities, rights would be pointless. Viewed in this light, to whatever extent rights may be God-granted, they’re granted as stop-gaps for our failures at responsibilities also assigned by God, and those assigned more clearly and explicitly (12 commandments, 10 Old Testament and 2 New). This, I think, is about as clear as I can make it.

So, as I work toward a biblical libertarian philosophy, I will lean on responsibility as the biblical key, much, much more so than rights.

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