Individual Rights and Community

If we are serious about being a community, then I think that we need to finally quit participating in the popular insistence upon individual rights.

Individual rights are not bad.  I enjoy the fact that you should not be able to steal my property or force me to do something that I do not think I should do.  But in a liberal society, I fear that we have elevated the notion of rights above all other values.  It is assumed that if you infringe upon my rights, then you are automatically in the wrong.

Of course, no one really believes in unlimited personal rights.  For example, my right to swing my arms around cannot infringe upon your right to have an unbruised face.  The American society is largely run on this sense of limited individual rights, where we balance certain types of rights against others.

But even considering this in our discussion of (limited) individual rights, I still think that if we believe that we really are a community, then we cannot take too seriously the notion of rights.  The reason is because individual rights can often run counter to the rights of the community.  For example, at my church, any member has the “right” to date whomever they desire.  However, that person is a fool if she thinks that choice of a boyfriend is irrelevant to the rest of the community because the community will feel the effects of that decision.  The community will have to support her and welcome him (or wonder about him, if he is consistently absent).  This is no small task to ask of a community.  So does not the community have a “right” to also refuse her choice of a boyfriend?

At this point, many will think that I have gone absurd because that latter is not a right.  But I insist that it is just as much a “right” as the former.  We have just stupidly assumed that “rights” always means personal rights.

In any case, we can go back and forth between the rights of the individual and of the community.  But I think that if we do, then we are destined to see the disintegration of the communal bond.

I get quite upset when I get a hint that someone in our church has his mind on his own rights.  As a pastor, I must often “invade” a person’s personal life in order to challenge him to make a change in his life.  But I do not get upset because it makes my job harder or because I hate obstacles.  Rather, it is because I feel that blindly importing the world’s system of rights into the church is evil.

The world elevates the value of rights.  But, as people of God, we must value love and submission–to God and to one another.

As I think about it, the notion of rights does serve one very good purpose–it gives us a basis for sacrifice.  If I love my brother, then I will give up my right to drink alcohol because I know that it will cause him to stumble.  In a spirit of reverence and submission to God, I will give up my right to leave the imperfect church and instead struggle along with everyone else, hoping for repentance and renewal.

As a community, we live in a strangely connected way in Jesus.  If I feel that you have no right to tell me what to do, that you do not have the right to ask me uncomfortable questions, or to invade my private space, then I am acting in defiance to Jesus the King and his community.  Then I am ignoring that what I do has real effects among the rest of the community and that I must be responsible for those effects.  Then I am saying that I am only willing to be part of a community so long as it is convenient for me and mirrors the world that I am comfortable with.  That is no community at all.

6 thoughts on “”

  1. interesting. I think you have a point that in the Christian community, we should not go around insisting on our rights. As you said, “we must value love and submission — to God and to one another.”But, in your example, I would not say that the community has a “right” to refuse someone’s choice for a boyfriend. I would drop word “right” for one thing. I think that instead we have a responsibility as brothers and sisters to speak truth to eachother. To point out to your sister in love and with humility that her choice may be damaging to the community.However, I don’t believe that as a community, we should be able to “refuse her choice of a boyfriend.” As you said, the notion of rights gives a place for sacrifice and true submission. In a community that insists that people do things its way or that the pastor or others have the authority to affect your choices in that way, I don’t know that true submission is happening.It seems to me that submission is voluntary. God gives us the freedom to submit to him or not. He does make clear to us what he wants and seeks after us and rebukes us. But, in the end, he does not force us or take away our choice. I am not saying anything about your community since I know nothing of it, but I have been in communities where exactly what you are speaking of happens. In the name of community and submission to proper authority, dating choices need to be approved. and other big decisions in your life also, like moving to another city. While I can see how a community should discern things together and talk openly and honestly about how decisions affect them, their is such a thing as the authority of every believer. And I think we need to respect that. Otherwise, people do not grow in true submission, but in servility and denial.

  2. It’s an interesting idea.  I think the reason that the notion of individual rights is so prominent in our culture is because historically those in power have abused those who rule over, both in secular society as well as in the church.  While I agree with your principle, I believe the implementation of this is far trickier…as every community is always represented by some sort of leadership which wields power.  While ideally they, and everyone else is accountable to God, in practice, this has proven difficult to sustain over a long period.  How do we find a fourth way apart from oligarchy, communism, and democracy, which clearly are all somewhat insufficient in a church setting?

  3. I don’t think that we can escape the individual as the basis for the conferring of rights.  Your comments bring to mind that even in a society governed by communitarian principles, members of that society must consent to a contract with the prevailing rules or principles of the society either explicitly or implicitly.  This happens in a number of ways in the church setting: people become members of the church ro take leadership positions within the church, thereby agreeing to promulgate the mission of the church.  However, when the people that attend church are seekers or seeking refuge, their subscription to the veritable contract of the church cannot be a prerequisite for their attendance at church.  The church also needs to articulate clearly its expectations of attendees and members; the church must articulate the rights of community members.     

  4. I am wonderful at miscommunicating…no wonder I am a pastor.
    I don’t mean to say that we as a church should have the “right” to make determinations for other people.  What I am saying, is that an individual’s insistence on personal rights is just as absurd (or justified) as a community’s insistence on group rights.  Any observation of a traditional Chinese family proves this point quite easily.  The funny thing is that while the “traditional Chinese parents” are going indignant that their child does not respect the integrity of the family, the “American kid” is going nuts that they will not just butt out and let him be.  Who is right?  In one sense, it is really culturally defined–it depends if you are coming from a communal or an individualistic mindset.  But in another sense, they are both equally right/wrong–they just have different starting points.
    But what I am really trying to say is that taking rights too seriously is probably not the most fruitful sort of endeavor.  I would hope that I will stop insisting on my own rights and start insisting that you let me serve you and offer myself to you as a brother in Christ.
    Me talking about rights is more than mere intellectual masturbation.  Because if we, as a church, feel that what really matters is that people need to have their human rights preserved, then it radically shapes our ministry and how we interact with people.  But unlike the civil rights movement and proponents of the social gospel, I do not believe that the Gospel is primarily a message that guarantees human rights.  Rather, it is a message that goes deeper than rights and speaks of a more holistic salvation.  If as a church we hold out the promise of equal and/or human rights, then I fear we are cheating people, giving them crumbs when we have loaves.

  5. even though my interpretation of your post will be horribly butchered, I will attempt to contribute.
    equality within the church cannot exist, as I see it, people are at different levels of accepting how much God plays a role in their life. The ideal model would be Jesus obviously. the church is not a perfect body, but a near-perfect body because it is composed of mortal sinners. to suggest equality for all within the scope of humanity’s tendencies is striking unrealistic, in my opinion.
    but I’d like to see that too:). How naive of me.

  6. Been meaning to respond to this post – but first, to the gentleman above me – the church is not a “near-perfect-body”…heh, I view it as a rotting corpse.
    On the flip side, there are churches and communities where “basic” rights are ignored, for example, the freedom of speech.  ALthough this is a guaranteed 1st Amendment Right, it often HOLDS no bearing within the church, especially churches that are very protective of their leadership and sensitive to critique.  I’ve heard of cases where people get reprimanded for challenging the system, however corrupt, however unwise, however not-God centered the policy or direction of the church is headed.  Freedom of Speech is vital to our country because – as put, we need the marketplace of ideas in order for the populace to have an educated vote and voice in the demcratic process.  Okay, so church ISN’T a democracy – BUT, who is to say that the holy Spirit is not speaking through the most timid, the most youthful, the most immature of voices?  Who is to say that everytime a stranger turn guest turn regular attender steps through the door of the church, the calling of the ministry changes slightly to adapt, adopt, and modify itself for this new person?
    Those who wrote the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights (and 11th, 13th, and 14th Amendment – that’s as far as I got in class), had a very specific intent in mind – that we would not suffer under tyranny, and enough guarantees can be inserted where the citizens of the United States have a means to speak out against, challenge, and ultimately squirm their way from under the dark shadows of oppression.
    Understandably, many spiritually (and emotionally) young Christians who are still very self-centered can make for a nasty individualistic me-first type of community.  However, I present a view of a different church, filled with many old timers – people who have gone through numerous spiritual campaigns, battling it out serving selflessly in ministry for years upon years, yet under a dark shadow of oppression.  Personally, I believe in the right to speak up amongst the masses.  In a way, it keeps the leadership accountable.  Leadership should listen to the pleas of the masses, ESPECIALLY those that have partnered, and relentlessly followed the leaders for years.  What I see is the leadership listening to the “new comers” to learn ways of how to acommodate them more, how can we draw more of these guys, basically doing market research in the guise of concern and care.  That is good and all, but when dealing with the functionality of a church, to gauge the spiritual well-being of their “volunteer base”, they the hell better listen to the veterans also.
    And again, I speak of a very different church than the one you are serving through. 
    On another note, my personal opinion is that this discussion would of been easier to digest if you had distinguished between legal rights and social rights.  There are many nuances of differences between the two – and technically, the right to chose whom you wish to date – probably would fall under the right to marriage under the right to privacy.  BUT, just because it’s legal don’t mean you have to do it…like hey, everyone in your church has the RIGHT to view pornography in the safety of their home.  Everyone in your church has the right to sleep around with whomever they wished, male or female (Texas v. Lawrence).  Everyone in your church has the right to make “fake” child porn – as long as the actors are over 18, no child was hurt in the process”.  In our system, the government has the final say…not the church.  Heh, and perhaps that is a good thing…
    Because when I look around, DAMN, there is a lot of stench in America, rising from the dead heaps of rotting corpses everywhere.

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