Christians have two kinds of rights.
As citizens of earth, there are rights we’ve bestowed on ourselves through our governments. In Canada we’ve enshrined them in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in the Canadian Human Rights Act. We are governed by the laws of Canada.
We also have rights as citizens of heaven. When we accepted Christ, God “rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son” (Colossians 1:13). We were given freedom in Christ and a new status as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). We’re now governed by Christ our King and His Word is our law.
Should I, as a citizen of earth and Canada, always demand my rights or is there ever a time when as a Christian I should sacrifice my rights? Does being a citizen of heaven ever overrule my rights as an earthly citizen?
On one occasion Paul and Silas, Roman citizens, had allowed themselves to be publicly beaten without a trial. After being told they were free to leave secretly they mentioned their citizenship. They required the officials to come and apologize to them after which they didn’t leave immediately but stayed on and encouraged the believers (Acts 16:16–40).
On another occasion Paul was arrested and as he was bound and about to be whipped, he told captors he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:24–29). Since his right to a trial as a Roman citizen was violated, Paul invoked his right to be tried by Caesar, which was granted (Acts 25:11).
Why the difference in the exercise of rights? In the first instance, by sacrificing his rights and requiring an apology from the city officials, Paul helped provide better treatment for believers who remained in the city.
In the second instance, the Lord had appeared to Paul and told him he’d bear witness in Rome (Acts 23:11). He exercised his rights as a citizen to ensure that the purpose God had for him in preaching the Gospel in Rome would be carried out. He invoked his right of appeal for a trial as an opportunity to share the Gospel with Caesar.
The exercise of rights was different, but the motivation was the same—to further the kingdom of God. Paul wrote, “It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News. Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ” (1 Corinthians. 9:18–19).
Jesus is the best example of sacrificing rights (Philippians 2:5–8). He gave up His divine right to glory in order to become human and redeem us. And we are told to have the same attitude.
In coming to Christ, we surrender ourselves and all our rights to Him to be subservient to the kingdom of God. Paul wrote, “For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7–8).
In terms of our citizenship in heaven, we also have the right to our freedom in Christ. But again, that freedom may need to be limited for the sake of the kingdom and another believer’s spiritual benefit.
In the discussion about meat offered to idols we’re taught we have the right to eat what we want (1 Corinthians 8:4–13; cf. Romans 14:14). Food is amoral. But for the sake of those whose consciences are weak or who potentially could be caused to fall back into sin, those who are stronger are to sacrifice their rights and freedoms for their sake. In 1 Corinthians 10:25–32 Paul again emphasizes the right to liberty, but we glorify God if we limit our rights for the spiritual benefit of others.
When it comes to exercising our right to Christian freedom, having the right to do something does not mean we are free to do it in every circumstance, regardless of its effect on others. It should be voluntarily limited to maintain the unity of the Spirit and to not cause a weaker brother to sin by violating his conscience (Romans 14:19). Love is what limits Christian freedom.
The balance for both earthly and heavenly citizenship rights is found in our attitude and focus. Like Jesus and Paul, we’re not to have a rights-focused perspective where we always demand our rights. Instead, we are to be willing to limit our rights, with a servant-minded focus and attitude. Personal rights may be sacrificed in order to accomplish something for the kingdom of God.