In America, it is not an uncommon thing to hear discussions about rights and privileges. As a young man, I remember my father instructing me that I ought always to honor those who have sacrificed to protect the rights I had because even those rights that we believe to be unalienable can be lost if wicked people come into power. I also remember him instructing me that it was my duty to live in such a way so as to not squander the privileges that those rights afforded me — and further to never confuse the two.
In America, we go as far as to distinguish between those rights that are moral and those which are legal. Moral rights are considered “unalienable” as they cannot be lost, sacrificed, or even willfully forsaken except in certain extreme cases. This is famously summarized in the Declaration of Independence which states that we have been endowed by our creator with the right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” All of this is founded in the principle that we are made in God’s image and such rights properly belong to image bearers. Legal rights are fleshed out what we call our “Bill of Rights” found in the first ten amendments to the Constitution — principles like freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, freedom to worship as we so choose, freedom to own and bear arms, the right to a speedy trial made up of a jury of our peers, etc…
Privileges, then, are those things that flow out of our rights. I have the privilege of driving an automobile as it enables me to pursue and exercise my rights. Yet, privileges can be lost if we abuse said things. And examples of said privileges (as well as rights) can fill pages and books, and that is not my purpose here.
My purpose is to challenge you to think of rights and privileges outside of the American Constitutional and legal context. That is important, but most of us are well versed in these matters. Some of you reading this may be better versed in them than me. What concerns me is that while most Americans are quick to talk about their rights as citizens of America, they are want to talk about their rights as citizens of heaven in the church. In fact, what should be said is that most professing Christians are completely oblivious to their rights and privileges as citizens of heaven as if said rights had no bearing on the way they live their lives.
What are said rights and privileges? The most fundamental right that citizens of Heaven have is that of access to the church. Just as an American citizen has the right to flee to an American embassy when he is traveling through a foreign land, so too does the Christian have the right to flee to the church in this foreign lands where we live and travel. How people take access to the church for granted. How people treat the church as a social organization rather than as the living and breathing assembly of the people of God. How people see church as a comfortable and welcoming place that demands nothing rather than as the schoolroom of Christ which instructs us how to live. And how rarely, when people travel, do they seek out a Biblical church to which they can flee for worship on Sunday mornings — let alone, on Sunday evenings. Membership may be a privilege granted to those willfully covenanting together, but access to the church is our right.
Yet, let us not stop there. For as Christians, we also have the right to be instructed in the things of God by the church. Indeed, this does not mean that we do not have the responsibility to read and study on our own, but what a remarkable gift it is that God has given us a place wherein we can be taught the Word of God and how to think rightly about it. I fear that instruction in our land has been so undervalued that many Christians would not recognize it if they actually experienced it — they would simply see it as teaching that was over their heads and too high to understand. What is worse, as many no longer value such instruction, even many seminaries downplay its importance. Why train men to teach the deep truths of God’s Word if their future congregations are more interested in practical advice from the pulpit and services that entertain rather than instruct?
Yet, instruction is our God-given right and we ought to demand it. Can you imagine what it would look like if people took to the street and rioted because the church was not instructing them in the Word of God well enough? Can you imagine what it would look like if there was a group like the National Rifle Association that was dedicated to the defense of the right of Biblical and Theological instruction? Can you imagine the character of our community if every church was a seminary unto itself and every member was actively committed as a student in the classroom of Christ?
And, note well, Christian instruction must not be limited to children and those preparing for confirmation into church membership. It is a fundamental right that the Christian has. You don’t lose unalienable rights once you get to a certain age and you do not cease to pursue and protect those rights when you get to a certain level in your life. No, as we grow older and more mature, those rights become more dear to us and the exercise thereof becomes more consequential. How it should be with citizens of Heaven as well. The more we learn, the more we should wish to learn more. The challenge for the preacher should not be to bring God’s word down to our level, but it should be to rise to a high enough level to satisfy our hunger to learn. In the days of the Reformation, instruction in the Bible and theology was available every day of the week; what a transformation it would bring to our communities if such instruction were still available, where people from the congregation would gather in the church at various times during the day to be instructed in the Word of God before they head off to their daily vocations.
Along with instruction comes church discipline. Many fear its practice because they only see church discipline as something that offends people out of the church. We ought to be offended by a church that does not or will not practice church discipline because that means there is no desire to grow and mature in the practice of Biblical godliness. While instruction is designed to teach our minds how to think right about the things of God, discipline teaches our hearts how to live right as people of God. One goes hand in hand with the other. If people in a church desire to live faithfully, they should desire the sagely counsel from the Word of God when they err in the practice of their faith. And, when a church witnesses utter unrepentant within its midst, it is a sign that such a person is most clearly not a part of the body and should be removed from the privileges of the church for the sake of the health of the body. People often charge that such behavior is malicious and “mean,” yet is it malicious and mean to have a tumor removed from your body when it is threatening the health of the whole?
Can you imagine what it would look like in our communities if professing Christians went to the church Elders with civil and family disputes rather than to the courts? That may sound strange to us in modern times, but this is how the Apostle Paul said that the church should function. Why trust a pagan to rule rightly in a lawsuit when you can go to one who understands the Word of God for justice? Of course, that presumes that the church leaders do understand the Word of God and are trained in doing so. Do you see how our apathy for Christian instruction has deleterious effects on all areas of our life? Do you see how our abandonment of our Christian right to be instructed by the church has secularized not just the community but the church itself? Do you see how this right protects the other rights you enjoy in your civil realm?
Indeed, the moral rights guaranteed to Americans make no sense whatsoever unless you understand that you are made in the image of God — but folks, that part comes from Biblical and theological instruction. Do you see that as we move further and further away from such instruction in the church, society becomes more and more godless. And, as society departs into what the psalmist would categorize as the thinking of the fool, we forfeit both our moral and civil rights as Americans. As my father would say, we need to honor those who sacrificed to bring us such rights — and the one who sacrificed the most, of course, was Jesus the Son of God himself.