We love our rights. Our culture talks a lot about “rights” these days. Some people find their rights are being infringed upon. Little imagination is needed to find examples of these.
Our rights are important. They were important to Paul. Paul had his own rights within the church. He had his rights as an apostle – as one who had seen the resurrected Christ and who had been given a ministry to preach the gospel.
But Paul did something many people could not fathom doing today: Paul did not claim his rights. He didn’t use them to his advantage. For instance, he had a right to earn his living from preaching the gospel, but he didn’t demand it. In fact, he spurned this right.
What kind of person does this? What kind of person doesn’t claim a valid right and the benefits that come from it?
This is an interesting teaching because it pokes holes in a common mindset that we have as Americans and church members. We appreciate our rights as citizens of this country and as members of our church. But Paul wrote sometimes it is better not to claim our rights.
I recall when Paul was planting a church in the Roman colony of Philippi and was mistreated by the authorities there (Acts 16). Paul could have done himself a favor by notifying those authorities he was a Roman citizen. Roman citizens had rights. But Paul didn’t make any claims to those rights. He allowed himself to be mistreated for a time.
What kind of person does this?
Paul did it because he saw a bigger picture. Perhaps he saw the church in Philippi needed to see an example of proper suffering for the faith. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to evangelize the local jailer or the other inmates. Perhaps he saw the church would be better protected once the local leaders realized the big mistake they had made.
In any event, a larger picture was in view, and the church was at the center of it. Paul surrendered his rights for the sake of the gospel.
This was his way. If something was going to assist the gospel in being heard by more people, Paul was going to do that thing. If that meant giving up his right to some personal benefit, Paul was going to give up that right.
“We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
Paul was not making a blanket statement encouraging Christians to give up every right they have. Paul, himself, did at times claim his rights as a Roman citizen. But when it came to the church, and when it came to the gospel, Paul was willing to give up just about anything if it meant more people could come into the kingdom of God.
This puts a different spin on some of the attitudes we can have as it relates to our lives in the world and in the church. Sometimes, we get offended when we feel our rights being threatened. Sometimes, we can think our rights are more important than just about anything else.
Paul would say that is not true. The most important thing, Paul would say, is that the gospel moves forward. “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”
We should be reminded of Jesus Christ, whom Paul wrote about in his letter to the Philippian church – the same place where Paul was so badly mistreated. Jesus is God himself. But, Paul wrote, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).
This was the ultimate giving up of one’s rights for the sake of someone else. He gave up his rights in the fullest sense when he died on the cross for our sins. Jesus is our lead example. And Paul followed suit. For them, the gospel was all that mattered.
In the end, the themes of selfishness and proper priorities bubble to the top. A selfish man or woman doesn’t care about the needs of others and instead pursues his or her rights above all else. But as Christians, we can’t lose sight of what’s really important.
Think about this: If someone were to slap you on the cheek for no reason, what are your rights in that moment? You would have the right to take that person to court and maybe even have that person thrown in jail. It’s your right.
But when Jesus said, “if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” was he not commanding us to give up our right to retaliate? (Matthew 5:39). And when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” was he not commanding us to give up our right to be angry and bitter with those who mistreat us? (Matthew 5:44).
What’s the point of this? It’s so that we may model the love of God (Matthew 5:45). When we forgive, love, and refuse to retaliate, we give up our right to live as the world would allow us to live. And there is good news in that.
Paul wrote, “I do not run aimlessly.” Paul had a purpose in everything he did. His wasn’t a thoughtless submission. He wasn’t weak when it came to his rights as an apostle. No, he simply could see what really was important – that people somehow and in some way hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved.
The next time you feel your rights are being infringed – either in the world or in the church – consider how important those rights are in the eternal scheme of things. Are there certain rights you ought to surrender for the sake of the gospel?