In his new book, We Are All Philosophers: A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions, John Frame includes a chapter on “What Are My Rights?”

He writes:

In general, obligations are what I owe to others.

Rights are what others owe to me.

In other words, rights and obligations are reciprocal:

If I have the right to food and drink, someone else has the obligation to supply those to me.

If I have the right to education, someone else has the obligation to teach me.

If my neighbor has the right to be respected, then I have the obligation to respect him.

One of the big debates in American culture, of course, is whether or not health care is a human right. Frame comments:

The issue here of course is that if health care is a right, then somebody is obligated to provide it; and in the debate, the provider is usually the government.

Frame notes that the Bible doesn’t say much about rights. It does, however, frequently address obligations, so the key to formulating a biblical doctrine of rights is to flip the doctrine of obligation. He cites some examples:

If we are obligated to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves, that is the same as to say that God has the right to exclusive worship, and our neighbor has the right to be loved as we love ourselves.

If we have an obligation, and we do, to honor our father and mother, then our father and mother have the right to our honor.

If we have an obligation to respect the lives of others, then others have a right that compels us to respect their lives.

In Frame’s view, then, “all of biblical law can be translated into a doctrine of rights.”

One danger, however, is that “when we speak the language of rights, we typically take the stance of protestors, making demands of others. If we don’t receive the honor or the respect we deserve (or think we deserve), we complain and demonstrate.”

But the biblical pattern is more complicated than that. Using the examples of Jesus and Paul, Frame shows that “although it is sometimes appropriate to protest, seeking our rights, the way of the cross calls believers, more typically, to forgo their rights in the service of God and of others.

In summery, Frame thinks we need to keep at least two things in mind:

  1. The biblical doctrine of rights is as vast as the biblical doctrine of obligations; indeed, the one translates into the other. So our teaching on rights needs to be as broad, as far-reaching, and as deep as our more traditional teaching about ethics.
  2. To make our biblical doctrine of rights credible, we must explore the question of when we should permit ourselves to “suffer wrong” and even “be defrauded” (1 Corinthians 6:7).

The first lesson, he concludes, “is to learn how to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. That establishes rights for all, and also the principle that love often relinquishes even genuine rights.”

The whole discussion is worthwhile, tucked into a book that will help us think both philosophically and Christianly.