Saturday, December 27, 2008

Made in the image. So what?

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Genesis 1:26

One of the most meaningful studies that I have had the privilege to engage in recent years has been on the scriptural significance of being created image of God. I have come to appreciate the fact that human beings, by their very nature, are bestowed with God-given rights to respectful treatment, equality, diversity, communal relations, and freedom of belief. Human rights, rather than being opposed to a biblical worldview are a fruit of one. It is no accident that countries that have historically been influenced by a strong Christian worldview have consistently maintained the highest levels of religious liberty for its citizens. There is a reason why Christians believe that human beings should be treated with respect; they are created in image of God (cf. Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). No other religion has such a high view of humanity. Yes, we are sinful and fallen, but the person next to you still bears the divine image by creation, however marred it is.

However, for some the idea that we should defend the rights of others seems to be somehow unspiritual, perhaps even unbiblical. They rightfully point out that Christians are called to give up their rights just as Christ did in His incarnation. Witnessing followers of Jesus Christ fight for their personal rights (especially with each other) has brought disrepute upon the Body of Christ. Rather than saying “See how they love one another,” the watching world has more often been able to comment, with a smirk, “See how they fight one another.” Seeking to remedy this unfortunate situation by presenting a positive, alternative witness to a skeptical society, some Christians have concluded that we have no legitimate rights to fight for.

It is helpful when considering these things to remember that there is a distinction between private and public rights. Privately, Christians are not to take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism has no place in the life of the Christian. It is the God-given right and obligation of the State, however, to uphold the laws of the land. There are times, however, (probably more often than we are comfortable admitting) when the call to follow Christ and to conform to His image requires that we voluntarily put aside our rights. We may have the right to life and freedom, but the biblical Christian accepts that it may cost him his freedom or even his life to take the gospel to others. This does not presuppose that these rights are not legitimate. Giving up illegitimate rights can hardly be considered a sacrifice. And others can (and perhaps should) uphold them even if we don’t or can’t, just as we must defend the weak and oppressed and to speak on their behalf even if they have chosen to give up their rights for the sake of the gospel.

The Bible is also clear that it is appropriate, at times, for Christians to stand up for their rights as citizens. Paul did so on several occasions (Acts 16:37; 22:24ff; 25:10-11). It is worth noting that even Jesus defended Himself at one point during his trial (John 18:23); not to protest his suffering but as a testimony of his innocence. The question to ask is, “What will advance the purposes of God’s kingdom more, renouncing or upholding my rights at the time?” The answer is not always the same.

In the same way, exemplified by our Creator's willingness to allow false beliefs to continue unpunished for the present, Christians are to uphold the right for the individual or the group to be wrong. Christians should find proselytism to be an abhorrent perversion of evangelism. Religious coercion through threats or promises of material benefits is a violation of an individual's God-given right to choose one's own belief system, even if it is incorrect, morally repugnant and inconsistent with the general and special revelation of God in nature, scripture, and Christ. When Christianity has been faithfully practiced, its followers have allowed religious practice contrary to their own to continue so long as it does not violate the basic rights of others (e.g. child sacrifice, sexual or mental exploitation). This does not, of course, negate the importance of apologetics and evangelism. As God's image bearers, we are also His messengers, seeking to restore mankind to a rightful relationship to its Creator. Reflecting His image, we seek to win men and women to Christ through persuasion and sacrifice, not compulsion. And we will respect the rights of others to be wrong if they insist in holding on to their beliefs and rejecting the message of life and liberty.


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