Human Rights and the Bible

Thomas P. Schirrmacher, Th.D., Ph.D., D.D.Chair in Systematic Theology andPresident, Martin Bucer SeminaryBonn (Germany)[2]

Man as Creation and Image of God.

On December 10, 1948, the Soviet Union signed the General Declaration of Human Rights passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The declaration states that all human beings possess the same dignity (Article 1) and forbids all discrimination due to race, color, sex, language, religion or political conviction (Article 2). Because all men have the right to life and liberty (Article 3), both slavery (Article 4) and torture (Article 5) are prohibited. All are equal before the law and may be condemned only according to established law, only after being heard in a court of law (Articles 7-11). All are free to emigrate and to choose their place of residence (Article 13), and to request asylum in other countries (Article 14). Every human being is free to choose his spouse, and the family, as the “natural and basic unit in society’, must be protected by the State and by society (Articles 16+26). The Declaration also demands the right of private property (Article 17), the right to liberty of conscience and religion, which includes the individual’s right to change his faith (Article 18), the right of opinion and information (Article 19), the right to congregate and to form associations (Article 20), the right to vote (Article 21). Everyone has the right to security in social matters (Articles 22+25+28), to labor with just remuneration (Article 23) and to education (Article 26).
Closely related to the idea of human rights is the claim that all people have the same right to be treated as persons - whatever race, religion, sex, political persuasion or social or economic status they may be. What is the basis of human equality, if not the fact that all were equally created by God? Thus, a Christian argument for human rights must begin with the biblical account of Creation, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:26-27). The fact that Man was created in the image of God plays a major roll in the relationships of human beings to each other. Genesis 9:16, for example, requires murder to be punished, for it injures the image of God. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:6)
Creation exists for the glory of God and has its meaning from God. This fact holds all the more for the ‘Crown of Creation’, Mankind was created according to the divine order of Creation to fulfill the purpose given him by God. God made him ruler over the earth, but also gave him the responsibility for the preservation of the earthly creation. The psalmist writes, “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;” (Psalm 8:6-7).
For this reason, human rights include only those privileges which God has given Man, no other rights which mankind may choose or claim for himself.
Christians may not, therefore, automatically identify the human rights catalogs formulated by western countries with those in the Bible. Scripture prescribes the right to an orderly court procedure according to clearly stated laws, to the hearing of witnesses, to judges who have not been bribed and to legal defense, as we will see. Such legal proceedings cannot, however, be automatically identified with Western jurisdiction. Supposing they could be - with which system? The German system, the British, the French, the American? We all know that these systems are quite different! There is plenty of room for a variety of legal systems which differ due to the cultural and historical traditions of their people, yet still guarantee human rights.

The Christian Roots of Human Rights

No one disputes the fact that human rights, given to protect the individual, are derived from Christian thought. The General Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, of December 10, 1948, clearly demonstrates its Christian roots. The bans on slavery and torture, the principle of equality before the law, the right to rest and recreation - as seen in the Sabbath or Sunday rest - come from Christian traditions and not by chance are the governments which confirm these rights and anchor them in their constitutions mostly in Christian countries. Even Karl Marx acknowledged this, for he rejected human rights as a product of Christianity (for example, Marx and Engels Works, Vol. 1).
No state and no legal system can survive without a minimum of common, and necessarily ‘metaphysically’ based values. A legal system assumes a value system. The law is derived from moral standards which exist prior to and outside itself.
The guarantee of human dignity assumes that Man is more than that which he perceives about himself. He cannot be comprehended by the means and methods of natural science; he is metaphysically open. The modern State, with its legal system, depends on requirements that it cannot itself guarantee.

Enlightenment or Forgiveness and Repentance?

According to the philosophies of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which attempted to found human rights without God and against the Church, all Good, including human rights, could be derived from Nature and from Reason. Rousseau’s identification of ‘Reason’ and ‘Nature’ is peculiar to Enlightenment thought. The attempt to base human rights on Nature has failed, however, for no one can agree on the meaning of ‘Nature’ or on how it’s laws can be discovered. Wolfgang Schild, professor for penal law, writes, “The Enlightenment cannot and must not be the last word, our last word. Its rationality and functionality must be taken to its limits, for social life with a dignity worthy of Man is otherwise impossible. Even and particularly penal law cannot limit itself to rational means in order to achieve peace and order at any price: it requires the recognition of the human dignity—even of the felon—as its fundament and its limit.”
The thought that human beings could be improved by education, and that human ills could be solved by intellectual enlightenment, is a basic problem of Greek philosophy, of Humanism and of the Enlightenment. The Humanist ideal of education owes its existence to the idea that morals could be raised through education, for it assumes that the individual does wrong only because he is ignorant or because he thinks wrongly, not because his will is evil and because he is incapable of doing good on his own strength. These philosophies try to reduce the ethical and responsible aspect of thought, words and deeds to the question of knowledge, which hold a man responsible, only when he knows what he is doing.
Yet we are surprised to learn that doctors smoke as much as laymen do, that people maintain unhealthy life-styles, and that women continually become pregnant in spite of a flood of information about birth control. We all know from our own lives, that knowing the right answer, even being convinced of it, in no way guarantees that we live accordingly. A politician who vehemently defends monogamy as the foundation of society in Parliament does not necessarily insist on marital fidelity in his private life, and is not immune to adultery or divorce.
The Bible teaches that human sin affects not only our thoughts, but also our whole being, and that above all, our wills, which are opposed to God, lead us to act and think falsely, so that more thought and consideration in itself are insufficient. We must clear up our old, sin-encumbered past. Christians believe that God Himself died in Man’s place, when Christ died on the Cross for our lack of love and our egotism. When we acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves by our own strength and our own reason, but rely on Christ’s fulfillment of our penalty, we can overcome our evil will by faith in Jesus, and renew our will and our mind according to God’s will (Romans 1:20-25; 12:1-3). True renewal occurs when the power of God works in our inner selves; not through educational campaigns, but by God’s love and forgiveness.

Human Rights Precede the State

Human dignity and human rights are part of man’s being as God’s creation. Thus, the State does not create human rights, it merely formulates and protects them. Since the right to life belongs to the very essence of the human being, man does not receive them from the government, and no government has the right to decide that its citizens have no more right to live, but can be executed at the ruler’s whim. Nor does the State confer the right to have a family, for the State does not own the family, it merely acknowledges the duty implied in the order of Creation to protect marriage and the family.
There are, therefore, rights which existed prior to the State, and there are rights above the State, rights derived from nature, from human nature and from the various types of human society. The government must respect these rights and accept the limitations implied by these natural, divinely given rights of the individual, the family, the employee (or the employer!) and other human social groups.
Since human rights are rooted in a moral code prescribed to the State, this code equally forbids a false appeal to human rights, because it also defends the human dignity of others. No one has the right to express his own personality through murder or arson, for example.
Human rights assume a State with limited powers and a law valid for all mankind, a law which limits the powers of government. Were this not so, man would indeed receive his rights from the State. The individual would then have only the rights and the claims to protection which his government assured. This is the socialist view, which leaves no place for criticism or correction of a State which has declared itself to be God.

The Meaning of Romans 13

The most important scripture about the role of the State is the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, which was written by the apostle Paul, who brought Christianity to Europe and Asia in the first century AD: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:1-7)
This text makes it clear that no one who opposes the State on principle can appeal to God’s authorization. On the contrary: he is opposing God’s law, and is rightly liable to legal proceedings (Rom. 13:2). Since the State has the duty to stem and to punish evil, Christians must do good, if they wish to avoid conflict. If a Christian does wrong, he is justly punished by the State. For the government, as God’s minister, has the duty of vengeance (13:4). As a result, the Christian pays his taxes and gives government officials proper respect (13:6-7).
But the question is, who defines what is good or evil? Did Paul leave this up to the State? Can the State declare anything good and demand it from its citizens? No. When Paul spoke of goodness, he defined it according to God’s will, and defined evil as that which was condemned by God’s law. “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34).
The Bible thus gives us clear limitations and directions for taxes, military service and the police. John the Baptist, for example, told the tax inspectors and the police (One body served both as police and as military): “Exact no more than that which is appointed you” and “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:12-14).
From Paul’s statements, we can derive two essential thoughts:
1. The government can judge only what people do, not what they think. It is responsible for good or evil ‘works’, with doing. It is not the duty of the State to control all sin, only those sins whose activity can be observed and which damage public order, which the State has the responsibility to maintain and to protect.
2. The State may not distinguish between Christians and other people, i.e. between believers in different faiths, as long as they pursue their beliefs in a peaceful manner. Since God forbids partiality in legal matters, Christians must be punished just as severely as unbelievers when they break the law. The State cannot distinguish between Christians and members of other religious groups, for it may judge only on the basis of deeds.
Human rights are protective; they serve not so much to define the privileges of the individual, as to limit the powers of the State and of other institutions which deal with the lives of individuals. For this reason, Paul limits the State’s duties to specific aspects of life, rather than giving it the right to regulate and penalize all of man’s thought and life.
The State is not to be identified with society, as the socialist governments have done ever since the French Revolution. In such states, all aspects of society including the family and the Church are subject to the government. Society is more than the State. The State does not have authority over all parts of society.

On the Separation of Church and State

Just as the State may not dominate a church or a religion, it may not itself be subject to any church or religion. The separation of Church and State does not contradict the Christian faith, but arises naturally out of it, for the Bible makes it the duty of the State to enable people to live in peace, whatever they believe. It is the responsibility of the Church and of religion to point to eternity, to provide moral stability and to encourage man’s relationship to God.
The historian Eugen Ewig therefore speaks of the Old Testament Doctrine of Two Powers. Eduard Eichmann, also an historian, writing about the Old Testament division of powers between priest and king, “Along with the sacred Scriptures, Old Testament views have become common property of the Christian West.”
Jesus confirmed this separation in the words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). Because this rule comes from God, Who is above the emperor, the religious institutions of God on earth, the organized People of God, are not above the emperor. The first priority is obedience to God, Who determines and limits what belongs to Caesar. Caesar has no authority to determine or limit what belongs to God. This does not, however, mean that the ruler is dependent on the Church, for God has given him the responsibility for all the people in his realm, not only for the members of one religious group.
The separation of Church and State does not mean that their duties never overlap, or that neither institution needs the other. On the contrary, the Church may advise the government and teach it God’s law, as Jehoida taught Jehoash. “And Jehoash did that which was right in the sight of the LORD all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him.” (2 Kings 12:2). It is sad that the modern Church has given up this critical office and prefers to howl with the pack.
The separation of Church and State does not become a war against Christianity until the State forgets its obligation to God’s law and begins to persecute the faith.

God Knows no Partiality

Centuries ago in the Bible, God made fair judicial proceedings a human right. A just judge is necessary to determine justice, and God is the proto-type of the just judge (Deut. 10:17-18; Psalm 7:9+12; 9:5; 50:6. See also Psalm 75:3+8), “for the LORD is a God of judgment” (Isaiah 30:18). He is the defender of justice. Those who judge fairly act in God’s Name. The Old Testament tells of the just king Jehoshaphat, “And said to the judges, Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment. Wherefore now let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.” (2 Chronicles 19:6-7).
A judge must be aware of the fact that God is observing him and stands by the innocent: “To turn aside the right of a man before the face of the most High, to subvert a man in his cause, the Lord approveth not.” (Lamentations 3:35-36).
For this reason the Bible has many directions concerning just, humane judicial proceedings. Prosecution, for example, requires at least two witnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Mat. 18:16; John 8:17; Heb. 10:28; 1 Tim 5:18), so that the accusation is brought by two or three witnesses (Deut 10:17-18). Violent witnesses are not to be heard (Psalm 35:11).
The judge’s ruling must be completely impartial (Deut. 1:16; 2 Chr. 19:7; Prov. 18:5; 24:23; Job 13:10; Col. 3:25; Eph 6:9), for God is Himself impartial. (Deut 10:17-18). Only wicked judges are partial (Isa. 10:1-2; 3:9).
The ruling is to be made without prejudice (1 Tim. 5:21), after the judge has carefully examined all the evidence (Deut 17:4). “Execute true judgment,” God says in Zecharia 7:9; so that the ruling need not be repealed.
“If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.” (Deuteronomy 25:1). Bribery must not influence the judge’s opinion. “A wicked man taketh a gift out of the bosom to pervert the ways of judgment.” (Proverbs 17:23). God is the great example. “For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward:” (Deuteronomy 10:17). “Wherefore now let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it: for there isno iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.” (2 Chronicles 19:7)
Scripture generally approves of gifts, when given to delight or to help others. Sometimes, the Bible realizes, gifts may even be necessary, if people are to achieve valid goals. The wise teacher tells us, “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” (Proverbs 18:16) and “A gift in secret pacifieth anger: and a reward in the bosom strong wrath.” (Proverbs 21:14). Should an innocent person be confronted with corrupt officials, he has no hope of achieving perfectly legal goals. If he has no opportunity of overcoming this corruption in any other way, he can get his rights with gifts. Only when he buys injustice, is he himself guilty of corruption. He who is forced to bribe others will certainly strive to eliminate corruption, particularly in the Church, or in other religious institutions.
For this reason, there must be no double standard, such as one set of laws for the wealthy and another for the peasants. The Old Testament required the same penal system for both nationals and for foreign residents: (Exodus 12:49). “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.” (Leviticus 19:15). Because God defends “the cause of the poor,” (Prov. 29:7) and ” the cause of the poor and needy.” (Prov. 31:8), Proverbs 31:8-9 enjoins us, “Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”
The Bible thus measures the justice of a country by its protection of the weak. Not only the condition of the wealthy or the ruling class, but also the condition of the simple citizens is to be considered. Not only the condition of the State Church is significant , but also the condition of the smaller Christian groups. Not only the condition of the judges with money and power to defend their rights, is important, but also the condition of the poor, the widows and the orphans in court.
God is the Creator and the Lord of all mankind. He wishes us to treat with each other as His image and His creatures—human beings dealing with human beings, not animals with animals.
[1] Originally published in Russian in POISK: Ezeme­del'naja Vseso­juznaja Gazeta [Journal of the Russian Academy of Science]. Nr. 48 (446) 22.-28. No­vember 1997. p. 13; reprinted in Utschit­jelskaja Gazeta (Teachers Journal of Russia). No. 2 (9667) 3.1.1998. S. 21 + No. 3 (9668) 20.1.1998. p. 21 + No. 4 (9669) 3.2.1998. p. 22 . Written for the Conference of Evangelical Media People of the German Evangelical Alliance.
[2] Thomas Schirrmacher holds doctorates in Missiology (1985), in Cultural An­thropology (1989) and in Ethics (1996), Honorary doctorate 1997. He is professor of Ethics, Missiology and Comparative Religion at theological seminaries in Germany, USA and South Africa and is the President of the Martin Bucer Seminar in Bonn. He is member of the Religious Freedom Commission of the German Ecvangelical Aliance and the World Evangelical Alliance.
Back to the Table of Contents Back to the Journal Main Page Back to Journal Index Page

Simple bulleted list summary you can copy and paste: