Rights or responsibilities? Dues or duties?

We live in a society which appears to revolve around rights. Each group of the population has its own unique rights and it takes a delicate balancing act to ensure that everyone can exercise their rights to the full without infringing on others who may wish to enforce their rights at the same time. Children, it is argued, have rights to be cared for appropriately, to have an education and to have access to leisure facilities and women have the right to pursue their own ambitions and follow a lucrative career path. An entire act of parliament is devoted to the rights of employees and a recent government consultation asked the question: ‘Do you agree that these proposals strike the right balance between the rights of parents…and the rights of children…?’

However, contrary to the world’s obsession with human rights, the Bible portrays a quite different pattern for society. God has placed his own carefully designed order in the world. This order does not depend on maintaining a delicate balance of conflicting rights so that everyone gets his due. Rather, it is an order which is perfectly suited to the needs of our fallen world and it is grounded, not on rights, but on a framework of duties, responsibilities and privileges.

One area in which the difference between a rights-focussed approach and God’s pattern can be seen is in the family. Allowing parents and children to have their own respective rights will ultimately lead to family conflicts as it encourages a self-centred attitude. Children will seek to enforce their rights in opposition to their parents’ authority and parents may pursue their rights to the neglect of their responsibilities towards their children. However, if the focus is rather on the responsibility of parents to care for, provide for and educate their children and on the duty of children to obey their parents, harmony will result. Parents and children will be working together rather than against one another.

In his survey of Christian doctrine, Our Reasonable Faith, the 19th century theologian Herman Bavinck draws attention to the privileges that come from being part of a family. He points out that there are many things which ‘children inherit from their parents, which they have in no way earned, and which they nevertheless appropriate without protest, as indeed they gratefully may’. In a world based on rights, it could be argued that the children have no right to an inheritance. However, in a world based on God’s plan, it is one of the benefits that accrue from being part of a family.

Changing our attitude from one of thinking about what our rights are and what we deserve to one of thinking about what God requires of us and what our duty is is one way in which our minds can be transformed so that we know the will of God and are able to present our bodies as an acceptable offering to him (Romans 12:1-2).

By Naomi Wells


  1. Naomi, thanks for this excellent and clear article!
    This is a topic which I have been thinking quite a bit about recently. The idea that man has rights, or that there are certain 'human rights,' and 'rights for parents(etc),' is certainly a very big thing in modern society and I think reflects the unregenerate and apostate mindset which is prevalent. As you said, it certainly leads to self centeredness, and I think stems from it too. Atheistic humanism has no other basis for truth than self, and because of sin nature(or 'Selfish Gene'(!)) this ends up with self first. Rather than basing our actions around what we reckon ought to be our personal 'rights,' we can have an objective source of truth in Gods word -but that means duties, which leads to service, not selfishness. 'Rights' come around as a result of being the centre of ones own universe.

    When you consider that man was created purely by God's sovereign will and for his own glory, that should immediatly lead to humility, not pride; likewise with salvation. As it is the Lord who of his grace gives us life(both temporal and eternal), 'no flesh should glory in his presence,' but rather trust in him who can 'present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy' (1Cor1:29, Ju1:24)

    The notion of rights has an impact not only on individual attitudes, but also has lead to confusion in law and legislation; for example, the 'human rights card' being played in the debate about prisoners voting.

    Sorry if that was fairly rambling; its late!

  2. Interesting post, Naomi, thank you. :-) I admire the way you don't 'beat about the bush' but go straight to pointing out that our culture's emphasis on everyone's rights is in complete opposition and rebellion to how God ordained the world to work! Matthew 22:40 says, "On these two commandments [loving God and our neighbour] depend the whole Law and the Prophets” which shows very clearly that this is something hugely important to God and should be important to us.

    I love the way you describe God's pattern as a “framework of duties, responsibilities and privileges.” I definitely don't think that God intended our lives with Him to be drudgery … Our obedience has to come out of relationship with Him, because once we are in a two-way covenant – our love, service and praise for His protection, blessing and working with Him – He reveals more and more of Himself to us and we want to obey Him because we love Him (John 14:15). The responsibilities are a privilege because we are working in a partnership with God. John 15:9-17 shows this clearly and look at what Jesus says in verse 11: “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” He will give us His joy as we abide in His love and fulfil His commandments – I think that's awfully exciting because what could be more exhilarating?!

    Naomi, I really liked you choosing families as an example and saying that when we have our focus on fulfilling our responsibilities and not insisting on our rights, “Parents and children will be working together rather than against one another.” Even while thanking God for the blessings of wonderful parents who engage with us at a serious level, do we perhaps forget that part of the responsibility of being in a family (be that parent, child or sibling) *is* working together? I strongly believe it's both a privilege and a responsibility as young people 'living at home' to seek to be involved with what our parents are doing, be that ministry opportunities, helping around the house or simply supporting and encouraging each other. Could it be that God wants to use us as a witness of how He is interested in using families and to inspire others to *be* families and not just autonomous people living in the same house?

  3. I'm puzzled why you say, “an order which is perfectly suited to the needs of our fallen world”. Are you suggesting that God got it wrong to start with and then had to impose this order after the Fall, or did you mean simply to say that His order is perfectly suited to the needs of our world?

  4. An excellent article, Naomi! Thank-you so much for posting this! If the world were more concerned with fearing God and keeping His commandments (for after all this is the whole duty of man - Ecclesiastes 12:13),then we would live in a much more well-ordered society today that isn't so focused on self and what they believe to be their rights!

  5. Thank you for your question, Jonathan.

    No, when I say that God's order is perfectly suited to the needs of our fallen world, I certainly don't mean that it was only after the fall that this order was put in place. The first two chapters of Genesis are quite clear that duties (the duty not to eat the fruit of the forbiden tree), responsibilities (the responsibility to tend the garden) and privileges (the unearned privilege of enjoying all that God had made) existed in a perfect world.

    I used the word fallen because it is only in a fallen world that people rebel against God's order and rights. Since the fall, God has made it very clear to us what his standards are and what he expects of us. This does not mean that God's standards were any different before the fall, but simply that in our fallen state we are so inclined to go our own way that we need clear boundaries and limits.

    Does this answer your question?

  6. David van den Broek4 April 2011 at 19:40

    Duties, responsibilities and privileges are all relational terms. My space, my rights, my life are the sorts phrases I'm always hearing and that are made to sound so reasonable. Relationship with the living God or self absorbed, self centred alianation from the living God. It makes it seem a lot clearer.

    Thanks Naomi.


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