Re-Thinking Human Rights
Should an atheist be allowed to be the head-teacher of a Church School?
Should a humanist group be allowed to hire a church hall for a meeting?
Should a pro-euthanasia group be allowed to advertise in a Christian-based hospice?
Should a homosexual couple be allowed a Christian marriage?
These are questions which Kirk-Sessions throughout the Free Church of Scotland would have no difficulty in answering in the negative. But the Human Rights Bill, which seeks to incorporate the European Convention on Human rights into British Law could open the door for a 'no' answer to these, and many other questions, to lead to massive legal action against the Church.
At the heart of the Disruption of 1843 was the issue of the divine right of Christ as King and Head of His Church. Conflict between Church and State became intolerable. Patronage meant that irrespective of the spiritual judgment of God-fearing men and women in Christ's church, the wishes of landlords and civil authorities carried the day. The result was a separation that brought the Free Church into being.
It is difficult not to see parallels between these events of 1843 and the current push to bring Human Rights legislation onto the statute book. The Free Church remains strongly in defence of religious freedom and spiritual liberty for the Church. Yet an unbelieving world is forcing upon the churches throughout the United Kingdom a law which would make individual, human rights supreme. Homosexual couples might be able to argue that they have a fundamental human right to marry in a place of their choosing. A church or minister refusing to conduct such a marriage could be in breach of Parliamentary, not to say, European, legislation. The scenario is frightening: churches and clergymen could be sued, neither of which have the necessary finances to support themselves through such litigation.
Amendments to the Bill have been passed in the House of Lords. But groups like the Christian Institute in Newcastle believe Parliament should exempt religious bodies altogether. On 19th January of this year the House of Lords attempted to have religious bodies exempted from the definition of 'public authorities' in the Bill, but this was not accepted.
It is reasonable to assume that religious bodies, in the interests of human liberties, ought to be protected by the State. Yet the Human Rights Bill so elevates the individual's need for protection and his rights under the European Convention that these very religious bodies themselves are under the greatest threat. Nor is the nature of human rights adequately expressed, and the next generation could go on redefining such rights.
Certain aspects of the Human Rights Bill will be welcomed by Christians. However, the historical circumstances and particular moral and ethical standards of religious bodies mean that religious bodies performing public functions will be open to abusive litigation. It could also mean the effective withdrawal of churches and religious groups from worthwhile and meaningful civic service.
The whole debate is a debate about sin and the native autonomy of the sinful heart. Ever since man ate the forbidden fruit, he has asserted his own authority and has contradicted the authority of God. Sin came in because Adam believed that by getting what God forbade he could make perfection better.
It is no accident that there is an 'I' in the middle of 'sin'. I, the self, me - that native pride is the power behind every sinful word, thought and action. And its children are to be found in pressure groups, lobbyists and extreme parties who insist on the absolute right of man to do his own thing.
There is a clear theological point here, which the church has to define. What rights does a sinful man in a sinful wok have? In an absolute sense, none at all. Every right has been forfeited by sin; before the Creator, the creature has the right only to obey.
But in the devolved sovereignty which God Himself gave to man when He placed him in the Garden of Eden, there were inalienable rights and privileges afforded him. Man has, first, the right to life. No-one has the right to take life away, except, arguably, under punitive conditions. From abortion to euthanasia, the church is mandated to declare the sanctity of life and the right of man to the life God has given Him.
He also has the right of sovereignty, subject to the over-ruling will of God. Man was placed in the Garden of Eden to subdue it as well as to keep it, to harness its resources and make use of its provisions. He was mandated to utilise everything that God had placed there in order that there might be continuance in a condition of innocence and service. Man has the right to exercise a devolved and responsible kingship over the cosmos, harnessing its energies and channeling its powers for the continued good of the world.
History is writ large with examples of abuse of such sovereignty and its consequences. Incalculable suffering has been occasioned by poor management of the soil, the air and the sea. Behind much of that mismanagement is the greed and covetousness that are native to man in a fallen world.
Man also has the right of religious freedom and worship. He has this by way of command from the God who is worthy of worship. The Bible is prescriptive - it sets before us the way in which, and the methods by which, God is to be worshipped and honoured. Bishop Ryle alludes to this in an essay on "Private Judgement" in Knots Untied. Believers, he says, have the right of private judgement, that is, the right to judge for themselves "whether that which is put before them as religious truth is God's truth or not". Man has the duty of examining his religious principles and beliefs in the light of the Word of God, and having judged them there, ought to have the right of holding on to them and practising them in his life.
The danger faced by the churches and other religious bodies is that cases of conflict will be referable to the civil magistrate, and matters of religious freedom and religious liberty could be brought to law. Churches could find themselves neck-high in litigation they cannot afford and in publicity they cannot afford. Groups will be able to argue that one Church's principles are at variance with another body's rights.
There is a need for prayer and concentrated intercession over this matter. We have precious rights, and religious freedoms for which others died and from which we have derived the opportunity to assemble together under the Gospel. MPs need to be contacted. Parliament needs to know that churches and Christians have a primary obligation to Christ the Lord of the Church, to uphold His law over so-called human 'rights'. Righteousness alone can exalt our nation, and only by returning to the rule of God in heart and life can we expect greatness for our nation again.
There are forces and powers warring against the church in every age. Satan has always busied himself in trying to subject the claims of Christ to the affairs of state. It cannot be. Christ's rule is absolute. Human rights must bow before His law, or else they become human wrongs.