By Jesse Jost
The tricky thing about freedom is that the exercise of one man’s freedom almost always entails limiting another’s freedom. My freedom to play my music loud in the room limits everyone’s else’s freedom to have quiet or to enjoy their music.
This creates dilemmas for society: which freedoms should be protected by law and which freedoms should be limited? Should women be free to abort their babies? Should we be free to smoke pot?
The New Testament, while instilling love for liberty, does not call us to unlimited freedom. In fact, believers are often called slaves of God. We are to pursue liberty, but our freedom is to be limited by love. Gal 5:15-17
We are commanded to have the mind of Christ, who though He had the ultimate freedom as God, unhindered by any other power, voluntarily limited his freedom and took on the form of a slave, one who had no rights and freedoms. Jesus limited his freedoms instead of fighting for his rights, so that he could make us free. Phil 2:5-9
To the question of which freedoms should be honoured and which freedoms should be limited, the biblical answer is: We should be free to love and obey God in all He commands us, and we should be free to love our fellowman and be able to meet their needs.
However, the Bible does not give us full freedom of conscience. The Bible takes a dim view of our conscience in that it can become seared and be deceitful, and acknowledges that we have a tendency to justify and rationalize just about anything.
Each man is prone to think his own actions are good and motivated by love, while also assuming that those who disagree are in error and motivated by more devious reasons.
Why this discourse on freedom? Because the church can fall into two errors:
The first is to neglect the protection of rights and freedoms, i.e. Leaders who look the other way when wives are abused or minorities are oppressed. God has stern warnings in the Old Testament when His people look the other way at injustice. God demands we stand up for the weak and powerless.
But the other error that the church can fall into is a proclamation of unqualified liberty.
The freedom call feels good and empowering. Every sinful person can rally behind the liberty call. The cry of liberty and freedom has been behind the bloody French revolution, the Antebellum South’s defence of slavery, the sexual revolution, abortion rights and many other harmful ideas and movements that all ended up robbing other people of their rights and freedoms.
So how can we pursue biblical freedom without falling into either of these errors?
Here are four vital safeguards:
Surrender to God Daily
The most important requirement is to do as Jesus commands and “die daily.” This means becoming a living sacrifice, and surrendering our rights to God, and praying that His will would be done. He knows the end from the beginning and uses even the injustices done against us for our good.
Surrender to the Authority of His Word
Our quest for freedom can be so easily manipulated by emotional rhetoric, and faulty information. People have been roused by powerful orators to commit ungodly acts of terror and genocide. Just because we believe passionately about our cause does not mean we are in the right. Many harmful movements and revolutions all seemed like a good idea at the time…
When strong emotion has a tendency to label all our ideas and passions as righteous, how can we discern which causes are truly righteous?
The answer is by testing all things in light of scripture. Martin Luther famously declared that his conscience was captive to the word of God. We would be wise to follow his example, and make sure our causes have firm biblical support, and not just the support of memes, ever-changing science, expert witness, or news media.
Also be careful to test the interpretations of your own traditions in light of how other Christian groups interpret the text. It is easy to read extra-biblical ideas into the text and then claim scriptural support.
Listen to Those Who Disagree With You.
Proverbs warns that “the first one to plead his cause seems right until his neighbour comes and examines him.”
The first person to tell his story and interpretation of events will usually seem most plausible, especially if other stories and interpretations are not carefully considered.
It’s easy to only consider easily refuted straw men versions of other people’s positions and then feel you have looked at all sides.
But if you can’t articulate the other person’s ideas and position to their satisfaction, maybe you haven’t really heard and understood where they are coming from.
This lack of listening and abundance of prejudging those who disagree with each other is tearing the church apart.
Those who desire to open up their churches and be more available to their communities are being seen as reckless and endangering people’s health.
Conversely those who are trying to abide by the health orders and creatively meet the needs of their communities within those confines are being judged as cowards and unwilling to stand up to the harms of the lock downs.
Each situation churches and pastors face is different and love requires that we try to assume the best about other people and trust that they are seeking how to best obey God in their own unique contexts.
Find Security and Safety in God’s Sovereign Love and Coming justice
One of the chief hindrances to our ability to truly listen and understand those who disagree with us is the anger that rises up when we feel afraid and threatened.
People who are concerned about being overrun by the virus feel very threatened by those want to open up and risk greater physical fellowship.
Those who are far more afraid of losing our freedoms and civil liberties feel very threatened by others who seem unwilling to push back.
Recently, I discovered just how much my own fear of disapproval made me feel threatened by people who disagreed with me. This made me emotional and unable to really listen to the other person’s views.
Not until we feel secure in God’s love and power to protect and bring ultimate justice, can we relax enough to really listen and understand the unique view points and challenges other people are dealing with.
The New Testament says little about fighting for our own rights. In fact, there are some shocking commands to the contrary:
Jesus commands us not to resist an evil person, but instead to bless those who persecute us. (see Matt 5)
Peter says slaves need to submit to even unjust slave masters. (1 Peter 2:19-20)
The church is commanded to submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
This is not done to downplay our human rights and dignity, but to acknowledge that all of our rights only come from God.
Jesus did not defend Himself when he was stripped of his rights and crucified. But “he committed himself to Him who judges righteously.” (1 Peter 2:22-24)
God himself wants to be the judge and defender of our rights. “Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord, I will repay.” Jesus is always active “according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Phil 3:21
When we try to take justice for ourselves into our own hands, we can be blinded by anger and bitterness, and in our quest for justice, can become perpetrators of injustice ourselves.
We dare not neglect standing up for the oppressed and bullied, but we must also be so careful that in our quest for justice, we do not become bullies ourselves.
James is clear that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. He adds that the wisdom that is truly from God is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, and full of mercy. The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace.”
So take up the cause of freedom boldly, but make sure that you are always in submission to God, His word, and the wisdom of other believers.
Be encouraged. Jesus is the one ruling the nations, and He has assured final victory.
You are not responsible to save the world, but to be faithful in the next task that is right in front of you.