By T. R. Robertson
The meaning of the word freedom has been in dispute for as long as there have been huddled masses, yearning to be free. To the men who signed the Declaration of Independence it meant freedom from the oppression of British rule. They wrote their statement of freedom in the language of the Christian faith, invoking almighty God’s approval of their demands.
They did their best to codify their definition of freedom in the U.S. Constitution, but the details begged amending before the ink was hardly dry, giving birth to the Bill of Rights. Thus began the continual evolution of the American definition of freedom.
Change was inevitable. The founding fathers wrote a constitution that guaranteed their own freedom to own property and to vote, but failed to guarantee their wives the same freedoms. Some of them owned slaves, whom they apparently believed were created somewhat less than equal when they set out to define the Creator-endowed unalienable rights. The lesser status of both women and slaves were supported theologically from many pulpits of the day.
Over the course of the subsequent two hundred years, Americans of every gender and race were eventually afforded equal freedoms, at least in theory, if not always in practice. Few Christians would argue against those hard-won freedoms.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, activists’ efforts have focused increasingly on the freedom to make personal lifestyle choices. The legal definition of freedom in America now includes the freedom to divorce and remarry repeatedly, freedom to terminate the life of a child before birth, freedom of same-sex couples to marry, and several other “lifestyle liberties.”
Many Christians find these new legalized freedoms troubling. It’s difficult to accept the expansion of legal freedoms into areas the Bible calls sin. At the same time, many non-Christian Americans have chafed against limits on their freedom. While the first amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, the idea of America as a “Christian nation” led to the establishment of a culturally accepted Christian lifestyle for much of the first two centuries of the country’s existence.
One reason why some governmental bodies are now moving toward restricting religious freedom is because activists are pushing back against what they view as a long history of restrictions and protections in favor of religion. How should Christians deal with this new explosion of freedoms—and the inevitable continuing expansion of freedoms into areas not yet imagined? And how can we make sure we’re not repeating the errors of the past, allowing extra-biblical cultural values to cloud our discernment and divert our attention from our true purpose?
Freedom in Christ
With all due respect to wordsmiths like Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr., history’s greatest clarion call for freedom is found in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
As we struggle to form an appropriate Christian response to the world’s ideas about freedom, we could do a lot worse than to paraphrase Paul’s revolutionary broadside from verse 6 of that chapter: For in Christ Jesus neither a legalized Christian lifestyle nor a legalized non-religious lifestyle has any value. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
As Christians, what could be more important than leading with love when we’re faced with changing definitions and applications of freedom? When we see Americans freely expressing their newly won legal lifestyles, God’s redemptive mission should drive our response.
Some will protest that I’m recommending we soft-peddle God’s truth about sin. No, not at all. But I have observed that Christians are quick to display patient love and acceptance toward seekers who are gossips, gluttonous, and greedy while reacting with judgment and warnings toward a homosexual seeker. Shouldn’t we approach all sinners with love?
This world needs a church that loves. Expanding freedoms in the area of divorce, abortion, gay rights, and other lifestyle choices will have a spiritual and emotional impact on the lives of families and children. The church can stand firm on the righteousness of God and still be looking for ways to reach out to those hurt by the very freedoms they’ve won.
As the definition of freedom in America has evolved, Christians have repeatedly been in the forefront of defending and protecting the first amendment guarantee of religious freedom. Over the past several decades, when the government has attempted to restrict the freedoms of offshoot religions, Christian legal experts have argued forcefully to protect the rights of those groups, even though they may be considered cults by most theologians. Either the constitution protects all forms of religion—Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, and even atheism—or it protects none of us. Some, of course would take that idea a step further: Either the constitution protects all forms of lifestyle—religious, non-religious, heterosexual, LBGTQ, and whatever else—or it protects none of us.
Faithful followers of Christ will and do disagree on where to draw those lines. Nevertheless, we should all agree that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
I find it deeply troubling when I see believers reacting to changing cultural freedoms with fear and paranoia. God tells us “there is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The best cure for the fear that threatens to drag us down is to approach every person and every situation with a default attitude of love.
The Bible is filled with tales of persecuted believers who joyfully saw tragic circumstances and dark times as God-given opportunities to pursue his mission. Imagine how startling it would be to the opponents of faith if they saw Christians responding to challenges with unbridled joy and selfless love rather than fear and anger.
Free to Disagree
Both the documents of our country and the documents of our faith agree that every Christian is free to be involved politically. Many have chosen to speak out in opposition to the extension of liberties into areas with which they disagree. Others are active in advocating against restrictions on religious freedoms.
The Christian’s mission includes both the prophetic voice in the public square and the role of peacemaker. Both are best pursued by leading with love. When we lose fights over cultural issues we should be graceful and peaceful in our response, rather than reacting with hatred and by retreating from society.
It breaks my heart to hear the mocking and hateful rhetoric of some frustrated believers. By using the same unloving approach as their opponents, the distinctive appeal of freedom in Christ is obscured entirely. Why would any non-believer be attracted to a Savior whose followers are dismissive and rude?
As Paul continued in Galatians 5, he detailed a description of the fruitful believer that has kept Christian freedom fighters focused on their mission for centuries. Even as we introduce biblical ideas and biblical words into the public consciousness, if we fail to model the fruit of the Spirit while doing so, we will have already lost the more important battle.
On TV, radio, social media, as well as in campaign speeches and debates, the dominant approach to political dialogue leans more toward the works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit. Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy have become the new normal in American political discourse. It’s no wonder that Christians find it difficult to display the fruit of the Spirit in their own contributions to the ill-tempered babble.
Are we truly convinced that our primary mission as followers of Christ is to be a part of his efforts to reconcile all people to him? Then we should always be careful to avoid letting our political activities and opinions push people away from wanting to hear the gospel. That doesn’t mean we’ll always muzzle ourselves in political discussions. It does mean keeping our priorities in proper order during those conversations.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.