For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another (Galatians 5:13).
Few principles receive greater esteem and worship in America than freedom or liberty. Many believe the emphasis and value of freedom is what makes America distinct and exceptional among the nations. Freedom is often viewed as an essential right, if not the essential right, of all Americans: the armed forces are hallowed as those who have sacrificed much in order to maintain freedom and liberty, and so all are expected to highly esteem it. One of the quickest and most effective ways of demonizing a given idea or practice is to say it would inhibit and suppress the freedom of Americans to live as they desire.
In modern America, however, freedom is generally understood in its most libertarian sense: freedom demands license, or “freedom to”: I am free to do as I wish. You do not have the right to tell me what to do or to demand anything of me, because I have freedom and liberty by right as an American citizen, and I will do what I want to do. In America far more sensitivity is shown to the prospect of what is deemed tyranny, the restriction of liberty, than towards a concern for the consequences of disobedience toward or active rebellion against authority, or even on many of the restrictions on individual conduct which work toward the common good; not a few lives have been sacrificed on the altar to preserving the “freedom” of others, and many terrible and unjust policies have been defended as having preserved “freedom” or “liberty.”
Christians indeed have freedom in Christ: the Apostle Paul insisted that Christ set Christians free for freedom (Galatians 5:1). Yet the Apostles envisioned the freedom Christians enjoy in Christ very differently from the libertarian cast of freedom imagined in modern America. In Christ freedom is primarily liberation: “freedom from.”
According to Paul all people are caught up under sin: death entered the world because of sin, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23, 5:12-21). The Hebrews author proposed how all people are enslaved by their fear of death to do the will of the Evil One who has the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15); Paul spoke similarly of people living under the power of the Evil One, of “sin” in terms of a “power” to which people find themselves enslaved to do what they would not and to not do what they would desire to do, and of “powers and principalities” who maintain control over the world in its present darkness (Romans 7:7-23, Ephesians 2:1-3, 6:12). On their own humans find themselves thus lost in condemnation: their good works cannot undo their evil deeds, having been judged by law as transgressors deserving due penalty (Romans 3:20-28, James 2:8-13). Indeed, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
By dying to atone for sin, Jesus defeated the forces of sin and the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 8:1-3, Colossians 2:15). In His resurrection from the dead, Jesus overcame the power and sting of death (Romans 6:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-28). This is the freedom Christians have in Christ: liberation from enslavement to sin and death. In Christ Christians are set free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). Christians are no longer in debt to live according to the ways of the world in its vanity and lusts, for they have received the Spirit of adoption into the household of God (Romans 8:12-15). The powers and principalities of the world have been soundly defeated; Christians can look to Jesus and trust in Him and do not have to give their power over to the forces which would enslave them to sin and death (cf. Colossians 2:11-15).
Freedom as liberation from the forces of sin and death is far greater and more powerful than any freedom which the United States of America might presume to bestow upon its citizens. Yet to what end are Christians expected to exercise their freedom and liberty in Christ?
So many in America and the world might look at “freedom to” as license, to do as they wish; Paul and Peter warn Christians against such a definition. According to Paul, liberation in Christ means to put to death the works of the flesh which enslaved us unto death so we can walk in newness of life in righteousness according to the way of Jesus (Romans 6:1-14, Galatians 5:13, 17-24). Peter stated the matter succinctly in 1 Peter 2:15-16:
For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God.
The Apostles provide this consistent witness throughout the New Testament: Christians are set free in Christ from enslavement to sin and death in order to freely submit to the will of God in Christ Jesus. In a figure Paul spoke of Christian conversion as having been set free from enslavement to sin to become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:14-23). The Galatian Christians were in danger of submitting themselves to the yoke of the Law of Moses; Paul insisted how Jesus had called them to freedom from that Law, not to pursue the selfish passions of the flesh, but to serve one another (Galatians 5:1, 13).
Freedom and liberty therefore mean very different things for Christians than they do for Americans. For Americans, freedom is a fundamental right for which many have died so we can maintain and obtain it; to Christians, freedom is the gift of God which comes from Jesus willingly sacrificing Himself for us and for sin. To Americans, freedom is a given, a part of what it means to be an American; Christians understand they have never deserved or merited the freedom they have obtained in Christ, for it was given freely by grace (Ephesians 2:1-10). Far too many Americans presume freedom means they can do whatever they want; Christians must use their freedom to submit themselves to the will of God in Christ, or their “freedom” is merely a cloak and a pretext for evil, and has been emptied of its power. Americans will die for liberty; in Christ, liberty is the first thing to be renounced in order to live in the unity of the Spirit (cf. Romans 14:1-23, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Americans constantly fret about the danger of someone infringing on their liberty; Christians maintain confidence in the inability of any external agent to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord yet expect to suffer harassment, loss, and/or persecution for their confession that Jesus is Lord (Romans 8:31-39, 1 Peter 4:12-19).
As Christians we can appreciate the benefits and blessings that come from being citizens of the United States of America; we can celebrate our freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, and even remain in the right to exhort and remind governing authorities regarding these values which the nation-state would presume to uphold (cf. Acts 16:35-40). For Christians, however, freedom looks like a cross. If we allow American conceptions of freedom and liberty to inform our faith in Christ, we will invariably insist on our own ways to the detriment and harm of others, cast aspersions and perhaps even prove rebellious against lawful authorities, and be condemned for having used our freedom as a cloak for wickedness. We cannot follow in humiliation, degradation, and suffering according to the way of the Christ while doggedly insisting on our freedoms and rights. We cannot demand our way or the highway and yet share in relational unity with God and with His people as God shares relational unity within Himself (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:1-4). Instead, as Christians, we must continually resist understanding freedom in Christ Jesus as so many understand freedom in America; we must root and ground ourselves in Jesus as Lord, confess Him in word and deed, and use the freedom we have obtained in Christ to submit to Him in all things and serve one another. May we find what is truly life in Christ and confess Jesus, not American ideals, as Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry