Freedom 2: The Bible and Freedom
Yesterday, I gave some brief thoughts on the nature of freedom and its parameters. Next, it is helpful to see what the Bible says about freedom, to see the contexts where it is discussed and what the implications are for us as Christians.
The idea of freedom is first explicitly mentioned in Genesis 2:16-17: “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” However, the concept, as I defined it yesterday of having influence over one’s environment occurs even earlier, in Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” That command definitely contains the idea of having great freedom in Eden, and even beyond through to today, for God’s command was not conditional upon our innocence, though it can be argued theologically that some of our stewardship role was abdicated to Satan in the Fall, but I don’t want to get too distracted by this, other than to say we became slaves to a sin nature, so we did lose our freedom when we were deceived and rebelled.
Then let’s jump ahead to the giving of the Law through Moses. There are a number of passages that talk about the treatment of slaves and indentured servants, particularly when and how they must be freed. Slavery was legal in certain contexts, but it was meant to be temporary in many cases. The context for freeing slaves was often given in the context of God’s freeing the Jews from Egypt during the Exodus—God freed them from slavery, so they are to treat their slaves with the remembrance of being slaves themselves and to free them when appropriate. Thus, freedom of individual self determination is a cherished Biblical value. (See verses: Exodus 6:6, Ex 21, Leviticus 19:20, Deut 15, and others)
Then in the Psalms, we often see freedom longed for or rejoiced in, and here, it is a different kind of freedom. Previously we saw the desire to be free of human masters. Here we typically see freedom from sin, care, worry, the burdens of this life, and that freedom is found in following God righteously, in addition to numerous calls for deliverance from human enemies. What is interesting here is that this type of freedom is achieved by self-limiting our personal sovereignty to the limits set by God. Psalm 119 in particular has the theme throughout it that human freedom is best expressed when living within God’s boundaries. Yet, here is the aspect of freedom that is a key—willingly choosing to be self limiting, rather than being externally forced to. (Some Psalms that address this issue are: 25, 31, 37, 54, 73, 81, 105, 112, 116, 119, 129, 136, 142, 146) Two novels discuss this issue, Frank Peretti’s Piercing the Darkness and Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Another aspect of freedom is revealed as major themes in the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. The context is God’s people in captivity to Assyria and Babylon due to their rebellion towards God, and God in return is proclaiming that His people will be freed again and what is more, be freed in some sort of permanent way, and we see with growing clarity God’s plan for the redemption of ALL people, not just the Jews, that He will deal with the ultimate issue of sin and free people from both His condemnation due to sin, and from the bondage to sin itself. Whereas the Psalms dealt mostly with individuals, the prophets are talking about nations, cultures, and the human race as a whole being freed.
Fast forward some more. Jesus Himself was passionate about freedom of many kinds, declaring people He touched free from disease, infirmity, demonic forces, and sin. (Mk 5:29, 34; Lk 4:18, 13:16, Jn 8:36) He sums it all up in John 8:32, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” talking about the truth of Himself and the Gospel.
Paul was obsessed with the freedom from sin that Christ procured for us, and almost as an afterthought suggested slaves seek out freedom if it comes their way, but he was more concerned that people follow Christ in their spiritual freedom regardless of their terrestrial situations. (There are just too many versus in Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, and his other letters (Philemon). It is a worthwhile topical study.) Similarly, the theme of freedom runs through the letters of James and Peter, and the Hebrews.
So what? God gave us a great deal of freedom in the beginning, which we threw away/lost, and the whole story of history is the process of fighting to get it back. That’s not insignificant. It is revolutionary. So much so, that it fired the Revolutionary spirit of the founders of this country. Reading the Federalist papers and the letters and speeches of the founders reveal the Biblical roots for the concept of creating a nation of freeborn citizens.
We could do an entire symposium on the Biblical justifications or lack thereof for rebelling against British rule, but I don’t want to go there right now. Neither am I about to launch salvos in the debate of whether we were ever a Christian nation or not. I’m getting to something more fundamental.
Freedom to choose one’s path in life, to build communities of like-minded citizens and build a nation of federated states was the main goal of most of the founders. Indeed, some of the biggest disputes centered around how strong the central government should be. Ultimately, the Bill of Rights was included precisely to counteract what some founders felt was too strong of a central government as described in the main body of the Constitution.
One of the challenges of having a Biblically based discussion on the American philosophy of freedom is because there was no government like it during the times that any of the books of the Bible were written. The Roman Republic had already become the Roman Empire during the Intertestamental Period of the Bible. Thus, you see everything from anarchy to theocracy to monarchy to empires, but no republics, which is what the founders created. Thus, we have to look at principles rather than commands. Peter said we are to “honor the Emperor,” (1 Peter 2:17) because the rulers were put in place by God (Romans 13:4), and Paul also agreed with his accusers in Acts about the Biblical injunction against speaking ill of one’s ruler. (Acts 23:5)
When a nation has self-determination and can choose their ruler, this is somewhat new ground. Does this mean that God has not set our leaders over us? Since we are, in a sense, the boss of our elected officials, are we free to badmouth them? (as admittedly, nearly all of us LOVE to do! How many political cartoons, emails, or jokes have you laughed at or forwarded??) What is the role of a Christian as a citizen in a Republic?
This is not an easy question to answer. I’m already on the third page of this post, so cannot hope to do it justice here. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve come to any solid conclusions, except that we are called to have an active role. How do I know this? 1) We are human beings created in God’s image with the power and authority to act as moral agents, 2) are tasked by God to be stewards of the Creation, which includes societies created by humans, 3) as redeemed people, the Holy Spirit of God Himself dwells within us, guiding us into all righteousness, thus we should be passionate about justice, equality, fairness and righteousness in our government, and 4) the country we live in has a Constitution that specifically empowers its citizens to be active in the governing of this country. Therefore, we have an obligation to be active in the public discourse.
So far, we have not explicitly looked at anything that dictates whether we ought to be Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Socialist or Libertarian, and as I promised, I will not go there. There are Biblical Christians in every one of those groups, and that is because every one of those groups do have things to contribute to the dynamic functioning of a large complex society. The questions that arise typically fall into the category of who’s responsible for what aspects of society—the government, the people, the churches, business, and so on.
Homework: I want to hear from you through comments your answers to the question: What is the role of a Christian as a citizen in a Republic?