Why Christians value freedom

Andrew Cameron

I became aware that those who argue for human rights are surprised and confused when Christians disagree with them. So I wrote this introduction to our submission to show what makes Christians tick. It is a miniature summary of what is called “political theology”. I think it also shows how you can talk about the gospel among all the issues of daily life.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. [Galatians 5:1]

Jesus Christ introduced himself as a liberator. His first hearers were offended by this claim, because they did not believe they needed the 'liberation' he offered (John 8:31-36). According to Jesus, every person is enslaved to desires and behaviours that drive us to hurt each other, and which destroy our relationship to God. He offers release from this 'sin' to become loved children of God. He insists that this news is the only truth that 'will set you free'.

Early Christians were mesmerised by this news of liberation. Christ, writes one, gives 'the glorious freedom of the children of God' (Romans 8:31) through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:2, 2 Corinthians 3:7). This last point is significant: only the Holy Spirit can enact the kind of inner change that causes people to want to accept this news. It follows that people can only be informed of the news, never coerced into accepting it.

As Christians we have been freed from the link between our performance and our acceptability to God and freed to do what Jesus describes as 'loving' others"”responding to them respectfully, and with caring affection (c.f. Galatians 5:13, cf Romans 6:18, 22). The Bible's moral sections are a 'law of liberty'(James 1:25, 2:12), a kind of 'roadmap' to loving well. This freedom with God and for others enables us to discern false 'freedoms'. For example, our freedom for pleasure is lost and barren on its own, and only finds its proper 'home' when we love others and are reconciled to God.

Christian freedom is not meant to take an anarchic or selfish form. Christians are as prone to weakness, failure and self-obsession as anyone else, and so we are charged to 'live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God' (1 Peter 2:16). We also become 'subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution' (1 Peter 2:13) as a corrective to our selfishness.

These two ideas"”'being subject' and 'living free'"”seem totally contradictory at first. But for Christians, a strange paradox follows. Human authorities often reflect Christ's rule, even if only roughly, and we can go along with that as 'subjects'. But when the authority stops resembling Christ, we can live free as the 'servants of God'. The Bible records moments when Christians suddenly stop cooperating with local authorities, as when two of Jesus apostles declare 'we must obey God rather than men' (Acts 5:29).

Of course everyone, Christians included, can nobly invoke freedom claims as a 'cover-up' for evil. This self-deception simply fails to love others and is another false 'freedom'. Hence Christians are generally very respectful of and cooperative toward government, knowing it to be one of God's methods of bringing peace and order to society (cf Romans 13:1-7). However moments arise when Christians simply refuse to cooperate, because they owe an allegiance to someone greater.

This self-understanding is crucial to the current project. The researchers, the AHRC and the Government need to know that Christians carry a very real belief that Jesus Christ stands above us all. He has our primary allegiance, which we will not change for anyone. The wrong kind of governance drives Christians to express this allegiance either underground or in open defiance. There is no getting around this reality. At its best, the 'freedom of religion' is the social recognition of it.

Many Christians also believe that the theology outlined above shaped our democratic traditions. No state authority can stand between a person and God. Each is free to know or to deny God, and to differentiate herself from society (the basis of freedom of thought). Each is free to find what God wants for them and to freely assemble with like-minded others (the basis of free assembly). Each is free to declare good news about Christ; to reason, debate and argue for the truth about God; and to contest claims that seem false (the basis of free speech). Each must respect the role of government as a reflection of Christ's rule over us all (the basis of the distinction between state governance and religious ministry).

The 'right' kind of governance, which respects these freedoms and demonstrably meets the needs of those whom society is failing, usually elicits our cooperation. Indeed we regard ourselves as (potentially) the best kind of 'friend' that a society and its government could have. We generally do not want to express our beliefs in some form of strict separatism (except when we feel we have no choice). We seek to care for the good of our neighbours and to cooperate with society where possible. We only want to challenge society when we think it is committed to folly or self-deception, and our more natural impulse is to participate when we can.

We hope that this short excursus into the Christian mind shows why freedom matters so much to us, that it is no threat to society, and that we will continue to live this freedom in primary allegiance to Jesus Christ.

This essay is the opening chapter of the Social Issues Executive submission to the Freedom of Religion and Belief Project. Download a pdf of the full text here. Comments are welcome but please be aware that Andrew Cameron is currently on study leave and is not available to respond.