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A Christian Perspective on Freedom

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To understand freedom and authority requires an understanding of their Jewish origins.


Jewish origins


Any rough definition of religion will contain, at some stage, reference to the quality of relationship between humanity and God, or the gods. In Christianity, as in Judaism, the essential belief concerning the relationship between Creator and his creation is that it is always in danger of being spoiled by human sin. Indeed, human sin at its most pernicious opens up a chasm between creature and Creator that can seem unbridgeable. Something must be done therefore to open up the communication channels once more between us and God. For the ancient people of Israel the means of restoring this relationship was by way of Law. The Law can be found in the early books of the Old Testament. These books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – are amongst the main sources of authority for the Jewish faith.


Freedom through Jesus


But what about Christians? Put simply, Christians understand Jesus' life and death to have superseded the obligations laid down by the Old Testament Law. Jesus took upon himself the demands of the Law so that we don't have to – though how this is worked out by theologians (and ordinary Christians) is a complex business. This new state of affairs means that Christians – when they accept Jesus' accomplishment and make it their own – will live in a state of freedom undreamt-of during the time of the Law. This theology was first thought out by Saint Paul. For Paul, this is what makes the Christian message 'good news' (gospel). You can read more about Paul's thoughts here in his 'Letter to the Romans' (New Testament).


Luther's contribution


The Reformation theologian Martin Luther was amongst the first to introduce the idea that authoritative laws are written on the human heart. They are not to be followed from some external book or dictated to the masses by social elites. Luther more or less created Protestantism (Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, etc.) in his rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church in the mid sixteenth century. For Luther, becoming a Christian is essentially about being set free. However, this is not the freedom to do whatever you feel like; it's the liberty of knowing that you are loved by God and that trying to be perfect is neither possible nor actually that important. Luther wrote about these beliefs in his Concerning Christian Liberty:


Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of its husband Christ. Thus he presents to himself a glorious bride, without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word; that is, by faith in the word of life, righteousness and salvation.


Luther believed that in life and all matters religious some issues are more important than others. To know about Jesus and how he lived and died; to experience God personally; to live and strive for a good moral life; these are the things that matter. The chief source for learning about these important matters is, of course, the Bible. The trouble with the Bible, however, is that it's not straightforward; it's a rather different book from, say, the Highway Code where what's what is explained in plain and simple language. (For more on the Bible see 'The Book'.)


Church and State


Freedom and authority issues in connection with my own denomination – the Church of England – are especially complicated because the Anglican Church is the established church of England. This means that the Church has a formal, officially recognised relationship to the State and government. This works itself out in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. For instance the official 'head' of the Church of England is the Queen and 'her' bishops are entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. And when it comes to appointing bishops to their bishoprics (those parts of the country they control), the prime minister has the final word. Those in the Church have long argued about whether this link to the state is good or bad news. If you're against then you'll hold what are called disestablishment views. The arguments put forward by this group centre on a distinction between spiritual and temporal (earthly, political) power. The Church should be detached from the state, they say, so it can freely criticise what the state gets up to – like going to war in the Middle East. Apart from the power of bishops in the Lords (which is considerable) the ties between Church and state are mostly ceremonial today. Most Christians I know favour disestablishment.


Christian anarchists


At the other end of the spectrum from bishops in the House of Lords are groups like Christian anarchists. Christian anarchists believe that nothing or no one deserves their allegiance other than Jesus himself. The state, which presumes to speak on behalf of its people, is to be avoided and overturned wherever possible. Though it's not anarchist in outlook, the British Christian 'think-tank' Ekklesia is a progressive network of Christians who favour the Church's separation from the state. Their work consists of supporting Christians to participate in the dirty world of politics without the entanglements of secular power getting in the way.


A modern view of freedom


As a liberal Christian, my creed includes perspectives on freedom and authority that many would struggle to distinguish from secular viewpoints. So, even though the Bible remains important for me – especially the Gospels – I am also influenced by a whole host of thinkers, writers and movements. This is a very Anglican way of doing things. Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was a clever chap who had one or two interesting things to say about authority. Hooker knew that the Bible doesn't tell us everything we need to know about the world – nowhere does it pass direct comment on global warming or the specifics of abortion. Hooker realised that if we are to live intelligently as Christians – whether it be in the seventeenth or the twenty-first century – we need to employ many different authorities to guide us through life. So, in addition to the Bible, Hooker said we also need to rely on reason (including our experience of life) and the traditions of the Church since the death of Jesus. So, today, most Christians will happily look to science for some answers and to God for others.


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