Liberty is the absence of unwarranted coercion, leaving the human open to persuasion and his own agency to choose what he ought. Freedom does not, and never can, mean an unlimited amount of choices. The freedom of a man should be limited in two ways.
Externally, he is not free to harm the common good, as decided by that society. When a man screams about his ‘rights’ and his ‘freedoms’ when his actions are regarded as illegal by the law is head-butting the rock face of Reality. Freedom does not mean complete permission to perform every thing that comes into your head. In the Western idea, it means freedom to own property, travel, assemble, trade, vote, defend oneself, worship, and express opinion without coercion or fear of prosecution, within the bounds of the law. Those freedoms, established by centuries of statecraft and jurisprudence, constitute his freedom in society.
Counter-intuitively, at this level of human life, these freedoms are protected by force. The policeman’s gun, the judge’s gavel, and the prison-warden’s keys insist that humans use their freedoms within the boundaries established by law. This coercion is not tyrannical, as long as it is upheld by the rule of law, limited government, and fair courts. Government is established by God for the health of a society, and the closer the government represents those ideals, the freer the society. In such a society, a man who crosses the boundaries of his legal freedom forfeits his freedom. He will be coerced into paying some kind of penalty. But wailing that his freedom has been violated when he is led off to prison after the due process of the courts is mangling the meaning of freedom.
But that is not the end of it, for a second consideration should limit a man’s freedoms. Internally, he should be constrained by devotion to God – by the pursuit of an upright conscience. In a society, that means plenty of choices are externally ‘legal’, while being morally wrong. On the other hand, a healthy society can only survive when the external order is built upon the internal moral order of its citizens. Citizens who pursue what is impure, wasteful, destructive, or defiling, simply because it is not forbidden to society, are enslaving themselves, and contributing to the overall loss of freedom for society.
A Christian must reckon his range of choices to be those belonging to newness of life, and reckon himself dead to sinful choices. Of course, he can exercise his free agency to sin, but this means he is re-entering the tyranny of sin. To maintain liberty, he must restrict himself to all those choices found in the will of God. So ironically, the freest man is the one who limits himself to the will of God and the law of the land (assuming those laws are just, and the government is not tyrannical). By limiting his range of choices to what is tolerated by his society, and further, what is pleasing to God, he is the freest man of all.
Why then do we hear so many people yelping about their freedoms being denied, and quoting Galatians 5:1 out of context? With their vague view of liberty, just about any annoyance can be construed as infringing on one’s freedom. What then constitutes genuine loss of legitimate freedom?
On the external, societal level, when a government legislates matters that should be left to private choice, liberty is curtailed. The restrictiveness of the the laws, and the severity the punishments for breaking them is the measure of the oppressiveness of the society, but any move in this direction is a movement towards tyranny. Conversely, the society that does not uphold the rule of law, that permits bribery and corruption, or allows wanton wastage and destruction of natural resources is headed for the opposite bondage of anarchy. These represent genuine losses of freedom.
On an internal level, as we have said, moves towards sin are moves to both the anarchy of sin and the tyranny of the flesh, the world and the Devil. These represent a self-chosen loss of freedom.
What is left is to consider when internal matters of conscience become matters of coercion, rather than persuasion. This what most people are talking about when they say they are ‘free in Christ’ or that their legalistic church is busy enslaving people. What does a loss of legitimate freedom look like in the church, that voluntary organisation that is to respect the individual conscience? That deserves a post of its own.