Tag Archive for freedom

Judging Areas of Freedom (5)

Modern Christians are in the habit of labelling all sorts of things as ‘matters of Christian liberty’ or ‘areas of preference’. We do not doubt that these adiaphora (“indifferent things”) exist; Scripture explicitly deals with them in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. The question is, how do we identify them?

Genuine adiaphora can be identified by a process of elimination. Anything explicitly commanded or prohibited is clearly not an area of liberty. Further, anything forbidden or commanded by a more general principle cannot be an area of liberty either. If we can supply good and clear warrant for connecting a Scriptural principle to a practice, we no longer have an area where Christians may have opposite convictions and both be pleasing to Christ.

After this process of elimination, what will remain are those matters where multiple principles, of equal weight, seem to apply, some of which seem to point in opposite directions. In these cases, no Scriptural principle will clearly take precedence over another. Further, the information we obtain from the world to understand this practice may have meaning on various levels. Here is where careful judgement must take over. Among the questions we will ask are:

1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?

If two Christians seeking to please God could answer the above questions honestly and yet differently, we have a genuine area of liberty.

But notice, we have not here been agnostic of meaning. Instead, since the area is neither explicitly commanded or prohibited, we have been especially scrupulous with meaning. The example which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8-10 shows us that the focus for adiaphora is not the preference of the person, but the meaning of the situation. Paul teaches that the solution for adiaphora is a careful judgement of meaning. These are not areas of freedom to do whatever appeals to you. These are areas in which all Christians have the freedom to judge carefully, and then obey that judgement (I Cor 10:25, Rom 14:20, 22-23).

Having been careful with our inner judgement, we are then to be charitable with others who have followed the same process and come to different conclusions. In particular, Romans 14 calls on believers to neither despise or judge one another when we come to opposite conclusions. Further, the strong are to bear with the weak, Paul instructs. Who then are the weak?

The weaker brother is not always the ‘stricter’ brother. By this logic, every move towards permissiveness would be a move toward maturity. To abstain from some practices hardly makes one weak in conscience. Someone strong in faith may have a particularly ‘strict’ conviction, relative to another believer.
The weaker brother is not the more easily offended brother. This brother is simply the crabbier brother. He is a brother who takes personal offence where he should not, and needs to be discipled in the virtues of forbearance and patience.

The weaker brother is the brother whose conscience has not settled, who is prone to falling back into a pattern of sin. He is tossed to and fro in his understanding of the adiaphora. He may find refuge in extreme denials and abstinences, but he will just as quickly fall back into foolish indulgence. His weakness is not his abstinence, nor his thin skin. His weakness is his lack of stability in judgement, and the volatility of his conscience. This brother, whose conscience is wobbly and unstable, is to be carefully guided by those Christians whose consciences have settled. They are to limit themselves, sometimes denying their own freedoms, to protect the believer from unwise or foolish choices while he cements his convictions.

Matters of Conscience and Freedom (4)

Scripture devotes two sections of the New Testament to explain how certain choices in the Christian life are not explicitly or implicitly forbidden or prescribed: explicitly by commands or prohibitions, or implicitly by a very clear application of general Scriptural principles. These two sections are Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Here we meet matters sometimes called adiaphora (‘indifferent things’). Specifically given as examples of adiaphora are eating food offered to idols, and the observance of days. Modern Christians have, perhaps without warrant, classed many other things as examples of adiaphora: entertainment, dress, recreation, drugs and alcohol, language, and even sexual purity. Since, in the minds of some, these then become examples of ‘liberty’, and any questioning of them becomes some form of legalism, bondage, or narrowness, it is worth debunking some evangelical haziness about adiaphora.

Adiaphora are not “externals”. This is a quick-‘n-easy term for lazy minds who prefer to abbreviate judgement into split-second intuitions. Nothing about adiaphora makes them clearly something external as opposed to internal, whatever the proponents might actually mean by that vague categorisation. This unfortunate and unhelpful dichotomy probably comes from misinterpreting Christ’s words in Mark 7:14-23, where He explains that the defiling matter is not the food that goes into the body, but the sin that emerges from the heart. I once heard a theological dabbler tell a room full of people involved in Christian radio that this Scripture means that the music that goes in our ears can never defile us; only our hearts’ reactions can defile us. I wanted to ask if that holds with watching pornography, but all the heads nodding around the room told me that a lot of ears were getting a pleasant scratch at that moment, and my interruption would hardly go down well. Clearly, the point of Christ’s words is not that anything we take into our eyes or ears is incapable of defiling us. The point was to teach some Pharisees that foods declared unclean were not intrinsically evil, and the far greater moral danger lay within. At any rate, if we are to keep this ridiculous external/internal method of dividing up the Christian life, there is very little that I cannot happily lump with the less important “externals”: what I watch, listen to, wear, eat, drink, where I go, what I buy, how I spend leisure time. Pretty soon, what is genuinely “internal” is conveniently a closely guarded-secret: my thoughts about God, or my Gospel-centred meditations.

What’s going on here is that a generation of Fundamentalists made lists of rules regarding dress, makeup, theatres, haircuts, beards, and rock music, and the children of those Fundamentalists are now responding with their much shorter two-column list. As silly as some of those lists might have been, and as ridiculous as it was to dictate to everyone’s conscience, this does not mean all of previous Fundamentalism was ‘external’ and the prodigious present generation have newly discovered ‘internal’ Christianity. Rather, what we should hope to say is that while the previous generation often attempted to define the boundaries of their movement by dictating what the conscience should believe, the present generation is attempting to teach sound judgement for the conscience. That might be wildly optimistic, but it’s a better articulation of the issue than this silly and unhelpful internal/external dichotomy.

Adiaphora are not meaningless. It is common for people free-wheeling in their thoughts about matters of liberty to say that adiaphora refer to matters without any meaning or moral significance. They like to say that these matters are ‘morally-neutral’. But this is impossible, because in God’s universe, everything that exists has a meaning. And since it is meaning-laden, it is not amoral. In a personal, moral universe, there is a sense in which molecules, galaxies, sound waves and scents are moral. In a second sense, objects or potential actions which are not clearly morally defiling or edifying can become instruments of moral action by humans. What Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10 teach us is that some objects or actions do not have a fixed, intrinsic morality pertaining to their use. In other words, while there is a command, “You shall not steal”, there is no command, “You shall not eat food offered to idols.” Instead, the action of eating food offered to idols requires careful judgement. In some circumstances, it is wise and permitted; in others, it is unwise or even forbidden. It can be used both ways, but once used, the action is either sinful or obedient. It is certainly not meaningless.

Adiaphora are not always unimportant. Though the Greek term adiaphora (“indifferent things”) might lead us into thinking we can be indifferent to their importance, this is not the meaning of the term. In Greek philosophy, the adiaphora were those matters that could not be differentiated into either good or evil. This did not make them unimportant, merely difficult to classify or judge. Some Christians infer that clear prescription or prohibition in Scripture indicates a priority to God, while an apparent silence proves an indifference, or lack of concern, on God’s part. While it is fair to say that what is essential will be communicated in the Bible, and what is non-essential will not, this is a far cry from saying that a lack of explicit Scripture on a topic indicates it is of little import. This reasoning would make most ethical matters (abortion, bio-ethics, the environment, death penalty etc.) unimportant. Simply because a matter requires we use careful, critical judgement in the absence of explicit Scripture hardly makes a given matter unimportant.

The role of preference in adiaphora must be properly defined. Proponents of this phraseology, “preference-issue” or “matters of preference” suggest that matters of conscience are determined by the internal likes or dislikes of the Christian in question. Now, it is true that when we have eliminated the forbidden and the unwise, and remain uncertain on the best or wisest choice, we must do what we think is best. But by this definition, preference is simply good judgement – thoughtfully parsing meaning so as to glorify God. If this is how we define ‘preference’, well and good – let preference guide. But what some people mean when they tout preference is that we should determine these matters merely by what we arbitrarily like, what tickles our fancy, what amuses or pleases us, and that such pleasure or displeasure has no moral significance, like choosing between red and blue. But this misses the real point: why does something please you, and should it please you? If you bother answering those questions, then you mean preference in the first, good sense: good judgement. If you don’t ask those questions, then what you mean by preference could be defined as prejudice, whimsical inclinations, or merely appetites. And I hardly think Paul would summarise Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10 with the words, “Look, in these areas, just do what feels good, you know?”

Freedom and Churches (3)

A church is a voluntary society. Baptists believe that people join churches by choice, not by birth. People freely associate, and can freely disassociate. Voluntary societies cannot use force or coercion on their members; they can only persuade.

Having said that, a number of things need to be said to overturn the muddled thinking about liberty in Christ and ‘legalistic’ churches. A voluntary organization or society can define the rules of association as narrowly as it wants to. Depending on the nature of the organization or institution, it may not be wise to make those rules of association extremely rigid. But as long as people freely associate or disassociate, no one’s freedom has been harmed. Anyone who joins an intensely narrow church does so under no compulsion. If you voluntarily join a church or attend an institution which contains practices or beliefs that you know will violate your conscience, you cannot then claim that you have been oppressed or had your freedoms removed.

Voluntary societies do not have to tolerate what secular society tolerates. Because everyone is freely joining, voluntary societies can exclude plenty of behaviours and beliefs which they find intolerable, and include others they find desirable, or even essential. They can make intolerable behaviour unacceptable in written rules (however many they wish – hundreds, perhaps), they can form a church covenant to which members vow to pursue faithfulness, they can form a simple or detailed statement of faith and insist that members believe every sentence, or agree with it in spirit. They can remove people from their membership (so long as the due process is followed) for failing in these practices or dissenting in belief. What they cannot do is break the law of the land (insofar as it is consonant with God’s law), or go about such removal in a way that violates other Scriptures. None of this, in principle, violates anyone’s freedom. We might critique a church or institution for being overly rigid, unnecessarily exacting, or extremely narrow in its tolerance. We could equally critique the individual voluntarily submitting to such a church. But if people can freely join and freely leave, no one can accuse that church of being tyrannical or of bringing people into bondage.

With that in mind, we can refute a number of calumnies commonly thrown at conservative churches.

It is not coercive authority to teach God’s Word with well-warranted application, however detailed or practical it might get. Working God’s Word into areas of music, dress, entertainment, leisure, alcohol, use of technology and ethical matters is no violation of anyone’s freedom. Issues of conscience are not off-limits to the pulpit, as long as the teacher makes it clear that such is what they are.

It is not coercive authority for a church to discipline someone for verified, unrepentant sin, nor is it coercive to discipline someone who has left. Surely, the objector argues, there is no reason to discipline someone who no longer attends? This objection misunderstands what church discipline is for. It is not to ‘get someone out’, though the removal of a divisive person may be one of its forms (Tis 3:10). Church discipline’s primary function is to rescind the church’s acknowledgement of a person’s faith and baptism, and end its covenant with that person. This may take place even when the person continues to attend, and certainly takes place if he or she has left. No one is ‘controlling’ the individual in question – he or she is free to disassociate. But it is a spoilt child mentality to insist that churches must not discipline those who have left. Indeed, this would be curtailing a legitimate freedom of the local church – to receive and remove members.

Assuming that sin leads people into deeper bondage, faithful preaching and discipleship is not coercive, but liberating. What then would be genuine coercion and tyrannical leadership in the church?

First, if pastors lead through force, and not persuasion, this is coercive behaviour. Peter describes this behaviour as the opposite of leading through servantlike example and teaching, but by acting as overlords who dominate through the sheer force of their position and personality (1 Pet 5:3). Diotrephes is certainly an example of this (3 Jo 9-11). If members are removed by the fiat authority of the pastor, if a bully-pulpit shames and intimidates, if emotionally childish games of shunning and chumming train the members to comply, this falls short of the freedom of a local church.
Second, if the church’s statement of faith, covenant or constitution is altered without the consent of the church, this is coercive behaviour. Since these are the basis of the voluntary association, to alter them without congregational consent is to lord it over the people of God. If a pastor begins to disagree with these statements, he ought to offer his resignation. If the membership request that he remain and teach his dissenting views, they can then decide whether to accept his resignation or change their founding documents.
Third, if the pulpit stealthily extends what is fundamental to the voluntary association of the church, this is coercive behaviour. It is inevitable that the pulpit must teach more than what is contained in the church’s founding documents. But this is simply the teaching ministry of the church, where the pastor will seek to persuade through the force of sound exegesis and clear reason. However, if the church does not embrace such teachings or practices, it is a matter of failed persuasion – not a matter of a member violating the church covenant . The pastor cannot enforce additional beliefs or practices as essential to church membership; to use the measures mentioned above is tyrannical.
Fourth, if matters of conscience are taught as if they are clear commands or prohibitions, the freedom to judge has been curtailed, and this is coercive behaviour. These matters of conscience deserve a full post.

Freedom (2) – Societal and Individual

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.

Ten Mangled Words – “Freedom” (1)

Freedom is another word that the disingenuous enjoy. Just as the Tolerazis cry ‘intolerance’ and pose as victims even while they terrorise and bully others, so similar people shout freedom while insisting that others submit to their choices, or at least abdicate legitimate authority over them.

Freedom has a nice ring to our ears. Restraint and submission do not – at least on this side of the Garden. Freedom comes to our ears with almost unquestioned innocence – as if freedom is always the better part that the wise and enlightened choose.

For those who prefer darkness over light, defining freedom is an annoyance. They would prefer a sentimental attachment to a vague notion. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we will quickly see that freedom is related to something outside itself. If you are free, you are free from something, and free to do or be something. So, when people tout their freedom, the first question to ask them is, “what have been freed from?”, followed by, “what have you been released to do?”

Most have not thought of free as a word requiring modification. For them, it means something like, “any sense of burdensome restraint has been lifted from me”, “permission to do all I want” similar to their definition of love, which would be “giving me permission to do what I want without judging me”.

The same inchoate, garbled articulations of freedom are found in the church. They emerge in defences of pet sins: “I’m free in Christ; you can’t bring me back into bondage!” They appear as attempted excuses for rebellion: “I don’t have to live under the bondage of this authoritarian, mind-controlling legalism. Grace has set me free!” They even posture as theological: “We are not under the Law anymore! We must enjoy our liberty!” These represent nothing more than a Christian adoption of the secular idea of freedom, giving it a (tacky) theological gloss.

Freedom or liberty might be properly defined as freely choosing to do what one ought. The various kinds of freedom – religious liberty, political liberty, individual liberty – are various applications of this idea. This definition is inescapably grounded in a transcendental view of reality. Liberty, in its complete sense, is composed of two parts: the free choice, and what the free choice is for – how it ought to be used. Oughtness can only be defined by an appeal to human nature, which is an appeal to natural law, and divine revelation. What we ought to do, is what is good for human flourishing, what is in accord with our created nature, what corresponds to the Divine intention of man – these can only be defined by appealing to the court of Design: what man is, and what he was made for.

Defining what we ought to do based on modern bureaucrat-speak in an exercise in circular definition or nonce-speak. Progress, communitybuilding, interests of society, healthy societies, harmony are all words that attempt to hide the essential need for values to rest on ultimate ideas. Progress towards what? What should a community, when properly built, look like? What exactly is in the interest of society? What constitutes health in a society, and what does the diagnosis of societal sickness contain? Around what kind of unity should society’s members harmonise? Of course, secular bureaucrats and educationists will never attempt to answer these questions, for it would impale them upon the sharp edges of some religious definition of reality, which they scrupulously avoid. But unless we define what man ought to do, we cannot define what he should freely choose. Liberty is inextricably linked to human nature.

According to this definition, freely choosing to do what one ought not to do is a move towards tyranny or anarchy. Freely choosing sin or evil may be an exercise of one side of liberty, but is an abuse of liberty, and therefore an incremental surrender of liberty. In the created order, abuse of liberty cannot go on indefinitely without enslaving the one abusing it. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6: whatever we freely yield to becomes our master. The tyrannical master of sin curtails our liberties until we find ourselves unable to freely choose anything but sin. The anarchical nature of depraved human nature means that the liberty of sin is a nightmarish nihilism, a torturous chaos, a quicksand of corrosive pleasures. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.” (2 Pet. 2:19).

Mastery by Christ brings the liberty of continued submission: “I love my master; I will not go out free”. (Ex 21:5)