One of the challenges Christians face today is the loss of theological language to articulate our understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
This lack of theological language can create distractions. As we begin to confuse what is central to who we are as Christians with ideas that are more coincidental, we may find ourselves following someone or something other than Jesus.
In the U.S., these challenges are evident in Christian discussions of “freedom.” Christians have the freedom to obey. We will never lose it. When we speak of “losing our freedom,” we often mean something like losing the ability to practice our faith without negative consequences. While this latter loss is lamentable, our freedom to obey is not and never has been dependent on the political realm but is secured in Christ.
While some claim the U.S. was founded on “Christian values,” it would seem more accurate to say it was founded on principles that (a) aligned with certain biblical notions of justice and its administration in the political realm and (b) allowed Christians to practice their faith with relatively few encumbrances. It is certainly appropriate for Christians to press political leaders to carry out the responsibilities of their God-ordained office, but to assume that our nation had, has or ever will have a vested interest in making disciples of Jesus is little more than a pleasant fiction.
The church’s relationship to our nation is, in part, conditioned by the way our political leaders assess the value of Christian practice to democracy. At some point, allowing Christians to be Christians without negative consequences may run counter to the aims of political leaders or, in the U.S., the voting public.
We are to respect our political leaders (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:17), yet that respect does not make us subject to every whim of government. Earthly rulers stand under God’s authority. When they subvert God by seeking to force or otherwise coerce Christians to be loyal to the state rather than to God, Christians must resist.
Our obedience to Christ is that resistance because our loyalty to God will often put us in opposition to the world. Such obedience may involve working within governmental structures to correct the direction of political leaders. Yet we don’t need the government to change in order to secure our freedom to obey.
When we confuse freedom to obey with freedom from consequences, we may be tempted to pick up the weapons of the world, which have little utility in our struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our freedom to obey is not threatened by laws or conventions that strip away our freedom from consequence, but by the diversions that distract us from saying and doing what only God’s people can.
As Dwight Moody once said, “I know of nothing that speaks louder for Christ and Christianity than to see a man or woman giving up what they call their rights for others, and ‘in honor preferring one another.’” Moody was not suggesting that Christians should discontinue any work in the political or social realms, but was urging God’s people not to become so fixated on our rights that we refuse to imitate Christ’s self-giving.
As Christians, becoming so obsessed with protecting our rights that we neglect self-sacrifice displaces and distorts God. When we no longer resist the world by obeying God’s instruction, we may find ourselves reinforcing the world’s wisdom by placing our hope in its institutions and tactics. We may begin to see God as constrained by the possibilities of the world so that obedience becomes a naive notion.
Moody desired to see Christians following Christ’s agenda rather than advancing their own. Seeing human agendas overshadow God’s agenda should be as troubling to us as it was to Moody.
The distinction between freedom from consequences and freedom to obey is crucial because it puts the potential of the political and social realms in perspective. Democracy is not the secret path to godliness, nor is the Judeo-Christian ethic the key to a wholesome utopia.
At best, these are restraining systems keeping evil and injustice at bay. We should respect them, but we should not give them more authority than God has ascribed to them. When we do so, it becomes difficult to be precise with our theological language because freedom from consequences begins to feel like something we deserve — or, perhaps worse, something we can’t live without.
Surely, losing freedom from consequences has implications. We are not sadists, yet we are to be a people prepared to suffer. To be so prepared, we must not confuse the freedom from consequences we’ve enjoyed as American citizens with the freedom to obey we will always enjoy in Christ. Our freedom from consequences is fleeting. Our freedom to obey is sure.
Freedom to obey, rather than freedom from consequence, is the legacy we have received from the crucified and resurrected Christ. In Christ, we see the fruits that come from embracing God’s wisdom. Through faith in him, we have been freed to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4) and to be united with Christ in his suffering (2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24) and resurrection (Romans 6:5).
Clarifying the sort of freedom we are concerned about losing is not an academic exercise. Maintaining the distinction between freedom to obey and freedom from consequences will help Christians maintain their focus on Christ and the mission of the church. We are not here to be comfortable. We are here to be faithful.
Being faithful may have consequences, but we are always free to obey the greatest commandments — to love God with all we are and have and love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40).
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.