Calls for religious liberty have amplified over the past few years. The conversation took place, as everything seems to these days, around the topics of sex and sexuality. Two Supreme Court cases framed it. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) a corporation defended its religious conviction that it should not be required to include certain kinds of birth control in their health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018) that asserted that providing a wedding cake for a gay couple would violate their religious convictions. In both cases the Supreme Court upheld the religious liberty of Christian-owned businesses who qualify under specific conditions.
Nobody wants to hear my opinions on Constitutional matters. As Paul would say, may it not be! Instead of pursuing the constitutional question, let’s examine what freedom means in a Christian context. Let’s think about gospel freedom.
Best I can tell from the New Testament, gospel freedom means a very particular range of things. According to Luke, Jesus inaugurates his ministry by proclaiming emancipation to those who are held captive and releasing those who are oppressed (4:18). Gospel freedom entails liberation from various kinds of suffering, including physical ailments (13:12, 16).
Gospel freedom also entails the power to overcome sin. Jesus promises that sort of freedom to those who abide in his word and thereby know the truth (John 8:31-37). And Paul proclaims that the power of the Holy Spirit frees people from the power of sin, making us free to live righteously (Rom 6:15-23).
There’s lots more to say about gospel freedom than we can discuss in this forum. But I want to foreground a different dimension of gospel freedom, one that runs counter to the language many Christians use today. Paul considers it freedom that Gentile men who follow Jesus need not submit to circumcision. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he writes (Gal 5:1). But in the same context Paul adds a warning:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14)
Gospel freedom and civic freedom are related, but they are not the same thing. Gospel freedom is the capacity to live for God and for our neighbors.
Gospel freedom is not the privilege to do whatever we may want, even when we think we’re right. Gospel freedom is liberation to do good.
We see this pattern elsewhere in Paul’s letters. Paul could marry and expect the Corinthians to support him and a wife. He has that freedom, but he does not exercise it (1 Cor 9:1-8). Believers may “know” there’s no harm in eating food that’s been offered to one of the gods—but they must never use their liberty in a way that hurts someone else. Even if they think they’re correct (1 Cor 8:9). In all things, Paul appeals to the example of Jesus, who yielded his heavenly identity to live and suffer for others (Phil 2:1-11).
Gospel freedom, then, looks outward, not to one’s own privilege but to the benefit of others.
In contrast, many Christians today understand religious freedom as the absolute ability to live out their convictions. During this coronavirus pandemic, quite a few state governments have banned large indoor gatherings, including religious services. But some Christians have protested that their religious liberty had been curtailed. Nor is it rare to find Christians who refuse to wear masks, claiming they are exercising their freedom—both civil and religious. These Christians do not understand freedom as an opportunity to protect their neighbors.
On Sunday, August 9, the New York Times featured a story, “Christianity Will Have Power,” that examined the loyalty White evangelicals have shown for Donald Trump. No other demographic group supports Trump to the same degree. It’s important to specify White evangelicals because relatively few non-white evangelicals support Trump. The reporter, Elizabeth Dias, attributes the phenomenon to the fear that America is growing increasingly hostile to evangelical Christianity and to White evangelicals’ hope that Donald Trump will stand up for them.
Other experts have identified the same concern. Evangelical historian John Fea likewise attributes a good measure of White evangelical support for Trump to cultural fear. And four years ago the pollster Robert P. Jones penned The End of White Christian America, documenting demographic trends will soon reduce White Christians to less than half the population.
Dias’s story is long, but I noted that the words “free” or “freedom” appear a dozen times in the story. Dias writes on the basis of her travel to small-town Iowa this past spring. The story’s first appeal to freedom comes from a wife and mother whose Christianity is important to her:
The religious part is huge for us, as we see religious freedoms being taken away…. If you don’t believe in homosexuality or something, you lose your business because of it. And that’s a core part of your faith. Whereas I see Trump as defending that. He’s actually made that executive order to put the Bibles back in the public schools. That is something very worrisome and dear to us, our religious freedom.
Another Iowa mom expressed similar concerns. Dias reports:
She said she heard talk of giving freedoms to gay people and members of minority groups. But to her it felt like her freedoms were being taken away. And that she was turning into the minority.
I have opinions about freedom for LGBTQ persons and freedom for racial minorities.
I have opinions about the freedom of Christians.
Most of all, I aspire to live the freedom that pleases God and benefits my neighbors.
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Seminary. His publications include numerous studies on the Book of Revelation and ancient apocalyptic literature, rhetorical analysis of the New Testament, and investigations of early Christian self-definition.
Greg serves as co-chair of the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and he has appeared in documentaries on the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel, and most recently the 2011 BBC One documentary, "The Story of Jesus."
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