What Christians Mean By “Freedom”

Following national discussions of religious freedom and freedom of speech, Western lectionaries recently turned the attention of Christians toward the words of St. Paul’s in Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Paul’s assertion here is, at first glance, rather tautological. Christ set us free for freedom—this seems rather obvious, not unlike if we were to say, “For coming to church we’ve come to church.”

Why should such a strangely self-evident statement be necessary? Perhaps the problem lies in a misconstrual about what Paul might mean in the first place by “freedom.” Luckily for us, Paul goes to some lengths in the remainder of Galatians 5 to clarify the distinctive understanding of freedom that Christians ought to have.

Given recent weeks, this is not an abstract or irrelevant issue. Indeed, the notion of “freedom” has generated often vicious public discussion and commentary, centred around one notorious (former) rugby player. I am quite disinterested in talking about that particular sportsperson, though I am interested in the discourse about freedom that is currently playing out in this country, and indeed, in our churches.

Since the time of the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries—when the epistemological emphasis began to shift markedly from the community to the individual—the Western understanding of freedom has transformed radically. Charles Taylor has noted the way in which conceptions of political society, anthropology, and morality became preoccupied with the individual in the modern period, contributing to the establishment of an order focused on personal freedom and mutual benefit between free agents.

Freedom in modernity

In short, we began to understand freedom as the ability to take whatever actions we might choose without the interference of others, especially governments. Robert Filmer, the seventeenth century English political philosopher, articulated freedom as:

A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.

John Locke disagreed with Filmer’s definition, noting in Two Treatises on Government (1689) that freedom was constrained by laws of both the natural and political variety. Still, according to Locke, freedom entails the right of people to,

follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and … not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.

Likewise, the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty (1859) that,

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs…

Though there are clearly nuances in these and other philosophical treatments of freedom from the period, generally speaking freedom came to be understood as the ability to determine our own lives, to make whatever choices we might want, so long as those choices do not harm others. This is, with some exceptions, the way we have continued to understand freedom in the Western world in the succeeding centuries. Undoubtedly, when our contemporaries speak of being free, they generally mean what David Bentley Hart describes as “perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will,” a concept that we take for granted but that, as Hart reminds us, has a history.

Indeed, this is the default notion of freedom at the heart of debates around, say, freedom of speech. In many cases, people assume that freedom of speech should mean that we ought to be able to say whatever we want, regardless of how offensive, controversial, distasteful, or even hurtful it might be. In other words, I should be able to say whatever I want without interference. This belief is held, indeed asserted, by many Christians implanting themselves into public debate on the matter.

The problem for Christians is that this kind of thinking about freedom is not remotely Christian. In the scheme of things, it is not even very old.

Freedom according to the ancients

Many ancient philosophers—not only Christians—held a manifestly different view of freedom, one that would become the prevailing Western outlook for centuries until the Enlightenment. For them, freedom was not merely being unrestrained in one’s choices. Aristotle, for example, believed that defining freedom as doing what one likes is defining it poorly, since always acting according to one’s desires is a kind of slavery.

Aristotle’s understanding of freedom is, of course, complex, but it is uncontroversial to argue he viewed the final cause of a thing—its purpose or goal—as that which provides the intended direction of its existence. This teleological emphasis means that, for Aristotle, freedom entails not the execution of arbitrary will, but rather the fulfilment of one’s true and essential nature.

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, agreed that freedom consisted in more than unrestrained choices. In the Phaedo, for example, Plato recounts the execution of Socrates by way of the consumption of hemlock. Socrates, who faces his death willingly, speaks of the fact that a good soul is one that has rejected “the pleasures and ornaments of the body” and embraced self-mastery, justice, courage, freedom, and truth (Phd. 114d–115a). The implication, of course, is that freedom is associated with self-mastery, both of which are contrary to a surrender to bodily desire.

Indeed, one of the well-known and consistent themes throughout Plato’s corpus is the need to transcend the realm of the body, with its desires, and enter the realm of the forms (true reality) through contemplation and wisdom. Plato’s famous allegory of the cave illustrates his notion of freedom as an escape from the appearances of things in order to see what truly is. As with Aristotle, Plato understood freedom as entailing an objective pursuit, although whereas Aristotle took an empirical approach focusing on the essential nature of the agent, Plato’s rationalist approach led him to focus on the true nature of existence itself.

Numerous other examples could of course be explored, but the crucial point is this: For these ancients, freedom was viewed as the ability to fulfil the essential purpose for which one exists. In their minds, freedom was not simply freedom from something—it was freedom for something. They may have disagreed about the purpose for which we exist, but they generally agreed that being free meant realising whatever this purpose is, and that untrained impulses, insofar as they interfere with our living out of virtue, encumber freedom.

There is a vast difference between this kind of thinking about freedom and our own. One with this elder understanding of freedom might ask: Why am I here? What kind of person am I supposed to be? What is the story of which I am a part, and how do I properly participate in it?

Freedom according to St. Paul

While I do not expect anyone to embrace this understanding of freedom simply because it was held by eminent ancient philosophers, I do insist that Christians should attend carefully to it. The reason for this is that it was the notion of freedom that was taken for granted by the authors of Scripture. For them, the telos to which freedom is directed is, of course, God’s purposes. So, when Paul says that it is for freedom that Christ set us free, we can begin to understand what he might have meant.

It is to fulfil our reason for having been created that Christ liberated us. It is to participate in the grand story of God creating and then restoring the world that we have been set free.

This is confirmed in Paul’s exposition of freedom in Galatians 5:13–25:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not destroyed by one another.

Walk in spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit, and what the spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led in spirit, you are not subject to the [Mosaic] Law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: whoring, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, rages, rivalries, dissensions, heresies, envies,drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-mastery. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live in spirit, let us also be aligned with spirit.

The similarities here with Plato and Aristotle are conspicuous. Such a text asks us to consider who it is that is really free. Is the person whose life is led by the power of their latest whim really free? Is the person who makes seemingly free choices to satiate their fleeting desires really free? Who, or what, is really in control in such circumstances?

On the other hand, was Mother Teresa free? If she was, it is probably true to say that she did not feel that she had much of a choice to live in the way that she did. Or was Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche (a movement of people with and without intellectual disabilities living together in community), free? I suspect that, if you were able to procure an unfiltered answer, most of us in liberal democracies would admit that we think spending one’s life living in community with people with intellectual disabilities is sacrificing one’s freedom, not expressing it. Paul’s response, given his assertion that freedom entails the prevention of “doing what you want to do” (Gal 5:17), would be obvious.

Paul challenges us to consider the way in which we have become obsessed with protecting our ability to make whatever choices we might want such that we have forgotten that our choices are often expressions of our captivity to our lusts and our fears.

On the other hand, when we walk in step with spirit, led by God and not by our own longings, we will experience the true freedom of living into our very reason for existence, displaying the fruit of such true freedom—love, joy, peace, and, perhaps most counter-culturally, self-mastery.

The truth is that, according to Paul, a life lived in utter freedom, shaped by love, would probably yield very few choices for us. And we would willingly hand over our choices knowing that we were participating in a story bigger than ourselves, fulfilling the very reason for which we were created.

Free speech: when is it truly free?

In saying all of this, I am not seeking to be critical of those outside of the church while giving those within the church a pat on the back. Paul’s teaching is, after all, aimed at those within the church.

Truly, I’ve been quite disheartened by the way some Christians have acted recently in demanding their own freedoms. To go back to the issue of freedom of speech, it seems many Christians want to enshrine their ability to say whatever they want in the public sphere, especially with regard to LGBTIQ people.

But I (and, more importantly, St. Paul) have bad news for them: following Jesus means we do not get to say whatever we want.

If freedom is the fulfilling of our God-given purpose of conforming to the image of Jesus and participating in God’s renewal of all creation, then our “freedom of speech” takes a very particular, even peculiar, form. Freedom of speech for Christians is no more and no less than speech which contributes to our being formed into the likeness of Jesus, and to our participating in God’s love-filled mission of restoration for the world. If our speech does not fulfil this gospel-defined qualification, it is not free.

This is not to say that our speech should not be truthful, or at times even confronting. Jesus’ interactions with the powerful ought to remedy such a suggestion—they were not always “nice.” But note that, even when Jesus was speaking the truth in confronting ways, it was always from a place of love, not self-expression or -assertion, or domination (e.g., Mark 10:21).

In contrast, I would suggest that much Christian rhetoric today is driven not by God’s love, but by our fear—our fear of losing our power and privileges, of becoming marginal in society.

Such fear betrays our lack of trust in a God of whom Scripture reminds us is working all things to their intended point in history, a plan in which we are invited to participate.

Freedom for

In another lectionary reading, we see Jesus, at the height of his popularity, turn his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51ff). For him, perfect freedom was expressed in his willingness to head into the midst of conflict, to lovingly confront the powers that had rebelled against God, and to die for the sins of the world.

This kind of freedom is unintelligible to our world. But it is the moment to which all Scripture points, the moment that defines the story of which we are a part.

Interestingly, Jesus’ freedom in his willingness to face suffering for the benefit of his enemies is contrasted in Luke 9:51–55 with the disciples’ assumption that their opponents should incur retribution by way of fire from heaven (9:54). Perhaps they thought the expression of their freedom meant participating in the punishment of their opponents. Jesus simply rebukes them—they do not understand his mission.

In Jesus we witness freedom expressed for the reconciliation of the world, even to the point of suffering and death. For followers of this person, the question looms: How are our lives, both individually and as a community, oriented towards participating in this kind of loving, self-giving freedom? This is particularly relevant, given certain recent responses by Christians to those with whom they disagree.

Answering this question in this context is impossible, since learning to be free is an ongoing process for an entire community—there are no easy answers, only the daily grind of life together forming us into more faithful people. But, at the very least, we can say that Christians need to unlearn the concept of freedom that we have inherited from modernity. We need to learn a new (or old) kind of freedom, one rooted in serving God and others, and dying to ourselves.

Until then, we may not have the practical and incarnational resources necessary to authoritatively weigh in on debates about freedom of speech, religious freedom, and so forth. In other words, we should take extreme care in how we engage in such public conversations since our witness to true freedom is currently quite weak.

What we do say must be informed by the fact that a Christian understanding of freedom is the inverse of everything modernity has taught to think of as freedom. In worship, prayer, fellowship, communion, service, and study, however, we can re-learn together.

The blessing of it all is that, because true life and freedom comes in serving God, it is not like we have to do it—it is that we get to do it. Words attributed to St. Augustine ring true: “Oh, God, to know you is life. To serve You is freedom.”

This piece originally appeared on Life Remixed.

Matt Anslow




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