Freedom. It’s one of our favorite words and most cherished goods. It’s something for which people live, die, and kill. It is an idea enshrined in our nation’s consciousness and one celebrated on the 4th of July. A quick perusal of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, or the great speeches of FDR, JFK, or MLK will bear out the importance of freedom. Freedom for many (perhaps most) Americans has come to be the ultimate good.
Despite the ubiquitous talk of freedom in our culture, the word is often used without much clarification or content. The concept of freedom has a long and complex history. The modern political theorist Isaiah Berlin claims that there are over two hundred senses of the word and notes that the word’s meaning is so “porous” that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist (“Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty [Oxford University Press, 1958], 2). Philosophers speak of positive and negative liberty, where the latter is the absence of external threats to liberty, and the former is more internal and concerned with self-actualization or self-determinism. A simpler way to categorize different kinds of freedom is to ask the twin questions: “freedom from what?” and “freedom for what?” Whenever the topic of freedom arises, it’s always helpful to pose these two questions.
The freedom most extolled today is the freedom that says, “I can do what I want, when I want, how I want, with whom I want, as long as I want … and who are you to tell me otherwise?” Of course there is the usual proviso: “as long as I don’t hurt or impinge on anyone else’s freedom.” This notion of freedom has impressive roots. In his great treatise “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill wrote: “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, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (On Liberty and Other Essays [Oxford University Press, 2008], 17). In fact, this notion of freedom has two aspects, which we may call “freedom of choice” and the “freedom of autonomy.” One can speak of this twofold freedom in terms of the two questions mentioned above. This is a freedom from in the sense that it seeks to be free from the interference of others, and especially free of the constricting forces of authority (indeed authority is often viewed as the enemy, the entity that seeks to minimize one’s personal freedom). It’s the freedom to be left alone to do one’s own thing. It’s a freedom for in the sense that it seeks to maximize the individual’s ability to do his or her own thing. In this understanding of freedom, the more choices one has the more free one is.
The Christian understanding of freedom is remarkably different. In terms of freedom from, Christian freedom is, first and foremost, freedom from the tyranny of Sin, Satan, and Self. According to Paul, all humanity is “under the power of Sin” (Rom 3:9). By “Sin” Paul does not mean individual acts of wrongdoing, but a spiritual condition of alienation from God and one another. Sin is a master against which we are powerless. By Satan, I mean the spiritual forces that work against humanity and are our default masters. In Ephesians, we read of one who is the enemy of our souls, the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:1-3). In terms of Self, I have in mind the idea that the human condition is one of brokenness and self-seeking. Sin is a “turned inward-ness,” a chronic case of “me, myself, and I.”
Humans are powerless to throw off the yoke of these oppressive forces. If we are to be “free” from them, that freedom must come from without. Only through the work of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit can we be freed. The death of Christ frees us from the unholy Trinity of Sin, Satan, and Self, while the renewing work of the Spirit frees us for new life with God and with one another. Thus “freedom” is conceived of as a gift of God. This contrasts strongly with modern notions of freedom as a right or as something that we strive to win. Freedom is, first and foremost, a gift received, not a right demanded.
Paradoxically, the freedom found in Christ is a form of slavery, or servitude. To be set free from Sin, Satan, and Self is to become the slave or servant of God. Just as the Israelites of old were set free from the tyranny of Pharaoh to serve the one true God, so too Christians are freed for loving service to God and to others. 1 Peter 2:16 captures the true and paradoxical nature of freedom: “live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (ESV). Christian freedom is not autonomy. Indeed, Paul makes clear in chap. 6 of Romans that there is no such thing as autonomy (6:16-23). It is never a question of “will we serve someone or something?” but “what or whom will we serve?” We can serve the unholy Trinity of Sin, Satan, and Self or the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no third option.
Autonomy is an illusion and a dangerous one at that, as it’s actually part of Sin’s power at work in us (we think we are free, but actually we are slaves). No, our freedom in Christ takes the form of servitude to Christ and this is why Paul embraces the description “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10). The Christian belongs to another and serves another (1 Cor 6:19-20). It is not about throwing off all masters, but having the right one.
The freedom that is in Christ is a freedom to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). It is a freedom to deny the self, to live sacrificially (a non-possibility for those “under sin”), to put the needs of others in front of our own. Rather than maximizing choices, the one truly free in Christ will have fewer choices, since the range of self-serving options are no longer in play. This is a freedom to be, not whatever we want to be, but what we were made to be, image bearers of God, little “Christs.” Rather than demanding one’s rights, this freedom lays down its rights in order to do the right thing and to love.
Christian freedom is exercised within Christian community. Though modern talk of freedom tends toward individualism (“I’m free to pursue my goals…”), Christian freedom has a definitively communal shape. We aren’t free from community, but free for community. We serve not only God but others, as Paul makes clear in Gal 5:13: “for you were called [note the passive voice: “called (by God)”] 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 (NRSV, emphasis mine). To put it in the starkest terms, this freedom is a form of slavery, but not the dehumanizing, degrading, kind, but the uplifting, empowering, ennobling kind.
For Christians, it’s imperative that we speak and think clearly about freedom and that our thinking and speaking be shaped by our faith. At one level we need to resist the currents of modern society that seek to privilege a kind of freedom – the freedom to choose – which is, at best, a secondary or tertiary good. There are many freedoms that Christians can embrace, yet it’s imperative that we have a hierarchy of freedom. Freedom from Sin and freedom for loving Christian service are the highest forms of freedom and must frame all of our talk of freedom.
Such an understanding of freedom will allow us to fight for other kinds of freedom (freedom from economic oppression and exploitation, freedom of expression, political freedom, etc.). Even the kind of freedom I’ve taken aim at in this article – freedom of choice – can have a place in this hierarchy, just not a primary one.
Christians have a unique opportunity to offer a different take on freedom in a country where freedom is often thought of as the chief virtue. Christians will speak of freedom primarily as a gift received rather than a right demanded. Christians can speak of our freedom to love one another and to put another’s need and concerns above our own, the freedom to set aside our rights in order to do the right and loving thing. We can speak of our freedom in terms of the commitments we have to one another rather than our freedoms over and against one another. Though it is critical to articulate these important distinctions, much more important is the imperative to embody them. In a day and age when one is expected to fight for and demand freedoms and rights, and to define freedom in isolated and isolating terms, how powerful might be the witness that surrenders freedoms and rights to love the other? A self-denying, Christ-like freedom could go a long way in our day and age in making Christ known.