A Letter about ‘Freedom’ and Christianity

I have wrestled with the tensions between Christianity and ‘freedom’; and they have been a major part of my thinking, at times even an obsession.  So I think it’s time that I told my whole story and thinking about this issue.

An important event in my life, five years before my conversion, was being whipsawed between Occidental and Menninger’s.  I reached the conclusion that ‘freedom’ is the right to act against your own best interests, provided what you want to do is not wrong for other reasons.  The authority that Menninger’s claimed was most like that of parents over minor children.  It was justified [as I figured out] by the chain of reasoning:  (a) you do not have the right to act contrary to your own best interest, and (b) we are the infallible definers of what that is.  Later I realized that part (b) was actually more questionable than part (a).  The authority of parents over children is often defended on these technocratic grounds, but the Bible merely says a more modest, “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is the will of God concerning you.”  And on technocratic grounds, there is always the danger of official psychologists claiming that they can define the child’s good more infallibly than the parents!

I made the decision to believe in Jesus Christ and His Resurrection and His status as God the Son [note that there is a heresy called Arianism that believes He is the Son OF God, but not God the Son] on April 6, 1973, on my way to a Lake Avenue Church retreat.  The next night the lecture by the college pastor was on God’s ordained and delegated authority.  Chuck Miller, the college pastor, had actually known Bill Gothard in the old days in Chicago, though he was never as crazy as Gothard.  Miller did use some materials from Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts in his lecture.  It spoke of ‘God’s Chain of Command’; specifically, in regard to parents over children, that the Chain of Command provides an umbrella of protection.  [He did add, however, that when the child is of age and living independently, that the Chain becomes a Chain of Counsel.  I must note here that when the Bible says “Children, obey your parents in the Lord,” it is a cultural assumption of modernity that interprets this as ‘People under 21 or 18, obey your parents in the Lord’, and a lot of cultures don’t share this.]  He also made reference to the authority of the state in the passages Romans 13 and I Peter 2:13-17; of employers, I Peter 2:18-21; and church leaders, Hebrews 13:17.

I wonder, if I had not already made a commitment to Christ by then, whether I might have been scared away.  I was as obsessed with ‘freedom’ as many are, and I had in the last few years been whipsawed between the near anarchy of Occidental College and the totalitarianism of Menninger’s.  I was mad at God about this for a long time.  Did He not know about ruinous dictatorships and abusive families?  Was He that naïve?  Did not the authors of Romans 13 and I Peter 2:13-21 ultimately die at the hands of that very state?  Was the whole America thing fundamentally wrong?  Clearly Christianity had a bit of an authoritarian streak in it.

Ultimately, when I attended a Gothard seminar a little bit later, it was clarified a bit.  We are not to obey human authorities when they command us to sin against God’s Law.  We are to accept the punishment or persecution that follows.  [Have you not seen the tombs and catacombs of many martyrs?]  A way that I formulated it was, obey God rather than ‘men’, and ‘men’ rather than self-will.  That wasn’t easy, exactly.

OK then.  Is there no place for ‘limited government’ or ‘rights’?  I finally worked out, I think, what it is.  There is one universal God-given right, that of obeying Him rather than men.  On the other hand, while ‘freedom’ is not a prime Christian value, justice is, and some measure of ‘freedom’ seems to be necessary to justice.  If those who rule are to act justly, they should be forbidden to act unjustly.  Thus, justice is served by the rule of law over that of men.  [You cannot have a system in which there is a rule of law without any rule of men.]  That is the argument for constitutions.  God Himself is not a constitutional monarch, though He is limited by His holy and righteous character.  We, being fallen, need limits, especially when we are in authority.

I don’t believe that humans possess any one set of ‘human rights’ against all possible authorities.  Rather, the telos [ultimate purpose] of any authority defines what limits should be placed on it.  In regard to parents, it says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord,” [italics mine] which means that children, as they grow to understand God’s law, have the right and duty to obey God first and take their punishment from the parents.  Because parents do not have the right to kill their children or incapacitate them by injury [spanking on the rear end is OK when it does not produce serious injuries], children have the right to flee situations that are life-threatening or threatening of serious injury.  [Note that in ancient Rome, the paterfamilias actually did have the legal right to execute children.]  The telos of parents is pretty broad; to “bring them up in the nurture and fear of the Lord.”

By contrast, the telos of the state is much more limited:  to justice, order, safety, and the restraint of evil [not making people be good, which is not the same thing].  It does have the right of capital punishment, unlike parents, so the only God-given right we have against the state is to “obey God and not men” and perhaps be martyred.  But for a state to be just, it must restrain itself from evil; therefore, constitutions and bills of rights are commended, I would be tempted to say required, by justice.  Rather than the ‘divine right of kings’, I believe in the divine right of the constitutional order and rule of law, whatever it is, of which the king is only a part, usually a rather small part nowadays.

Note also that states have military establishments.  They are run by the state, and hopefully are under its control; but their telos internally is not that of the state.  They are not a state; and so the ‘rights’ of a soldier against his commanders are not the same as the ‘rights’ of a citizen against the state.

The telos of the church is to enable the saints to worship, to empower them to do both ‘the work of the ministry’ and all other good work as unto the Lord and to promote the spreading of the Gospel and of good works of charity.  Therefore, its primary authority is the upholding of the Gospel and God’s Law.  I believe that the church has the right to adopt ‘customs’ in a given situation that are not God’s Law.  For example, I think the Baptist Church had the right to say, ‘Because drunkenness and its consequences are such a severe problem among the people groups and classes in which we operate, we shall adopt a custom of total abstinence from alcohol’.  What they did not have the right to do was equate this ordinance with the commands of God, nor twist Scripture to find it there, nor to make matters like these the chief manner in which one’s status as a Christian was judged.

I believe that the basic spheres of authority – those which I have mentioned and two other major ones that I write about elsewhere – are parallel, that they are ordained by God directly and not through the ‘state’ and not through or by ‘society’.  This is called the Kuyperian view.  The more common view is called ‘subsidiarity’. This holds that non-state authority, often called ‘civil society’ [and I will use that word to mean non-state institutions in my own writing], are ‘mediating institutions’ between the individual and the state that help to restrain both the individual and the state.  There is some truth to this.  Strong non-state institutions are needed to keep from having a totalitarian state.  But some subsidiaritarians also see it in terms of the local, or smaller, restraining the centralized, or larger.  Now I will accept that local tyranny is a lesser evil, just because you don’t have to run as far to escape!  But some would argue, for example, that City Hall is not ‘the state’ and does not need to be ‘limited’ in the same way as a central government does.  But I would argue that City Hall’s telos is that of a state.  It is ‘state’ all the way down!  I would even argue that homeowners’ associations, because their authority is territorial, are the state and should be treated as such.

You will hear that “freedom is not the right to do what we want, but the power to do what we ought.”  Fine.  Sometimes we have to fight for the right to do what we ought to do.  For modern people today, I think the word ‘empowerment’ communicates this concept better than the word ‘freedom’.  For example, the obedience of children trains them into a sort of control that, done rightly [and it isn’t always done rightly], evolves ultimately into self-control.  And self-control is very empowering.  A great guitarist is ‘free’ to be a great guitarist because he has practiced a lot.  You and I are not ‘free’ to be great concert pianists.  That is, they say, the older definition of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’.  OK, well enough.  I’m addressing here the question of “What should those in authority be allowed, and not allowed, to decree?”

It must be said also that the burden of regulations, permit, and license requirements in many countries, and increasingly in the US mainly at the local level, fall heavily on especially small businesses, especially if they want to operate in the formal economy.  Hernando de Soto has done studies in Peru on how many hours it takes to get a small business completely ‘legal’ in the formal sector.  I have said that regulation is like a fly swatter; a fly swatter on my behind is a slight sting.  A fly swatter on the behind of a fly means that the fly dies.  Similarly, regulations for big business are an inconvenience; for small businesses they are literally a matter of life and death.  These regulations force people literally to choose between Romans 13 and I Timothy 5:8 [But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever].  More affluent Christians, who can afford to comply with both, often don’t understand; but given the choice, most people will comply first with the Timothy passage.

I’ll admit that I grew up in the Sixties, and my idea of ‘a right’ is rather Sixties-ish; something you don’t have to do if an ordained authority commands you, or something you can do even if they forbid you.  There is only one universal ‘right’, to obey God and not men.  But justice requires that, for the restraint of evil in authority, we ordain quite a few other ‘rights’.

There is also the aspect of ‘freedom from’ alongside ‘freedom to’.  The first function of any state is to give its people ‘freedom from’ banditry and more subtle forms of theft and from murder and violence.  [Some libertarians say this is the only proper function of the state.  I won’t go as far as that.  But I will say that it is the first function, and the state should make sure it is doing this function effectively before getting off into other stuff.]  But ‘freedom from’ can expand to the point where it destroys freedom.  Young people on campus want ‘freedom from speech,’ as Greg Lukianoff has called it.  Older homeowners want City Hall [which, as I have said, is the state] to control land use around them so they can have ‘freedom from’ having the value of their investment in their home diminished.  Imagine if I could have ‘freedom from’ decreases in my stock portfolio!  What would that be like?  And there are many other examples.  I wonder if when John Adams said that “this Constitution is made for a moral and religious people and no other,” [and he said this about a document that made more allowance for human depravity than any other, especially the French documents that were issued shortly after!], he meant that if you have a not very moral and religious people, Freedom From becomes a lot more important and desirable than Freedom To.  The one exception, as Aldous Huxley pointed out in his preface to Brave New World, is that sexual and body freedom tend to appear when the other freedoms are going away, so I call them the Last Freedoms.

Also, it is an insight of Francis Fukuyama that ALL forms of government, however they may classify themselves, drift, apart from vigilance, in the direction of ‘patrimonialism’ or crony capitalism; and restraining this drift, I think, is the central problem of political science.  I think that this is a good part of what is meant by “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

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