Liberty: A Starter Distinction
Among the many curious appositions of God’s left-hand kingdom and his right-hand kingdom is the large inscription in the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” This phrase is from a discourse between Jesus and his fellow Jews (John 8:12–59, see v. 32). Then-CIA director Allen Dulles, son of a Presbyterian minister, selected these words for the new CIA building in 1959 for reasons that remain opaque but are perhaps related to Dulles’ role in the U.S. cold war with the atheistic Soviets and with his own vision of American liberty and post-WW II world dominance.1
Today, those we teach in the congregations and classrooms are exposed to a hodgepodge of notions about liberty and freedom, including “liberty and justice for all,” free speech, civil liberties, free enterprise, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” free exercise of religion, liberal and conservative, free will, and religious liberty. Participants in discussions about religious liberty too easily assume that the other person understands their notion of liberty and freedom, whether the other person agrees or not about its application. Participants also too easily conflate and confuse their political or personal ideology with sound Reformation theology.
We have, here, a timely and lively example for why the church and the world always need the help of Christian education to sort out these things. In this jumble of personal, political, philosophical, and cultural ideas, we are challenged with how to help distinguish the powerful Gospel theme of Christian liberty from other terms and concepts that sound similar but are notably different. Of particular note are today’s ideas that were formulated in the Enlightenment and Age of Reason and used, but altered, the Reformation’s theology.2
The Apostle Peter offers us one way to begin sorting. He found Israel’s Sinai event especially instructive for the church on matters of liberty, character, and identity. Akin to Israel, the church is to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests—aliens and exiles among all other tribes and peoples but liberated in an unconventional way (Exodus 19, 1 Peter 2:4–10). Consider this informal retelling of the Exodus 19 text as matters may have sounded to those runaway slaves:
God gets Israel out of their political, economic, and cultural slavery in Egypt. The promised land is now before them. Up on Mt. Sinai, God then tells Moses, “Okay, do this. Go down and tell Israel that we’re out, and we’re not going back to Egypt. And now, if they’d like, they can be my people and I’ll be their God. That’s the promise I made to Abraham, and I’m sticking to it. But this is a no-strings-attached exodus. If you prefer, you guys can take your own road now, go your own way, and be your own nation just like the other nations. Or you can be my nation—a different sort of nation—among all the other nations out there. And that’s definitely my preference for you descendants of Abraham now, not some later generation. But remember, if you opt for going with me, you’re going to be different, understand? Now, Moses, go back down there, tell them this, and see what they say.” So Moses goes down the mountain and puts God’s proposal to Israel. They talk it over and say, “Go back up and tell Him we’re in. We’ll be His people. Sounds good to us!”3
Through their period in the wilderness, Israel may have wondered (as we also should contemplate) what they heard at Sinai and whether the “if” in God’s option for them was conditional (“If you decide this way, then I will …”) or relational (“If you and I continue together, then here’s what our life together will be like”), or both.
We know, of course, how the story turned out: kings, taxes, conscription, divisions, wars, exile. Not really very different from the other nations. Though God remained faithful to his promise to Abraham and the Sinai arrangement, Israel … well, not so much. Israel defaulted to the usual notions about liberty, autonomy, being their own people, and validating their own identity in the world’s typical ways, even to the point of building alliances with Egypt. Peter picks up this theme and agrees with the Apostle Paul that God still remains faithful to His promise of an alternative freedom and liberty for those of faith who are sons of Abraham, and that for freedom, Christ has set us free (Galatians 3:7, 5:1).
None of which is to say that temporal concepts of liberty and justice are irrelevant. They are important and need to reflect, however less brightly (due to our sin), God’s own attributes of justice, righteousness, and ultimate liberty in Christ. Human versions of liberty and justice are penultimate and belong to our works of civil righteousness (among both Christians and non-Christians) on behalf of our neighbor. They are works about which we will disagree and pursue in different ways as times change. And they are works that will fall far short of the glory of God. Yet, though not sufficient, they are for the time being necessary.4 So we need to think and talk about liberty in thoughtful ways, parsing carefully how we use our words and concepts.
This edition of Issues in Christian Education offers some ways to think about civil liberties and religious liberty. Here is a starter distinction to consider and perhaps modify as you continue reading.
Frees us from sin, the Law, death, and the power of the devil
Frees us to serve our neighbor rather than self
Frees us from the rule of tyrants and tradition
Frees us to advance self-interest according to law and reason
Which of these do we tend to emphasize in our instruction and preaching? Which of these do our listeners assume and hear? Can we teach both? Do we? We hope you find this edition helpful for further understanding the distinctions, issues, and applications of religious liberty, civil liberties, and our liberty in the grace of Christ.