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What Christians Mean By Freedom

This week’s lectionary readings include Galatians 5 in which Paul states that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

It is, at first glance, a strange saying. Christ has set us free for freedom? It seems redundant, almost like saying, “For being saved Christ has saved us,” or “For coming to church we’ve come to church.” It all seems rather obvious and unnecessary to say.

Why, then, might Paul make this strangely self-evident statement? He is, in my estimation, seeking in Galatians 5 to clarify the distinctive understanding of freedom that Christians ought to have.

This isn’t an abstract or irrelevant issue in our current moment. Indeed, “freedom” is the issue that’s dominating our national conversation at present. “Freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion” are the talk of the town, centring around one notorious rugby player.

I’m quite disinterested in talking about that particular sportsperson, though I am interested in the discourse about freedom that is currently being undertaken in this country, and indeed, in our churches.

Since the time of the so-called Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries—when the emphasis shifted from the community to the individual—our understanding of freedom in the West has changed radically. We began to understand freedom as the ability to take whatever actions we might choose without interference by others, especially governments. John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian Enlightenment philosopher, wrote in On Liberty 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…”

In this way of thinking, in other words, freedom is the ability to determine our own lives, to make whatever choices we might want, so long as those choices don’t harm others.

Is this not the way we generally understand freedom in our time? When people speak of being free, isn’t this what we mean—being unrestrained in the choices we make?

Certainly, this is the default notion of freedom at the heart of debates around, say, freedom of speech. In many cases, people think that freedom of speech should mean that we ought to be able to say whatever we want, regardless of how offensive, or controversial, or 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.

The problem for Christians is that this kind of thinking about freedom isn’t remotely Christian.

Most ancient philosophers—not only Christians—held a very different view of freedom. For them, freedom wasn’t merely being unrestrained in one’s choices. In fact, Aristotle believed that defining freedom as doing what one likes is defining it badly, since always acting according to one’s desires is a kind of slavery. Freedom for these ancients was the ability to fulfil the purpose for which one had been created. In their minds, freedom wasn’t just freedom from something—it was freedom for something. They may have disagreed about the purpose for which we have been created, but they generally agreed that being free meant realising whatever this purpose is.

There is a vast difference between this kind of thinking about freedom and our own. One with this understanding of freedom might ask:

  • Why am I even 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?

This, it hopefully goes without saying, is the notion of freedom that was held by the authors of Scripture, although it was of course directed towards God’s purposes. So, when Paul says that it’s for freedom that Christ set us free, we can begin to see what he might have meant.

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

This makes sense when Paul goes on to say this 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 [Jewish] 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.


A text like this 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 here?

Or, was Mother Teresa free? If she was, I very much doubt she felt like she had much of a choice to live in the way that she did. Or was Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche who died last month, free? (I suspect that, if you were able to get an unfiltered answer from people, most folks would admit that they think spending your life living in community with people with severe intellectual disabilities is giving up one’s freedom, not expressing it.)

We have, as a culture, become so obsessed with protecting our ability to make whatever choices we want that we’ve forgotten that our choices are often expressions of our captivity to our lusts and our emptiness and our fears. Paul’s words about the works of the flesh in Galatians 5 are not condemnations so much as observations—when we live in such a way as to give priority to our desires, we end up engaging in the kinds of practices he lists. By doing so, we miss out on experiencing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

In other words, we turn away from the reason for which we were created, seeking to fill the resulting hole with that which can never satisfy.

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 fulfilling our very reason for existence, displaying the fruit of such true freedom—love, joy, peace, and so forth.

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

In saying this, I’m not seeking to be harsh to 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 gone on 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 have bad news for them: following Jesus means we don’t 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 doesn’t fulfil this qualification, it’s not free.

This isn’t to say that our speech shouldn’t be truthful, or at times even confronting. I mean, take a look at Jesus’ interactions with the powerful—they weren’t 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-assertion or domination.

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

But the church has always done best when it’s not the majority, when it’s not in control of society. The truth is, there’s nothing to fear—God is working all things to their intended point in history, and we get to participate in what God, in Christ, through the Spirit, is doing.

So, what is your freedom for?

In one of this week’s other lectionary readings, 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 which defines the story of which we are a part.

Jesus’ freedom was for the reconciliation of the world, even to the point of suffering and death. And we are called to follow this Jesus, the perfect image of God. The question looms over us, then: How are our lives, both individually and as a community, oriented towards participating in this kind of loving, self-giving freedom?

Answering this question in this context is impossible, since learning to be truly free is an ongoing process for an entire community—there are no easy answers. But, at the very least, we can say that we need to unlearn the concept of freedom that we have inherited from the modern world. We need to learn a new kind of freedom, one rooted in serving God and others, and dying to ourselves.

This won’t be easy because, ultimately, Christian freedom is the inverse of everything we’ve been taught to think of as freedom. In worship, prayer, fellowship, communion, service, and study, however, we can learn it together.

The blessing of it all is that, because true life and freedom comes in serving God, it’s not like we have to do it—it’s that we get to do it.

Oh, God, to know you is life. To serve You is freedom. To enjoy you is a kingdom, to praise you is the joy and happiness of the soul. I praise and bless and adore you. I worship you. I glorify you. I give thanks to you for your glory. I humbly beg you to live with me, to reign in me, to make this heart of mine a holy temple, a fit habitation for your divine majesty. Amen. (Augustine of Hippo)

President Trump: It’s Not That Surprising

It seems like many people are surprised that Trump has secured the Presidency. I’m surprised at how surprised people actually are. Did the elite (I’m probably one) really misjudge so badly the discontent within Western nations like the US? Were we really so blind as to not discern the extent of white supremacy? Brexit should have been an indicator of what could happen on the western side of the Atlantic.

In their frustration and rage at the falsity of the American Dream, at increasing inequality, and at losing the culture wars, many USAmericans have opted for an authoritarian. It’s easy to laugh at people who have said “Trump tells it like it is, he’s a straight talker”, but his likely victory is a sign that, regardless of how much he has lied, the value of perceived truthfulness is high, and people are sick of being lied to. Who knows how this will bode for Trump—a liar—in the long run. But saying things like, “America, what have you done?” only betrays a lack of understanding of many of the kinds of people who, against their own self-interest, voted for Trump.

It’s very easy for me to say something like, “Jesus is Lord: who becomes President does not control the outcome of history”. With everything that is within me I believe this to be true. But not everyone shares this faith and, moreover, such a declaration can leave one open to detached blindness. After all, I’m a privileged white male who lives on the other side of the world. But what happens for non-whites, including Muslims, in the US? For women who have watched misogyny embodied gain supremacy? For people in those cities around the world that a Trump-led military may attack? For poor folks, including poor whites who voted for Trump, who will suffer the various policy consequences of this regime? For millions and millions of people, this is a nightmare, and I can’t minimise that. 

Not that Clinton was a good option. Truth is, the situation for the kid in the Middle East or the poor US family wouldn’t have been any better. That’s the status quo for you. But sometimes the status quo is not the worst of all options. And, frankly, the notion of progress is horse manure. 

There’ll be lots of soul-searching, I’m sure. A wildly incompetent misogynistic racist authoritarian has ascended to the highest political seat in this world order so, you know, such soul-searching is necessary. But unless we find genuine pathways for the pain of so many Trump voters and Trump haters alike, we are doomed to intensify the culture wars and deepen the fissures that ravage our communities. I say this as one who does not reside in the US; such is the widespread effect of such divisions. 

Despite my earlier self-directed caveat… Jesus is Lord, and I’m blessed by the grace to continue participating in and building alternative communities that reach out in love to those outside themselves, and that aren’t directed by the death-dealing politics of this world, but seek to nonviolently turn such politics upside down.

What makes free speech free?

Some conservative politicians, news outlets and think tanks have, for some time, been pushing for the reform or repeal of Section 18C of the Discrimination Act. The Institute of Public Affairs, for example, haspreviously claimed that “freedom of speech in Australia is under attack” because 18C makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity.
There are a multitude of elements to this debate, well covered in various public outlets. But for me the question that takes centre stage is, “What, exactly, entails free speech?” Proponents of the repeal of 18C base their understanding of free speech entirely on negative freedom — “Nobody ought to prohibit me from saying what I wish to say.” There is, indeed, truth to this understanding of freedom. But, like most societal values, negative freedom is not a lonely island, existing as it does in relationship and tension with other values.

More importantly, we must ask ourselves what freedom actually is. Is it merely negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference or restraint? Or is freedom more than this? After all, we are not free to murder or rape. Why is that? Because deep down we understand that freedom has a positive element, namely that we are free for something. We may not agree on what precisely is the ends for which we are free, but we mostly agree that we are free for beneficial relationships with those around us, hence why the removal of the negative freedom to murder or rape is universally acknowledged in most places.

What, then, is free speech? My belief is that the understanding of free speech held by antagonists of 18C is partial at best. What is our speech free to do? What does free speech work towards? “Free speech” that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates is not free at all because its result is incongruent with any reasonable account of positive freedom in society, the freedom for social well being.

Even in a purely economic sense, anything that is “free” ought to be without cost. But “free speech” that offends, insults etc. incurs a cost to society in the form of the emotional, relational and/or other damage caused, thus revealing such speech is not “free” at all.

None of this says anything about the lawfulness or otherwise of offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating speech on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity — what I have said is purely moral and philosophical. But ought law reflect morality?

Perhaps the most distressing thing for me is the volume of politicians processing Christian faith who are also proponents of 18C’s repeal. Jesus, after all, had much to say about careless and venomous words. Not that this is a reason to make such words unlawful, since the undertones of Christendom would be dissonant. But there are no signs that such a concern forms part of the motives of those Christian brothers and sisters who seek 18C’s end.

Paul’s words to the Galatians are perhaps most appropriate here, even despite the liberty I may be taking with their context:

“For freedom Christ has set us free…” (Gal‬ ‭5:1‬a)

May we indeed live as if we have been set free for freedom, whether in our speech or whatever else.


challenging liberalism: why i am less liberal than conservative evangelicals

I’ve been mistakenly called a “liberal” Christian many times (I imagine many of my readers have had this same experience, rightly or wrongly).

One particular experience stands out for me. I remember several years ago visiting a sick friend. I had just attended a conference, and I was sharing my experience, lamenting the singular focus of this particular conference on “church growth”. My friend sought to correct my frustration – “Church growth is great,” he said, “because it means less people are going to Hell.”

No doubt this reasoning is common in Western Protestantism. I responded with a polite understatement: “Well, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.”

The retort came quickly – “Oh, but you’re a liberal.” In other words I am apparently a liberal Christian.

Interesting. So easy to say – “you are a liberal!” This of course begs the question – what exactly is a liberal Christian? Read the rest of this entry

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