Biblical Freedom ≠ Personal Autonomy (FT Pt. 2)
Part #2 of 4 in an adaptation of the ARPA Canada Fall Tour 2020, Defending our Christian Legacy of Liberty.
by André Schutten
We began this blog series by presenting an overview of what scripture tells us about the topic of civil government, and our duty to submit to those in authority over us. We are now going to shift gears and focus on why our freedoms are fundamental, and how we can work to answer the prayer of our national anthem – a prayer for God to keep Canada glorious and free. We’ll consider what is meant by freedom, and the Bible’s long influence on the development of freedom.
God Keep our Land Glorious and Free
The chorus in our national anthem is a prayer: “God keep our land glorious and free. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” So, what does that mean practically? If we pray, “God, please keep our land free,” and assuming that prayer is a biblical one, we then have a Christian obligation (and a civic duty) to “stand on guard for” Canada, and in particular, to keep her free.
So, first, we’re going to consider what is meant by “freedom,” and the Bible’s long influence on the development of freedom.
Biblical Freedom ≠ Personal Autonomy
To begin, we need to clarify what is meant by “free” and “freedom.” These days, freedom is often equated with radical autonomy (literally, “self-law”) – the right to do as I want, when I want, how I want. This is a relatively recent development in rights language, though it’s a phenomenon as old as sin (literally). This is not the type of freedom I mean, and not the freedom that the original author of our national anthem, writing in 1880, had in mind either. Lord Acton, writing around the same time, said it well: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” So, freedom and liberty, properly understood, come with a deep sense of responsibility and duty. And it is especially during trying times that we need the freedom to do what we ought.
During this COVID pandemic, all kinds of Christian duties or responsibilities have been curtailed by different governments:
- the duty to give tender care to aged parents (Mark 7:9-13; 1 Timothy 5:3-8),
- the duty to tend to the sick (James 5:14),
- the duty to visit and encourage the lonely (Matt. 25:34-40; Heb. 13:1-3),
- the duty to gather to corporately worship the Holy One (Heb. 10:24-25),
- the duty to celebrate the sacraments together (Matt. 28:19; Luke 22:19; Acts 2:42; Acts 22:16)
- the duty to comfort the mourning (Prov. 18:14; Romans 12:15),
- the duty to rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15),
- the duty to love the orphan or foster child and their family (James 1:27),
- the duty to evangelize the neighbour (Matt. 28:19-20),
- The duty to work hard to provide for others (Acts 20:35; Eph. 4:28; 2 Thess. 3:10-12),
- The duty to show hospitality to strangers (Luke 10:29-37; Heb. 13:2),
- The duty to assist the addict (1 Cor. 10:13-14; Titus 2:12-15; Hebrews 4:15-16),
- The duty to feed the hungry (Psalm 112:9; Matt 5:42; 19:21),
- The duty to care for the mentally distressed (1 Cor. 12:24-26; Gal 6:2), and so on…
All of these tasks given to Christians by the King have been dramatically curtailed or outright forbidden by the civil government.
Now, in this long list of activities that are curtailed, some have been prohibited or restricted outright, like corporate worship, evangelism, showing hospitality, and mourning or celebrating together. But the other acts of mercy are still being done. The question here is, “Who is doing the acts of mercy now?”
There is a surprising lack of trust on the part of the civil government toward the spheres of family and church. When a grown man is prohibited from tending to his elderly mother for months at a time, the civil government is not saying this senior citizen should not be cared for. It’s saying only the civil government is qualified or can be trusted to do that care (Quebec’s long-term care homes proved this to be devastatingly false). When the civil government prohibits a preacher from handing out food to homeless people (as happened in Calgary), the bylaw officers aren’t saying the homeless should not be fed. They are saying that only the civil government can be trusted to do that task safely. Trust in the institutions of church and family is sorely lacking, and freedom for the family and church to do what it ought to do, to fulfil its calling, is lacking. But if the state is guilty of taking over responsibility here, perhaps the church is also partly guilty of handing responsibility over to the state, contrary to God’s calling for us.
Another definition we should clarify here is the concept of “public health”: it has been limited almost exclusively to “biotic health,” or the absence of disease. Is that an accurate definition? In 1948, the World Health Organization rightly defined health as follows: ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being (we would add “spiritual” too), and not merely the absence of disease or other physical impairment.’
Today, “public health” has been completely misunderstood. Emotional, social, spiritual, mental health are all overlooked due to an obsession with one aspect of health – specifically, the absence of a particular disease.
The Bible’s Influence on the Development of Freedom
Christianity has long stood for maxim: Neither anarchy nor tyranny.
The Belgic Confession rightly notes in Article 36 that we are to be “governed by laws and statutes, in order that the lawlessness of men be restrained” – civil government stands in opposition to lawlessness, or anarchy. But, if unchecked, because of its use of the sword the civil government could easily slip into tyranny – oppressive and unchecked power exerted by government. What holds the civil government in check then? I believe that only when faithful institutions (family, church, the academy, businesses, and so on) insist on fulfilling their own duties and responsibilities will the civil government be held in check. This is what Christian opposition to tyranny looks like.
Insistence on freedom – properly understood – has a firm basis in scripture. Man was created good, and man was created free. After the fall, man became corrupt, and characters like Lamech demonstrate a propensity to enslave. Yet, the narrative of scripture shows that God delights to set His people free: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20). Or, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me… to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1, fulfilled by Christ in Luke 4:21). It is an error to think that this only means liberty from slavery to sin. It’s also liberty from slavery to Egyptian tyrants!
Think as well about why God insisted through Moses that the law must be taught to both the king and the citizens in Israel, including the limits on the king. See Deut. 17:15-20:
“…you may set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you… Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left…”
This text is so instructive for us today on the limits of civil power. First of all, note that the king – an equal among brothers – must also be under law, the same law governing the people. And the righteousness of the law is judged not by the person holding the kingly office, but by the law of God.
Second, note that God does not want a leader for His people to be a warmonger (gathering many horses), or a philanderer (gathering many wives), or an excessive tax collector. A king is prone to all of these temptations and must resist them and bow before the limits of God’s law.
Third, God also tells His people to “never go back that way (to Egypt) again.” The Israelites were never to put themselves back under the yoke of slavery. You see, tyranny is not always imposed. It’s often desired. We willingly exchange our freedom for the promise of security. Think of the Israelites trudging through the desert. At any hint of trouble – danger, thirst, hunger – they immediately long for the fleshpots of Egypt again. They want security and will exchange their freedom for it. But God does not like this, primarily because it shows a lack of faith in Him (it’s idolatry to put trust in other things – in this case, a tyrannical king). Perhaps today some Christians are like the Israelites. When facing the real danger of COVID-19, rather than offering humble prayer to the Great Ruler of the kings of the earth, and then stepping forward in faith to do our duty, we instead offer our freedom to civil bureaucrats in exchange for the illusion of safety.
The theme of freedom runs throughout the Exodus story, and is picked up in Hebrew poetry and in the prophets as well. Paul picks up on this theme of freedom in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. And he instructs us (1 Timothy 2:1-4) to pray for kings and governors so that we can lead peaceful lives (that is, lives free from anarchy and tyranny).
And for what purpose? Not to live as we please, but to do as we ought: in order that all people might be saved “and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Defending freedom allows for the missional advance of the church.
One blessing of Christendom to the entire world has been the slow and painful development of the limiting of state power. For example, in the historic signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, it is church leaders and barons who force King John to sign the great charter, forcing limits on his claim to absolute power, protecting the independence of the church, and guaranteeing legal rights for citizens against arbitrary rule. 450 years later, Lex Rex is written by Presbyterian pastor Samuel Rutherford. He uses the principles in Deuteronomy 17 to make his case against the absolute power of the king. His book sets a theological foundation for the development of constitutional democracy across the English-speaking world, including Canada. And this will take us to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which we’ll focus on in the next installment of this series.