A case for why Christians should care about freedom and liberty – including free speech.
This is a blog which has been brewing for some weeks now. I’m involved in various different formal and informal Christian networks. Over the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of information from Christian groups advising us about how to comply with government regulations about the lockdown. For example, John Stevens has been doing good work on advising what the new guidelines mean for churches as things change.
However, I’ve seen very few Christian leaders pushing back at all on the restrictions. Earlier this week, in a Christian group on Facebook, someone posted a link to this article by Archbishop Cranmer (where he argues that with the ‘rule of six’ we are being deprived of our liberty). Someone responded saying it was a political matter, not a theological one.
I would beg to differ – I think this actually has a lot of big theological issues. I believe liberty is deeply theological and goes to the heart of what it means to be human beings. What I am going to do here is outline a few theological and practical reasons why I believe Christians should be concerned about freedom. I’ll start with the theological.
Theological reasons to care about freedom
1. The dignity of human beings
The Bible gives human beings a dignity unlike any other created beings. We are described as being made “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27). Psalm 8 says God made human beings and “crowned them with glory and honour”. We have a special, God-given dignity as human beings. We have been made as beings with responsibilities, God’s vice-regents, who are to look after and rule over creation as his agents. And so, we are made to be free. Freedom is a part of being made in God’s image. It is also, as the apostle Paul tells us, what Christ has accomplished for us in setting us free from sin (Galatians 5:1).
There’s a lovely prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, based on Augustine’s words, which captures it beautifully:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…
So by implication, when you take away people’s liberty, you are taking away their dignity as human beings. In some cases this is right and appropriate, e.g. prison inmates forfeit some of their liberties as a punishment. And we all accept certain limits on our freedom, e.g. in the UK I’m not free to drive on the right hand side of the road. And, in fact, if anyone tried driving on the wrong side of the road, they’d find out pretty soon it was anything but freedom!
Another aspect of human dignity is responsibility. A responsible person can judge risk for themselves and then make a decision based on that risk. Give someone the facts, then allow them to make up their minds. Some people will err on the side of caution, some will not. That is their choice. Freedom involves having the right to make that choice. As it says in Psalm 32:9:
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Human beings have been given the dignity of making responsible choices under God. Freedom is a Biblical principle, rooted in our dignity as God’s image-bearers.
2. The command to love God and one another
Jesus gave a very clear instruction: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). We don’t have time to go into it all now, but the whole of the way God wants us to live could be summed up by “love”: firstly, love God; secondly, love each other.
What does this look like? Love for God involves many things – dedicating our lives to serving him, praising him, doing all things to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Similarly, loving each other has many facets. One of the most overlooked commands in the Bible is “greet one another with a holy kiss”. We should not be strangers but literally family (Mark 3:35).
How do we show that love? It is shown to each other by meeting together, in a thousand different ways. Home groups meet each week to study the Bible and pray for each other. A community cafe opens every Friday to welcome people in. A weekly toddler group is much valued by local parents. And all of these things are aspects of the church’s core mission – to love.
One of the things I’ve realised during the lockdown is that it’s really hard to love and care for each other at a distance. In fact in many cases it’s impossible. And I’ve realised how the groups that we have are not simply “nice to have” extras to mostly private lives, but fundamental to who we are as people. When we can’t do them, we are – quite literally – unable to be the people who God made us to be.
And even the things that we can do, for example church services, are not the same. It really struck me when our midweek service restarted how empty it felt without tea & coffee afterwards. The after-service chat is a core part of what we should be about!
Christians are not isolated individuals who live their own lives and occasionally meet up. God, in Christ, didn’t create a ‘team of individuals’ – he created a whole new society. The church isn’t somewhere you go on a Sunday. For Christians, it should be our new family. We have a duty and an obligation to meet together. These are things which cannot be done fully without freedom.
Practical reasons to care about freedom
More briefly, let’s think about a couple of more pragmatic reasons why Christians should care about freedom.
1. Free speech is under threat
Free speech is under threat in our society to the point that Toby Young felt it necessary to start the Free Speech Union. Those of us who hold conservative Christian views have been feeling the pinch for a while now – something I wrote a little about a few years ago. I think Christians should be standing up for free speech – not least because Christian views are being targeted. Even if we don’t personally feel the heat, I think we should stand up for freedom.
2. Free speech aids the gospel
Think about the number of street preachers who have been arrested over the last few years for ‘hate speech’. There are some in our society who would like nothing better than to silence Christian views being aired. I do appreciate that ultimately God is sovereign over these things, and that ultimately suppression of freedom will work to serve the gospel in the long run. But I still think it’s right to try to defend freedom, even while trusting that God will use whatever situation we find ourselves in for good.
I think this is behind Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.1 Timothy 2:1-2
How should we respond?
The government have taken away a fair degree of our freedom at the moment – in particular, not being able to meet or socialise beyond six people (including children). There are other things as well e.g. mandatory mask wearing, not being able to sing hymns together, and so on. Our freedoms are curtailed.
I said at the start that sometimes restricting freedom is the right thing to do. If there was no pandemic, what the government have done would be oppressive. However, the government’s measures have been taken to protect society. Are the government’s measures proportionate and reasonable? Some people believe the government’s reaction has been a massive overreaction, e.g. Professor Karol Sikora or SAGE member Mark Woolhouse. Personally I think I am with them.
However, I hope that – whatever our position on the lockdown – we can agree that freedoms being curtailed is a bad thing. What I’d like to see now, especially from church leaders, is this:
- A greater pushback on the restriction of our freedoms. I don’t mean disobedience, but I do feel most church leaders have been focussed on the ways we should be obeying the government – rather than challenging them. If our freedoms are going to be taken away like this, I think it’s right for us to keep the government accountable by challenging them to provide evidence and reasoning. I don’t really see that happening.
- Thinking through if and when it would be appropriate to disobey. In Acts 5:29, Peter and the apostles say: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” This is an important principle – Christians have a higher law than the law of the land. If the state’s restriction of our freedom is restricting our ability to obey God (and I believe it is) – at what stage do we disobey? Again, I’d like to see people – especially Christian leaders – helping people to think through these issues.
I’m not arguing here that disobedience to the government is the right response, necessarily. We do live in a democracy and there are appropriate channels if we want to see change. (I am hoping to write to my MP shortly!) But it seems to me that we have been slow to engage with the issue of government restriction of freedom, perhaps because in our lifetimes the UK has been a reasonably free place. But if we don’t stand up for freedom now, I worry about what might be coming round the corner.
If freedom is worth standing up for, it’s worth standing up for now, even and especially at a time such as this.