Freedom of Religion

Freedom of Religion July 4, 2018
Courtesy of Pixabay

*This is a guest post by my good friend and pastor Daniel Wysong.

“Our relationship with Christ—and any other successful relationship—is based on freedom.” ~ Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

The 4th of July is here again. It’s a day we Americans celebrate liberty: the freedom to choose how we think, act, and express ourselves.

Our nation was founded with the idea that as long as one is respecting the rights of others, one should be able to hold a dissenting opinion and still remain a citizen. The inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not dependent on one’s ideas.

Freedom is also a virtue God holds dear.

God created us with the capacity to choose—to determine our own thoughts, values, and actions. Implicit in that freedom is the capacity to leave the humans around us, and the world, either better or worse through our presence and our choices.

God could have created us without the opportunity to do harm, and all humans would have been safe and eternally one with God. Instead, Genesis 2 tells the story of God creating humans with the freedom of choice. Humans capable of choosing our own destinies for better or for worse—capable of either accepting or rejecting the way of love. Apparently, God values freedom above even our safety or salvation, depending on your soteriological point of view.

However we look at it, our freedom is inherent in our humanity, as well as our reflection of the image of God. We are created to be free.

We are also created for community. We all yearn to belong. And here is the rub: in creating our communities, whether tribal, political, or religious, we tend to draw boundary lines to define who gets to be part of our community and who doesn’t. We take away people’s freedom as a prerequisite to entering our community.

Torah is full of boundary markers for who gets to be part of the community and who doesn’t. The uncircumcised, the Sabbath breakers, the lepers, the eunuchs, the idolaters, the lame—they are all excluded.

But when Jesus came, he painted a much broader vision for belonging, one in which all of these people—every human, in fact—is invited and included. Further, our belonging in the kingdom of heaven is based not on what we look like or believe, but rather in our inherent humanness. We are each a child of God. He said his followers would be known by recognizing this fundamental reality. They would be defined not by what they believed, but by how they loved.

The early church did this—for about a minute or two. But it didn’t take long for them to start drawing theological boundary markers as well. One of the earliest was the Apostles’ Creed, which dates from the 2nd century and highlighted the necessary theological beliefs for a person to become a Christian: belief in God as Creator, Christ as Savior, the Resurrection, the second coming, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. Not a bad list. But within a hundred years it was modified at the Council of Nicaea. Further theological understanding was included: the doctrine of the trinity, the uncreated eternal nature of Christ, and baptism. But this only lasted a few hundred years, and the Athanasian Creed, with its 43 distinct theological points came into use. As one of my seminary professors put it, “doctrinal inflation” is not something new. What was a peripheral belief at the time of the apostles was a prerequisite believe by 400 CE. Post Reformation, we almost entirely define our religious enclaves over and against one another entirely on doctrinal differences.

I see four significant problems with this.

First, it isn’t how Jesus taught us to live.  Jesus was much more concerned with how his followers loved than what their exact theological understanding was. Jesus paints the difference between his true followers and his false followers not in terms of their theological beliefs, but rather how they live their lives.  Those following Jesus spend their lives serving their brothers and sisters and paying special attention to the least of these. The only command and litmus test Jesus ever specifies is that his followers will be those who love as he loved.

Second, according to Jesus, treating others the way we would want to be treated is the most important behavioral and theological standard. And since none of us want to be excluded from Christian community because we are convicted differently, the Golden Rule and our practice of defining our communities by doctrine are incompatible.

Third, most of us probably don’t believe precisely the same things about God, our world, or ourselves that we did ten years ago. To try and form community by uniting people around my current perspective is a futile endeavor: we won’t ever have it all figured out, and even if we did, it would probably be meaningless to someone who is at a much earlier point on their journey.

Finally, while common theological understanding can be a strength, using force, coercion, or exclusion to reach that understanding completely undermines our practice of community. Requiring common doctrinal beliefs makes fitting in theologically a prerequisite to belonging. And as Brené Brown articulates so well in Braving the Wilderness, if we have to fit in order to belong, we will never actually belong. One’s belonging in the community shouldn’t be dependent on one’s beliefs.

So, what happens when someone believes something contrary to what we do? In the New Testament when someone began teaching a minority opinion, they got a letter from an apostle. The church discussed the idea. This is simple but powerful: The truth is never hurt by questioning. Through examining all sides of an issue, we will come closest to finding truth. As a community of believers, we are much stronger when we not only permit but encourage discussing points of view that differ from our own. After all, how else would we learn something that we didn’t already know? And if someone else does in fact believe something wrong (like we all do), this is also the best chance we will have at helping them grow their perspective. It is only when a belief or practice is clearly causing harm that steps should be taken to limit and contain that harm.

The truth is we don’t need to believe the same thing in order to love as Jesus loved. We can still love and serve our Lord and further the Kingdom by working together anyway. In fact, we honor our God when we promote the freedom to discuss ideas and differ on doctrines. We follow the way of Jesus when we love one another and work together even when we believe differently.

God does not seek to control. God seeks to liberate.

What if we followed him in this? What if we chose to focus our churches on Christian loving rather than on Christian professing? What if our church communities were known less as purveyors of truth, but rather as safe places to explore, discuss, and grow in love?

By extending the freedom we each value so much to those around us, I believe we would find ourselves freer, and finally able to create the kinds of communities we long to be a part of.

Let freedom ring.

About Daniel Wysong
Daniel Wysong is a husband, father of four, and a pastor who loves exploring, adventure, good books, and great conversation. You can read more about the author here.
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