Earlier this week, I had an op-ed about religious freedom published in the local newspaper, responding to to legislative efforts in many states (VP nominee Mike Pence’s Indiana among them) to enable business owners to use religious freedom as a license to deny services and discriminate.
As Lutherans prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the advent of the Reformation in 2017, a pivotal voice from the past suggests another more compelling view of Christian freedom from which legislators and people of faith might learn.
In his 1520 essay “On the Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther makes an argument using twin claims: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” Both a free person and a dutiful servant, the Christian is a paradox.
How is this possible? For Luther, it was based on his concept that a person has two natures: an inner, spiritual nature and an outer, bodily nature. With regard to the spirit, Luther argued for absolute freedom from having to earn salvation; nothing that a Christian could do, say, buy or become could earn a ticket to heaven. This is because, for him, Christians are already saved by the power of God’s grace.
Freed for what? This is where Luther’s explanation of the outer, bodily nature of the person came into play. As a “servant of all,” the Christian is freed to serve his or her neighbor. Freed from having to be concerned with his or her own salvation, he or she could therefore focus on self-control “that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely.” This is the part of person who interacts with others in the world through work, community and politics. As Luther said, the Christian “must needs speak, act, and converse among” other people. As must we all.
This is something Luther understood that Christians would undertake joyfully. Serving one’s neighbor is how one lives as a faithful servant of God in the world. This entails all the things that we do as members of a community, including paying taxes that support public schools, safe roads and clean drinking water. It means running our businesses fairly by following laws regarding hiring, pay, and public access. It includes states providing social services for the most vulnerable among us. It also means enforcing laws that protect us from the harmful actions of others, like discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
Knowing that there are more Missouri-Synod Lutherans in my town than there are ELCA Lutherans (click here if you’re not familiar with why that difference matters), and knowing how conservative generally the readers of this paper are, I expected criticism. I didn’t have to wait long … two days later a letter to the editor was published suggesting that I made “a gigantic, fallacious leap” by suggesting that Luther’s ideas about freedom are “relevant to our culture’s accepting sexual orientation.” The author is a local retired LCMS clergy and former faculty member at the institution where I teach known for his writing against pluralism, multiculturalism, and Islam among other things. He goes on to quote at length the things that Luther said about Sodom in his Genesis commentary, as well as Luther’s call to hate the Carthusian monks “because they were the first to bring this terrible pollution into Germany.” (Of course, “terrible pollution” = same sex activity.)
Of course my op-ed wasn’t making an argument about homosexuality per se, thus Luther’s writings on the subject (with which I am familiar) weren’t relevant. (Nor were particular things he said about women, like “it’s more fitting for them to lisp and stammer” than to be authoritative, though my interlocutor may agree there too.) I made an argument that the nuance in the Reformer’s understanding of what it means to be Christian in the world, freed to serve, is a helpful corrective to those bound up today in a theology that compels them to discriminate and deny services to their neighbors.
In fact, Luther might recognize that way of thinking as a type of works-righteousness, something he vehemently argued against. The freedom of a Christian was a byproduct of grace: the unmerited gift of God in fact frees the Christian from having to earn her salvation by doing, thinking, saying the right thing. With such freedom she can then undertake service to the neighbor joyfully and humbly.
What a relief to not have to worry about judging my neighbor and instead look for ways to make his life better.
If only the so-called “religious freedom” zealots could enjoy such relief.
Luther rose image via wikimedia commons. Letter image mine.