Is our freedom as Christians under threat? From the news in the last week, and from the reaction of many Christians, the answer would seem to be pretty unequivocal: yes it is. Unless the judgment in the Ashers Bakery case is overturned by the Supreme Court, or there is a change in the law, it now appears that Christians may be required by law verbally to express support for the rightness of homosexual relationships, on pain of losing their livelihoods. As in the days of the Emperor Diocletian, Christians will now apparently be forced to make sacrifice at the altar of a god whom they do not and will not worship. As in the reign of ‘Bloody’ queen Mary, those who refuse to assent to something to which they do not assent will be made, by the force of law, to pay the price.
And yet the freedom of Christians is not at all under threat. Not if, by ‘freedom’, we mean what both Scripture and historic Christian theology has meant by that. Not if we understand what true freedom is.
Freedom, in the Reformation, was a big thing. The Reformation happened in the midst of a society thick with legal coercion: from the church of Rome, which demanded conformity (under threat of purgatory and damnation) to all sorts of practices not found in Scripture and alien to the Christian gospel, and from the various governments of Europe, which in various ways used civil punishments ranging from fines through imprisonments to death to compel conformity to the church.
And yet the Reformers never complained that their freedom was under threat. Rather, they understood ‘The freedom of a Christian’ as the freedom that Christ himself has brought from the curse of the law, from the power of indwelling sin, and from the threatenings and coercions of the Roman church and the civil government. The Christian is free because Christ died to set him free. He is free from God’s curse on his lawbreaking, because Christ bore the curse for him. He is therefore free from the threat of judgment for his sins. That means he is free to pursue righteousness and holiness without fear of God’s wrath at his inevitable shortcomings in doing so. And it means he is free from the fear of man. This is Romans 8: who can separate us from the love of Christ? ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ No: The pope may threaten hell, and the magistrate may threaten penury, prison or the stake, but the Christian is free to follow Christ because Christ has made him free. No man can take away our certain hope in our King. No man may enslave us.
What’s more, Christ has set us free from our own sinful desires. This in many ways goes to the heart of what Christian freedom means. We are no longer slaves of sin. Our exodus liberation is from the tyranny of our corrupt desires which dwell inside us. This is Romans 7: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’. We are no longer slaves to our desires. Christ has set us free, free to love our God, free not to sin where previously we had no weapons in our armoury to resist it. Free to be what God designed humans to be, free to be God’s true images.
So in this sense the freedom of Christians is not the slightest bit threatened by the current disastrous drift of law in the British Isles. It is precisely because we are free that we will never need to submit to the increasing threats used to compel our conformity to the reigning doctrines of sexual licence. Yes, we may lose our court cases, our jobs, our social respectability. We may go to prison. But we will do so cheerfully because we are free to do so. We serve a higher master, and his blessings – now and for eternity – cannot be removed by man. That is the freedom Christ has won for us.
Now, it is often assumed that these two freedoms – the freedom of a Christian, and the idea of ‘free speech’ or ‘religious liberty’ – are the same thing. Many Christians have seized on the comments of Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, as supporting our cause. But this is not merely short-sighted, it is a very serious mistake. For the secular doctrines of freedom are not a version of the Christian doctrine but its very opposite.
Before the enlightenment, Christian authors never conceived that ‘freedom’ was in any sense a moral absolute. And for a very good reason. There was another word already in their vocabulary for the idea that human beings should be free to say, and to do, whatever they chose, with no regard to higher authority. That word was ‘sin’. For that is what sin is: it is a belief in human autonomy, that there is nothing worse for a human being than in having God tell us what to do. Secularism, rooted in the atheist doctrines of the Enlightenment, exactly inverted Christian ethics on this point. Far from being the root of human evil, human autonomy was now to be considered the highest human good. Sin was rebranded; now it would be ‘freedom’, and under that rubric made the foundation of a whole new ethics. Civilisation and the moral character of a society was to be judged not on its conformity to the law of God but on how much it defended the absolute freedom of men and women to believe, speak and act as they choose.
It is part of the tragedy of the history of the last 250 years that generations of Christians (with of course some notable exceptions) have not noticed the inversion in the word ‘freedom’ that this entailed. Christian freedom is freedom from ourselves and our desires, won for us by God in Christ, so that we might obey his laws. Secular freedom is freedom from God and his laws, won by us, so that we might follow ourselves and our desires. The social revolution of the last 50 years are just the working out into law and mainstream public opinion this inversion of the meaning of freedom that philosophers adopted 200 years earlier.
The lessons for us are twofold. First, we need to stop thinking that secular ideas of ‘freedom’ – the ideals of free speech and absolute religious liberty – are our friend. They are not. They are in fact the enemies which are fighting against us. The more we appeal to them, the more we strengthen the secular zeitgeist which hates Christianity as an immoral restriction on the freedom of the individual. If we fight the spirit of the age with the weapons of the age we are in fact affirming the rightness of the age. If we win this battle this way, we lose. Ashers bakery was not right to refuse to promote gay marriage because of a ‘fundamental’ principal of free speech. There is no such principal in God’s universe. If there were, the serpent in the garden of Eden did nothing wrong! They were right to refuse to promote gay marriage because those Christ has set free from sin are free to obey God and not man. God is God, whatever the courts might say. That is what the McArthurs, to their credit, said outside the courtroom.
And second, we need to stop thinking that our freedom – real freedom – is in any way under threat. The law can revile us, it can fine us, it can deprive us of our jobs, it can throw us to the lions – but it can never remove from us the freedom to live righteously which Christ won for us at Calvary. There may be dark days ahead for Christians in the British Isles, but they will be temporary. And Jesus Christ will build his church, the church of those whom he has set free to serve him, in true righteousness and holiness, both now and in the new creation forever.