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In Musing #1, I wondered out loud why Christians, in particular, have chosen to advocate for their own personal liberty without considering the impact of refusing the same freedom to others. In Musing #2, I asked why so many people of faith reject religious freedom in pursuit of power and influence. In this third and final musing, I explore Jesus’ liberty perspective.

In a day in which forces of fundamentalism and authoritarianism are gaining strength in the U.S. and around the globe, the theme of “Christian liberty” demands attention. Exploring Jesus’ perspective on liberty confirms the “freedom of Jesus” need not be feared by Christians. Liberty is one of Christianity’s primary and foundational expressions (It is for freedom that Christ has set us free – Galatians 5:1).

What does Jesus have to say about freedom? Jesus appears to say very little about the actual word “freedom.” The noun “freedom” does not appear in any gospel account, therefore, we can’t determine Jesus’ view of freedom based on a word count. We must rely on the intent and truths Jesus taught about liberty apart from actual vocabulary.

First, we remember Jesus knew civil and religious entanglement during the time period in which he lived (see Musing #2 for the dangers of this entanglement). Jesus’ earthly life was spent under Roman authority and rule. The more direct power, however, was religious: the Sanhedrin with the High Priest serving as president. Most importantly, the Temple, the focus of religious authority, and the Law and the Prophets were the law of the land. Pharisees had responsibility for interpreting the Law in unforeseen and complex situations, the reason so many rules were established. Finally, it’s worth noting the authority of social convention we often see in the gospels: total lack of confidence in tax collectors who betrayed the trust of the community, distaste of strangers (tied to Israel’s sense of being special and chosen), and women who were considered impure for one-fourth of each month.

We can read about Jesus’ encounters with authority in scripture—quotes like “render to Caesar.” Jesus certainly marched to a different drumbeat—articulating primary allegiance to a different kingdom and showing relative indifference to the claims of earthly kings. To me, that sounds like freedom of conscience and freedom from social and religious expectations. Jesus was crucified because he was seen as a threat to order. Jesus’ words and choices disturbed those in power. Perhaps it was his forthright appeal for freedom from abuses of power that landed him in hot water. We could certainly argue Jesus’ disregard of purity legislation tied to the authority of the Temple did not sit well with religious leaders. Jesus’ claim to forgive sins— for sure—raised the ire of those in charge. So, Jesus’ assertion of spiritual independence (freedom) apart from the Temple certainly caused a stir.

Jesus was often referred to as “Rabbi” or Teacher; he taught Torah which was fundamental to Jewish thought and practice. His teaching was perceived as radical and ran counter to other parts of Torah. Jesus exhibited freedom in relation to Torah, not freedom from Torah, but freedom within Torah. For Jesus, the quality of connection to God and the quality of interpersonal relationships took priority over mechanical, mindless obedience to Torah. As a result of these priorities, Jesus’ interpretation was perceived as liberal. This brought Jesus into conflict with the Pharisees. On top of that, Jesus was known for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners—defying social convention. He told stories in which the heroes were Gentiles and foreigners, and he refused to discriminate against women who were essential to his ministry. Jesus definitely exercised a new understanding of freedom.

James D. G. Dunn (Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, England, at the time) wrote an excellent book in 1993 called Christian Liberty. Dunn contends a case study of Jesus and freedom in relation to authority offers these keen insights:

  1. Jesus worked within the prevailing authorities of his day, i.e., he didn’t start a violent revolution.
  2. Jesus was willing to offer critical judgment of those in authority (no unquestioned, “blind” obedience to authority figures or empire).
  3. Jesus goes back to the first and fundamental principles of relationship with God and mutual relationship between men and women (Great Commandment) that supersede any discrimination on the part of those in authority.
  4. Jesus outlined a paradoxical ideal for discipleship—not freedom to “lord it over others” but freedom to choose the role of servant. True freedom is found in self-denial and self-sacrifice.

 

What does all of this mean for us today? We can start by following Jesus’ example of putting God’s kingdom over earthly kingdoms. We can lean into the four insights above, and we can:

  • Exercise discriminating freedom like Jesus did.
  • Recognize relationships are more important than legalistic interpretations (Great Commandment supersedes doctrine or purity codes).
  • Resist abusive power that robs others of their freedom.
  • Remember liberty will always be threatened within a community that doesn’t respect differing perspectives.
  • Remember “Christian liberty” can only exist to the extent it emerges out of an expression of faith in Christ.
  • Remember diverse perspectives can be sustained only if the church is conditioned by love.

 

In Conclusion

My prayer is these musings on liberty/freedom have prompted you to think and reflect differently. As people of faith embrace a more expansive and life-giving understanding of liberty, we can expand the current, very narrow definitions and harmful expressions of cultural expectation (my individual rights are supreme) and political maneuvering (we fear someone is doing something to us). These poor substitutes limit freedom. People of faith must refuse to use manipulation; we must resist forces seeking power that runs roughshod over the rights and freedoms of those who think and understand differently. What we ask for ourselves, we must extend to others…liberty/freedom runs both directions.