What is now called 9/11 focussed our minds on so-called fundamentalism. The term was first used to describe the idea that there are some “fundamental” truths about Christianity that are non-negotiable. In that sense, I am a fundamentalist. But we all know that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people who use religion to control and dehumanise people for their own ends, and other people who seem more than willing to be controlled and dehumanised. And we know that this kind of religion has flourished in the church as well as the mosque. Does the gospel provide us with any ammunition against fundamentalism? I believe so. In this article I want to restore the idea of freedom to the centre of Christian identity, and maybe even encourage us to be proud of the word “liberal”!

Last summer leaders from 103 protestant churches met to discuss how to influence the new constitution of Europe. They felt that for all that Europe is the most unbelieving continent on the planet, its foundation is essentially Christian. Apparently the churches wanted particular recognition of their contribution to the “liberal and democratic” values of Europe. Well, I must admit that I was surprised. My own personal experience of church is such that one of these words is considered a sign of heresy and the other is at best tolerated, even in our congregational churches.

A strange history of resisting freedom

We all have some kind of idea in our heads when we imagine Jesus returning from the wilderness with his amazing message: ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15). I have heard all kinds of interpretations of what the Kingdom of God is, but until recently no one offered me the one that really jumps up from the page: the Kingdom of God is where God (alone) is King. In occupied Palestine, with Kings, governors, procurators, priests etc. coming out of every corner, the announcement of God’s rule is a provocative one. It takes us back to when God withdrew his reign over Israel and let his people have their own King.

Israel always seemed to struggle with God’s way of doing things. After all, it is much easier to follow a human ruler than to follow an invisible God. When Gideon had proven himself to be a good judge, the pressure came on him to become King. But Gideon refused: ‘I will not rule over you…The LORD will rule over you.’ (Judges 8:23). Eventually, with enemies without and corruption within, Israel pushed the judge Samuel so hard that he went to God with their complaints. ‘It is not you they have rejected,’ says God, ‘they have rejected me as their king.’ (1 Samuel 8:7). God sends Samuel back with a description of life under a human king: conscription, militarism, state expropriation of both labour and resources, an economic system biased to the rich, and unjust taxation. Finally God concludes, ‘and you yourselves will become his slaves.’ (1 Samuel 8:11-17) Yet nothing can stop the Israelites in their desire to ‘be like the other nations.’ This desire to be like everyone else is the antithesis of holiness, and Jesus picks up on the same desire in the disciples: ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers among the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (Mark 10: 42-44).

Jesus our liberator

Jesus’ main confrontation, the gospels tell us, was with a religious group called the Pharisees. When one studies the Pharisees, it is a bit like looking in the mirror: their strengths and weaknesses so closely resemble those of the evangelical church that we need to take Jesus’ condemnation of them very seriously indeed. There is only room here for what will inevitably be a caricature, but essentially the Pharisees had an overwhelming passion for God’s revealed will written down in the scriptures. They coupled that with a determination to see ordinary men and women living by God’s law. It was a very successful combination. The Pharisees helped people understand God’s law by codifying it at great length. In essence, it was highly unlikely that you would break one of God’s laws because there were so many of the Pharisees’ laws to break first! They developed the synagogue system that allowed them access to ordinary Jewish people in their towns and villages, thus neatly side-stepping the authority of the Temple Priesthood. They brought the law to the people. They were of the people and for the people.

They were also Jesus’ regular enemies. Why? In short, Jesus accuses them of constructing a man-made religion of works in which the heart is not transformed and love is absent. He suggests that the thousands and thousands of extra laws that the Pharisees were teaching are a ‘heavy load’ to ordinary people, and furthermore the Pharisees aren’t willing to ‘lift a finger to help them.’ (Matthew 23:4). But Jesus’ amazing message is not that we should break these false laws, but that we become so in step with the Father that we never come near breaking them. Jesus suggests that the law was given ‘because [our] hearts were hard,’ (Mark 10:4) before going on over and over again to raise the bar: no divorce, no revenge, even within the constraints of law, serve and love your enemies… The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ description of a life free from the law, free from man-made religion. Yet this is not freedom as we understand it today…

And after Jesus?

The struggle between freedom and law continued after Jesus’ departure from earth. In a well-known verse, Paul reminds the Galatians that, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1). For years and years I sang a song that contained these lines without realising that they are an invocation to resist religious power rather than the celebration of forgiveness that I had always assumed them to be. Paul continues: ‘Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all…you have fallen away from grace… The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (5:2,4,6)

Throughout the scripture we see this troubling issue recurring: there are some people who want to ‘lord it over’ everyone else, and they are to be resisted. The problem seems to be that many, many people find freedom (and it’s twin, responsibility) just too much to handle, and actively seek someone to lord it over them! Whether it be political or religious power, anything that restricts God’s people in their pursuance of him is an idol, and must be cast down.

When the church became a “power” in Europe, freedom was one of the first casualties. Constantine ordered his entire empire to convert to Christianity, and for a thousand years anyone who didn’t toe the line was removed from Christendom, permanently. It wasn’t until the reformation that freedom again became a Christian word again, and the modern world was born.

J.S. Mill, widely regarded as the founder of modern liberalism, wrote his main works in the early 19th century. Yet in 1612, over 200 years before Mill’s “On Liberty”, an unknown Nottinghamshire puritan by the name of Thomas Helwys sent a copy of his book The Mystery of Iniquity to none other than the King of England. Helwys was concerned at the way the King was using the law to oppress non-conformist Christians and believed that he and his fellow dissenters should be free to practice their faith, fearing only God, not the King and his Bishops. On the first page, Helwys wrote by hand,
Hear, O King, and despise not the counsel of the poor, and let their complaints come before you. The King is a mortal man, and not God, and therefore has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them… O King, do not be seduced by deceivers to sin so against God, whom you ought to obey, nor against your poor subjects… God save the King!

Of course, for such effrontery Helwys was put in prison and died four years later.

The Struggle Continues...

Today, people don’t get killed for stepping out of line, but it seems to me that the church is still in danger of usurping God’s role as our king. I don’t blame church leaders exclusively for this – just as with the Israelites thousands of years ago, we all clamour for “strong leaders”. We want the church to be run the way the “other nations” run their organisations: big business, charities, monarchies. John Hull in his frightening book What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning? suggests that in many churches everyone prefers a situation in which the clergy dominate. The clergy maintain their position of power and continue to look like “experts” in Christianity, while the congregation is protected from the difficulties of life by the knowledge that “even if I don’t understand or know what to do, the leader does.” So a church full of competent and well-educated adults doesn’t seem to grow very much, but keeps paying a preacher to keep them disempowered. Because all sides seem to like this, a revolutionary leader or rebellious congregation may not be able to change the status quo.

I should know, because I’ve been there. When you work with young people, some of these feelings are intensified. I have been a youth pastor, and now help to lead a church of young adults. While they are outwardly rebellious, in other ways they are trusting and open to manipulation. I could so easily control them “for their own good”. They need protecting! They need me to add some extra boundaries! They need less freedom! I can’t trust God to lead them, they need to follow me… Well, I don’t put it like that, but that’s the reality of it. Particularly when I was working with teenagers, I came under intense pressure from some parents to provide an entire social system that would prevent little Jonny from ever having to go to a disco or party “out there”. It is this fear of the unknown, of the outside world, that drives most churches’ efforts to control people nowadays, rather than any malevolent will to power. We want to take away people’s freedom for their own good, because they will only use it to harm themselves. And if we understand freedom the way it is being sold to us today, perhaps it’s not such a good thing after all…

Today’s Definition

I remember catching part of a Channel 4 documentary a few years ago about the sex lives of chimpanzees, who mated everywhere with everyone.

Although the subtext was left undeclared, it was clear: this is natural behaviour, this is how we ought to behave if it wasn’t for the constraints of our oppressive, “Victorian” society. In this world freedom means the freedom to follow your so-called “instincts”, what the Bible calls “the flesh”. For both left and right, freedom is getting what I want when I want it. The stupidity of this argument can be shown in one simple exercise: look into your heart – you want everyone to unleash that onto the world? And now I want to show you a most excellent way…

When Grace steps in

Jesus was a liberal person. He splashed God’s love around with a liberality that many found offensive. He lived a free life and didn’t mind who got upset. He put himself in the way of temptation, making friends with prostitutes and tax collectors, and retained both his purity and his passion. Wow! What is this freedom? We know that it is very, very different from the kind of freedom that most people want, which is essentially freedom to be selfish.

Indeed, it is in part freedom from the slavery of our “flesh”, our self-centred nature. But God’s freedom is not only a freedom from, it is a freedom for.

When God’s grace steps into our lives we are transformed. I am free to love unconditionally because I am loved unconditionally. My boundaries come down and I can now share what I have, trusting that even more will be given to me.

I realise that this is not how most Christians live. I believe that church leaders, who are really just as human as the rest of us, stand between us and the father, giving us a wrong idea of who he is. We are so often afraid of God’s judgement, of stepping out line, of just saying something wrong, and I believe that is one of the prices we pay for having priestly leaders in our churches. We should remember that the priest, like the king, is no longer a role for anyone but God. When we start to mediate between God and his people we are taking God’s role away from him.

Perfect love casts out all fear

The fears that bind us – fear of the world, fear of God’s disapproval, fear of our fellow human beings – are the things that diminish the Christian freedom that is our right. We become smaller people. We are afraid of people who are different to us. We are afraid that every doubt or question is going to lead to “falling away”. We sacrifice our freedom in the hope that someone will tell us what we need to do to be safe. Surely this can’t be right?

I understand the need to defend our faith but if we believe that we have discovered he who is the truth then we should be the first around the table at inter-faith gatherings (see Acts 17), we should be happy to have questions and doubts aired in our meetings (Acts 15), we should be happy to fellowship with sinners (the life of Jesus)… If we are loved then we are free, free to love others and to show that life-transforming love of Jesus.

But what about “liberal”?

We live in a liberal society, a society that believes in political freedom. This means that we are free to practice our faith, just as others are free to practice theirs. This is something I am proud of, and it is indeed part of Europe’s Christian heritage. We believe that each person is unique and valued by God and should therefore be able to determine the direction of his or her own life. I think it is a society in which the church can play an important part. However, it needs to be a church that is so confident in its saviour that it can hear other views without seeking to squash them. And that same church needs to celebrate some freedom within its walls. In today’s climate, many people need freedom to find God in their own time and their own ways. Let’s trust God to let himself be found by those who are seeking him.

I’d like us to redeem the word liberal, because the first definition in the dictionary is about abounding generosity. That generosity of spirit can help us embrace living in a liberal democracy, so that we can celebrate that definition of the word too, giving people freedom to grow at their own pace, in their own ways. Both stem from confidence in God’s love and grace. Let’s try living in freedom. Because one day our neighbours will need it, having become slaves to the kind of freedom Channel 4 is peddling...