Much modern theology seems to define freedom as man’s true humanity in political, sociological, or economic terms. But according to the New Testament, man’s true humanity is to know himself a child of God.
For the Christian to deal with freedom apart from God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ, or to hope that he can minister to man’s real needs by efforts at social betterment alone, without the preaching of the Gospel, is not only theologically questionable but finally self-defeating. What multitudes there are who have all their civil rights, who know no restrictions on their freedom from political, economic, or social pressures, yet who do not know what freedom in the New Testament sense is—freedom from themselves as prisoners of sin and death! Merely to enlarge this group, or to exchange its members by a turnover of political or economic power, is hardly to fulfill the “ministry of reconciliation.”
The knowledge that man’s need is radically deeper than any external circumstance or condition may express is what enabled Karl Barth to preach to prisoners in the Basel prison: “Man can be imprisoned in other and far worse ways than you are here.” After mentioning such imprisonments as “a sorrow … which will never depart,” “wrath and hatred,” “a fatal inclination or habit,” “bodily illness,” “mutual mistrust and bitter enmity,” “anxiety” over “atomic bombs,” he suggested that bad as these imprisonments are, they “are doors which might sometime be opened, and which even now have their little cracks through which one may look out.” “But,” he went on, “we are all firmly and finally imprisoned behind a door from which we cannot even peer out: God has imprisoned us all in disobedience.… To be disobedient to God means … that in our hearts, our thoughts, our lives we reserve the right to have our own will and to go our own way” (“All,” Interpretation, January, 1960, pp. 66, 67). The self-centeredness of our existence in place of obedient acknowledgment of God and his will for us, then, is the source of our slavery. And freedom can be ours only when this problem is dealt with.
A survey of the use of the words for “freedom” in the New Testament would seem to bear this out. The writers seldom meant political liberty, except to suggest that it is not what is meant by Christian freedom. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the righteous remnant were “looking for the liberation of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38; this and other quotations are from the New English Bible). At the time of his death, his disciples “had been hoping that he was the man to liberate Israel” (Luke 24:21). But neither Jerusalem nor Israel was “liberated” from Rome; they were destroyed by her. The bondage from which Israel was to be released is variously referred to as “the commands of sin” (Rom. 6:22), “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), “wickedness” (Titus 2:14), “the empty folly of your traditional ways” (1 Pet. 1:18), “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13), “sin” (John 8:34; Rom. 6:17, 20 f.; Heb. 9:15). Sin is prideful human disobedience to the will of God which sets the human will at the center of reality. It is this from which men must be delivered.
And to what are men set free? Certainly not to do as they please. They are now “bound to the service of God” (Rom. 6:22); they are “slaves of Christ” whose joy it is to “serve the Lord” (Eph. 6:6, 7); they are “slaves in God’s service” (1 Pet. 2:16); they are “slaves … to the service of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17, 18); they are “servants to one another in love” (Gal. 5:13); they are set free to become members of “one body … in the one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13); they are free to become corporately “one person in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), those among whom “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
And how are they set free? They are set free by “the Son” (John 8:36); by “Christ” (Gal. 5:1); by “the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17); by “the life-giving law of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2); by Christ, “who sacrificed himself for us” (Titus 2:14); by the “precious blood, … the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19); by “God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23, 24); by “God’s act” in “Christ Jesus … in [whom] we are … set free” (1 Cor. 1:30); by “the shedding of his blood” (Eph. 1:7); by being “rescued … from the domain of darkness” by God’s Son, “in whom our release is secured and our sins forgiven” (Col. 1:13, 14); by Jesus’ “death” (Heb. 9:15).
Does not all this suggest that where the Church speaks of freedom it is called to herald the truth that men are bound by an enslavement they can never conquer; that however desirable freedom from the oppression of external circumstance is, such freedom can never take the place of that freedom from sin which is God’s act in Christ? Were our wrestling merely against “flesh and blood,” were Christ’s kingdom merely of “this world,” we might take the sword, or conversely use the powers of passive resistance, to break the shackles that bind men and to set them free. But our task moves in a deeper dimension. As Paul Minear has said, one of the tasks of the early Church “was to announce the opportunity of freedom to men who were still in bondage. But underneath this task lay a more far-reaching one—that of serving as Christ’s agents in bringing into subjection the principalities which keep men in bondage” (The Kingdom and the Power, p. 190).
To become free ourselves and to help other men become free from the “principalities and powers” that utilize human history for their destructive ends is the unique task of the Church. And no easy view of freedom will do. We shall have to do more profound thinking at this level before we can know what the “relevance” of the Church in this time of world history is, lest we abandon our unique task and end in disillusionment and self-defeat. “Relevance” has been defined by Paul Minear as “the quality of being pertinent to the case in hand.” Before we may know in any given situation what Christian “relevance” is, may we not have to struggle for a deeper Christian estimate of what “the case in hand” is?
There are at least three points at which the Church would seem to need caution in this area. The first is in relation to the contemporary cry for the Church’s involvement in the struggle for freedom in the social order. It hardly needs documenting that many of the Church’s own adherents are seeing “relevance” in the Church only to the extent that it becomes a direct instrument in the solution of the problems of poverty, race, war, ignorance, and prejudice. Few of us would argue that the Church should be aloof or unconcerned about these problems. But is the Church’s concern with these issues to be of no deeper quality than that of other “action” groups? And should these problems fail of solution, does the Church have no word of hope to direct to that situation of failure?
Speaking on the Mount of Olives, Jesus counseled that when the utter collapse of the structures of human existence comes, when nations are distressed and perplexed and men’s hearts are faint “with fear and with foreboding,” we are to “stand upright and hold your heads high, because your liberation is near” (Luke 21:25–28). One does not have to be able to understand fully what these strange words mean to see in them the declaration of a liberation that transcends many of the current hopes for human justice. The thought seems to be moving in the same vein as Paul’s words in Romans 8 about a freedom that nothing in this world or the next can take away. As a statement made by the Jubilee Assembly of the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren put it, even after the terrible events of August 21, 1968, and thereafter, Christ’s “work of reconciliation … brings hope in the face of death and nothingness.”
On the other hand, should the hopes for human justice be wholly fulfilled, would the work of the Church be done? Suppose poverty, racism, war, ignorance, and prejudice were no more; would the word of the Gospel no longer be needed? On the last visit of Dr. Joseph Hromádka to this country, he said that at least some of the Communist thinkers in Czechoslovakia were saying, in effect: “We have had our revolution, we have eliminated class distinctions, we have overcome the drag of the evils of capitalism, but we have not yet arrived. What lack we yet?” And they had asked Professor Hromádka to lecture to them at the University of Prague on prayer! Maybe, after all, there are depths in human nature to which the Gospel speaks that lie deeper than those needs represented by the social, political, and economic revolutionary movements of our day.
And while advocates of “revolutionary theology” do battle with the forces of evil entrenched in the social order, can the Church abdicate its function of reminding them that all power tends toward corruption, and that unless we offer men inner freedom from thralldom to the powers of darkness through the liberating work of Jesus Christ, the exorcising of the demons they seek to cast out could open the way for more demons to enter, leaving the last state worse than the first? To take power from some so that others may have it, but to leave those others outside the sphere of Christ’s mastery of the demonic in all power, is a reshuffling that may exchange the personnel of ruler and ruled but will only perpetuate a corrupt situation in other hands. The issue is not who rules and who is ruled, but whether the ruler either rules or abdicates his rule selfishly or responsibly, and whether those ruled either accept authority or rebel against it selfishly or responsibly.
There is a moving and pathetic, but very profound, passage in the play The Man in the Glass Box, based on the trial of Adolph Eichmann. At the end of an eight-minute oration in praise of the Führer and his power to lay hold of men with his eloquence and promises, the man in the glass box shouts: “People of Israel, had he chosen you, you, too, would have followed!” This is no anti-Semitic indictment of Israel but a profound analysis of the dark depths in all human nature. After all, Hitler set out to right wrongs, to establish justice for those whom he believed to have been oppressed, to “put down the mighty from their thrones” in order to exalt “those of low degree.” But he illustrated that of which Paul Minear reminds us when he says:
[The “heavens” of the “architects of utopias” are] constructed out of forlorn desires, desires that the world has created and then frustrated. Crusaders … increase the disorder by trying to force their dreams upon their fellows.… Thus the world creates hopelessness that is greatest in the hearts of those who hope for the utopias that the world, by its negative logic, encourages.… When the world locates truly the enemies of its real peace, then it will find use for this archaic armor: ‘the shield of faith, … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:16 f.) [The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 242–4].
Secondly, in the current struggle for freedom in personal living represented in the so-called new morality and in situational ethics, may it not be that a deeper estimate of what “the case in hand” really is should be undertaken? Can we be so sure that our efforts to escape from “legalism,” from the use of “principles,” from the rather easy identification of cultural mores with Christian ethics, may not end for many, not in genuine Christian freedom, but in a new bondage to other forms of the demonic where Christ’s Lordship is unacknowledged? The realm of the demonic is that where God is no longer acknowledged as God, nor praised, and where man’s own wisdom is put in place of God’s will for man. Some of the extreme illustrations of the validity of the “new morality” are suspect in that they seem to adopt “self-understanding” or “self-realization” as the measure of the good. How this is to be equated with the “glory of God” is not clear. Furthermore, when one helps another to an alleged “self-realization” by a process that is self-gratifying, such as offering sexual intercourse as a “meaningful” experience or as an indication of full “acceptance” of another, one wonders whether such acts are those of men free to acknowledge God as God, or whether they are not mere manifestations of slavery to the “flesh.”
A conversation with some young ministers who had abandoned the institutional church—save to depend on its financing of their work!—revealed that one of their major quarrels with institutional Christianity was that it had become captive to the demons of suburban culture. After about two hours it became quite apparent that in fleeing from the demons of suburbia they had fallen into the arms of the demons of hippiedom. I do not want to judge them falsely, but they seemed to me to have been unconsciously as acculturated by the hippies as were the churches from which they sought escape acculturated by suburbia. I did not feel that St. Paul would have been any more at home with them than he would be in the average institutional church. He knew of the mistaking of “freedom” for “an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). And Peter knew of a “freedom” used as “a pretext for evil” (1 Pet. 2:16). And the writer of Second Peter knew of those who promised “freedom” but were “slaves of corruption,” whose “last state,” since they did this in the name of Christ, was “worse … than the first” (2 Pet. 2:19, 20).
The only true path to personal “freedom” is in “slavery” to Jesus Christ. In personal ethical decision the true “case in hand” is that both we and the situations we face are in thrall to the demonic. We can be liberated only by Him who has conquered the demonic and is now Lord. He is the touchstone of ethical decision. As my colleague Dietrich Ritschl has written, “while contextual ethics seeks the criteria for ethics in the situations,” the better approach is to seek the criteria “in Him. He opens the eyes of those who seek and the ears of those who listen to the understanding of the situation” (Memory and Hope, p. 200).
Finally, in the struggle for freedom in the institutional church, or from the institutional church, do we not need to distinguish between the freedom with which Christ sets us free, and the freedom which is often a mere form of self-assertion? Here again it would seem to be an over-simplification to identify the demonic with institutions per se, and freedom with emancipation from institutional involvement. Freedom in the secular world is often defined as having autonomous authority over one’s own actions, but no authority over others. A seventeen-year-old senior in high school proposed: “We don’t want to take over the government. We want to destroy it. I believe people should have power over their own lives, but not over other people’s lives” (The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, N. C., October 7, 1968, p. 9A). Such a view would mean the end of all institutional life, which would destroy all continuity with the past and produce chaos. Politically, of course, men cannot live permanently in chaos. History indicates that valuable though justice is (and how could there be any justice without institutions?), men can live without justice, but they cannot live without order. And unfortunately there is always a Hitler or a Wallace waiting in the wings to impose order on chaos!
But quite apart from politics, there are those whose conception of freedom in the church is escape from all forms of institutional life. One such proposal was made in Life magazine, where a proponent of this view says: “We share faith, not a faith, and we commune together to share the pain and the rejection you always receive from the establishment when you try to really do something.… We’ll look up one day and find there’s a whole worldwide church, with unquestioned open communion, which never sets foot in anything called a ‘church’ ” (Life, October 4, 1968, p. 84).
The weakness here is the superficiality of the view from the standpoint of the New Testament. The idea that demonic thralldom inheres only in the “establishment” but that enlightened and dedicated individuals who share practical dreams of eliminating many of the effects of sin from historic man are “free” because they have broken with the establishment, is hardly borne out by the New Testament. The churches at Rome and at Corinth both had institutional defects, and had members who sought to bend the institution to their own view of things at any cost, thinking that freedom lay either in molding the church to their views or in abandoning it. Paul saw clearly that their protest could be as demonic as the things they were protesting.
The question of the value of institutions and protests against them is to be solved at the deep level where Christ sets men free. The question is: Does the functioning of the institution represent corporate acknowledgment of God and his praise and his wisdom, or corporate human glorification, pride, and self-deceit? This same question must be raised in regard to protesters against the institution. Paul’s word to both was: “We … ought … not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). This means that we “no more pass judgment on one another but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13), that we “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). True freedom from the demonic in the institutional life of the Church is to be found, not in screaming epithets at each other or in passing “judgment” or “despising” our brother (Rom. 14:10) (practices that are far too common in church assemblies and in church publications today), but in mutual acknowledgment that “each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
Nor does freedom lie in abandoning the institution with an air of superiority and condescension, rejoicing at the privilege of weakening it more; rather, freedom is found in seeing to it that in our corporate struggle to find the will of Christ, we “give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:27). If “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), we shall not go far wrong in loving her ourselves. Even if the Church should go down, we would do well, as did Jeremiah, to invest in her future. Paul insisted that it was “through the church” that “the manifold wisdom of God” was to “be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). And this church was no “ideal” or “authentic” church dreamed up by someone dissatisfied with the church that was. It was the concrete, historical reality seen in the poor, weak, struggling, quarreling, sinning churches of Rome, Corinth, Colossae, Laodicea, Thessalonica, and so on. It is in the fellowship of the saints that we discover, in forgiveness and hope, who we are, what our past is, what our present task is, and what our future is.
I conclude with some words of a letter from one of the outstanding Shakespeare scholars in this country, Professor Roland Frye of the University of Pennsylvania:
I am … much concerned about the present state of the church, which seems so often to be unable to speak the authentic and classical Christian doctrines with force and conviction. There are many reasons to feel that the present temper of the world is quite open to the ancient Christian beliefs, and yet, so few theologians are able or willing to present these. The prophetic and social ministry are terribly important, and I am sure that you are aware of my convictions of that importance, yet I often fear that prophetic social comments are about all that the present generation of theologians and clergymen seem able to deliver. It is important, but it is not enough. The sociologists can do as much.
In our search for a theology of evangelism, let us continue to join forces with those who oppose injustice and racism and who seek to improve the lot of man on earth. But let us at the same time continue “to speak the authentic and classical Christian doctrines with force and conviction.” Only thus may we be genuinely and abidingly relevant.
from the blood sun
run red with expectation
i have come to watch
no ritualistic plastic
pressed high and heavily
crossed in the sky
where my eye is
and wind is
where he hangs,
the essence gone
by the voice of the people,
how silently he answered
and pebbles that shook
in the wanton night
should cry out
and declare him
i am on the edge
i touch his face
for i have seen him
but not as i
who have waited
D. R. UNRUH
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