This month: 190 - Legalism & Progressivism
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Legalists like certainty. Everything seems locked down tight. Everything is black and white.

Until it isn’t.

Because legalism tends to elevate minutia to the level of supreme importance it is often a matter of time that thinking people figure out that minutia is minutia. And that leads to the question of whether or not the other once sacred things are actually important?

This is what makes legalism an easy onramp to progressivism.

On the surface you might think the two were a million miles apart but in my experience legalism often leads to progressivism because of the way things are set up in legalism and how quickly things begin to unravel with little distinction between the important and the trivial because that is how legalism set things up in the first place.

I am no longer surprised when my former legalist friends toss the whole project. It makes sense they would do that. Legalism is progressivism’s best friend because legalism is a strong catalyst for progressive thinking.

If you are holding to an ideology that doesn’t bring you closer to God, then you need to rethink your ideology.

It is far too easy to make an idol out of our theology. Healthy theology will bring you closer to God. Unhealthy/unbalanced theology will fill you more with yourself. And that is true to the left and to the right.

Theology for theology’s sake does us little good. Being liberal or legalist for its own sake does us little good. Far too often a theological label becomes a symbol for something deeper – being a person who cares or a person who takes God more seriously than other people often in contradistinction or comparison with others.

It is important that we assess the heights to which we elevate theological labels and what we tell ourselves about the labels we adopt.

In the Bible idolatry almost always came from the outside. It came from the Egyptians. It came from the Canaanites. There are a few exceptions like Gideon’s ephod in Judges 8 but by and large even the idols that cropped up among the Israelites came from outside influence (golden calf of Exodus 32-34 for instance).

The same is true today – theological idolatry comes from the outside, and depending on which influences sway you most (your theological leaning will be determined) – modernism, post-modernism, post-post modernism, secular humanism, etc..

In the Bible, Idols serve various purposes and it is important that we tune into their purposes so we can identify if we are committing theological idolatry:

1 – Idols become a visible explanation of past success

We see this in Exodus 32 with the golden calf when it is the calf who was said to have brought them out of Egypt. Do we attribute our salvation with our methodology or theology rather than God?

2 – Idols blend secular and sacred, again coming from outside pagan influence

We see this when things like modernism or post-modernism upend our faith in one direction or the other. We don’t even know we are doing it – it is so natural to us to blend cultural biases with our faith. It is very hard NOT to do this! And it is a misnomer to think that the past is always better and more bias free than the present. We see this in the Bible in places like Isaiah 44 and Habakkuk 2 where idols are and wood to warm your food are cut from the same tree. It is a non-discerning blending of the secular and the sacred. The reality is BOTH pieces of wood are being used to fill your belly, not just the one you set on fire but also the one you worship.

3 – When you place anything above God in direct or indirect worship

People aren’t bowing down to wooden and golden idols in church so much but it can be done subtly. We must ask who and what we are putting before honoring God and being faithful to him. One of the things we see in these passages in the prophets and Judges 8:27 is that idolatry is spiritual adultery. We must be faithful to God in all things.

4 – Looking for an object for future hope.

We want to control our future but we cannot. So we do things to manipulate the outcome and often forget to seek God’s help in the process. Like an idol, that is spiritual magic and manipulation rather than faith. Again, see Judges 8. Maybe we seek a bigger budget rather than God’s daily provision in order to secure a vibrant congregational future?

5 – When you cling to visible representations of invisible things

This is a big sign of spiritual immaturity – people want Sunday to look just right. If the visible is out of line so must the invisible, the feeling goes – the bread must be set correctly, the giving baskets separate and apart – little discernment that your life is out of order 143 hours a week…it must look right! In some assemblies, removing an American flag would cause an uproar amongst some.

6 – And if you really want to tell if you are worshiping an idol take note of the 2nd commandment – do not worship or serve them, God said.

Take note of who you serve…who you put first and WHY. Do you serve the rich above the poor, take their advice over the other? Are you serving nationalism or Jesus? The purpose of the church is to worship and serve God. He never comes second. Second is idolatry. Pay attention!

In all things we must declare our fidelity to God and serve him only. We must be faithful and avoid the spiritual adultery that is idolatry!

If you would like to hear more thoughts on this, I encourage you to watch today’s video on the Wineskins YouTube channel!

These are musings and nothing more. I do not claim to have the answers.

It is no secret that not only Churches of Christ in America but churches across the board are losing people rapidly. The vast majority of CofCs are congregations of less than 100 people. But this reflects a trend in ALL Christian denominations. The question is why and what can we do about it.

I personally think this “crisis” has been going on throughout my entire lifetime. In 1973 Dr. Tom Olbricht wrote a short article in Mission Journal reflecting on this exodus by the (then) younger people. He wrote “It is no secret that a whole generation born between 1930 and 1950 has become Church of Christ drop-outs. Visit churches in St. Louis, in Houston, in Nashville and you won’t see them” (“Is there a Message?” Mission [June 1973], 357). In 1966 Robert Myers edited a volume titled Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism that reads as if discussing contemporary issues.

Since the late 1960s there has been a “brain drain” in Churches of Christ. Young people by the tens of thousands have given up on church. Some blame liberal universities but that is an easy scapegoat. That is not what they themselves tell us. (See Flavil R. Yeakley’s, Why They Left: Listening To Those Who Have Left the Churches of Christ).

From my own generation, Gen X, there is a huge demographic missing. I have often wondered why I too have not given up. In my case (and most I know) this has nothing whatsoever to do with not loving Jesus and not believing the Bible.

Those departing believed there was no difference between those insisting on taking the Lord’s Supper every week and the culture around them (typically of the South). We were a worldly and very cultural church. We were not becoming either but already were. We mirrored the racial prejudice so rampant and even sanctified it. We often seriously mixed our American nationalism. We were lost in a maze of irrelevancies (institutional controversy, premillennial controversy, instrumental music, versions, clapping, Acappella Vocal Band, etc, etc) with no word on how a Christian should handle segregation, the raging war questions, how address poverty. At the same time churches have often (far more often then we care to admit) been places where predators on women and children have found both protection and victims to traumatize.

In short church offered no word on how to be different beyond claiming dancing, having a beer, or listening to rock would send one to hell. We typically cannot tell the difference between being an American and being a Christian. Or wrapping the cross in the “Stars and Bars” or “Stars and Stripes.”

So they left.

Most did not leave Christianity as such but they did leave Churches of Christ because they felt there was no place for them here. Many have simply concluded that the church is morally bankrupt.

I had a person say the following words to me less than a month ago, “If you want to hear hate towards gays, divorcees, homeless folks, aliens, non-English speakers, unwed mothers, people who have had an abortion, and Muslims then just go to a church.” In my growing up years I could add “Baptists, Methodists, Catholics,” and from the 1990s on, I could add “non-denominational churches” (oh the irony indeed).

What has to happen? Some will say nothing needs to happen. Good riddance! But for those of us who believe something can and should be done, what is it?

First. it is going to take a miracle of grace. It is going to take a miracle of grace for us to be what we are supposed to be. The Holy Spirit must fill us and we must choose to keep in step with the Spirit.

Second. We need to embrace and proclaim in word and deed the Story of God that empowers the Mission of God in the whole canon of Scripture. This means (as I’ve written elsewhere):

  • We need to emphasize the life, death, burial & bodily resurrection of Jesus the King of the Jews afresh
  • We need to emphasize the life of the Spirit
  • We need to model prayer, including lament, in our lives and assemblies
  • We need to be people who live and die by the “Jesus Creed”
  • We need to model compassion to the disinherited, our churches need to be concerned about the sound doctrine of ministering to the poor as a kingdom requirement, that is we live like we believe in the other Trinity: widows, orphans and aliens are the measure of our orthodoxy
  • We need to have consistent engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures as an antidote to the idols of our age
  • We need to take the entire Story of God which exemplifies the Mission of God seriously and paradigmatically
  • We need to finally believe in the priesthood of all believers and the giftedness of the saints, including women
  • We need to recover the spirit of non-sectarian Christianity and the doctrine of unity in our churches
  • We need to show how the theme of creation and redemption in Scripture addresses many of the pressing issues of our time from consumerism to racism to creation care
  • We need to recover the transnational vision of the kingdom, it is not American
  • We need deep emphasis on the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of God’s glorious new creation in the Jewish Messiah
  • We need to be a place where singles, single mothers, single dads, and the divorced are not merely tolerated but welcomed as full and valuable citizens of the kingdom
  • We need to be a place of safety and healing, a haven, for those who have suffered trauma from sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuse
  • We need to refocus the marks of the church on the marks of the cross, specifically in discipleship
  • We need to approach the world around from a posture of humility and genuine love, may the world know what we are for more than what we are against
  • We need to recover the truth of Jesus’s words that it is by love that the world will know we are Christians and that love is the litmus test of Christianity.

Third. We need to repudiate the notion that we are righteous, that we have it all figured out, and that we have infallible access to truth or that we have already determined the truth perfectly.

“No one is righteous, no not one!”

I do not see an exception clause to this in Scripture in either Testament. Old “sectarian” CofCs need grace. “Progressive” CofCs need grace. We all need grace.

When I/we confess our sin before the Father we know we are sinners and simply say “have mercy upon us.” When we know we are sinners and our best efforts are but filthy rags, we approach others from the basis of having been graced in order to give grace.

It just may be that Jesus’s words in Matthew 23 are directed not to scribes and Pharisees but to Evangelical and Restoration churches.

Grace is not “easy believism.” Grace is the great equalizer.

Just some thoughts on Manic Monday.

God’s Time

The Lord’s Supper. An important dimension to the Supper is eschatology. We might imagine eschatology as end time scenarios for the demise of world but that is only a small dimension. Perhaps we get a better insight into what eschatology is if we think of it as when God’s time washes over our time. When God’s time and our time connect the direction is backward to the past as well as forward to the future.

Festivals of Grace and Eschatology (God’s Time)

Israel’s worship, especially the sacrifices have this time machine (eschatology) quality to them. That is, they connect the present living generation with the “gospel” event from the past. For example, during the Passover meal we hear the question, “What do these mean?” The answer to that profound question is:

WE were slaves in Egypt but the LORD …”

“When the Egyptians treated US harshly …”

“WE cried out.

These answers come from the Exodus story itself. The Passover was God’s answer to Israel’s cry in the past and the present and God’s promise of the future.

Over and over, the living generation is connected with the past act of Yahweh’s grace through the festivals. All Israel’s festivals centered on the sacrificial meal, that is a supper with the Lord. The Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, even Purim, instituted by Esther’s authority, centers around the table and eating with God.

Thus, the Passover Haggadah states, “in every generation, each human must see himself as personally coming out of Egypt.” Through the meal we are the Passover generation. We are the ones coming out of the land of slavery, into life, freedom and forgiveness. Suddenly, at the table we are escaping with our very lives from the kingdom of death (Egypt) by the Lord of grace.

Psalm 116, God’s Time and Table

At the table we have entered God’s time of salvation and have koinonia with the Messiah and we have fellowship with all those being rescued. All those in the past, all those in the present, and all those who ever shall be rescued.

Remembering, in a Hebraic worldview, is far more than an intellectual recollection of the past. Remembering it is a reliving of the powerful God moment of redemption. The Passover becomes something like virtual reality.

Psalm 116 was used in the Passover liturgy long before Jesus was born. It was connected with the Passover because of this very Hebraic notion of God’s time. When Jesus sang Psalm 116 he was not only joining his fellow Jews at the table who also sang it, but he is identifying with all who have gone before, all who gathered presently, and all whoever shall gather. The Psalm says we were slaves, we were afflicted, God heard our cry. The Passover was God’s answer to the cry. Hear these words as they connect both to Jesus and all humans.

I love the LORD because he has heard me … (v.1)

“The snares of death encompassed me
[v. 3, read Ex 2.23-24] …”

“I called on the name of the LORD, ‘O LORD save my life’
…” (v.4)

In the Gospels, we read that great anguish came over Jesus after the meal. the meal that placed him in communion with all who had suffered before the threat of death at the hands of Pharaoh.

When we sit at the Supper, we too join not only those leaving Egypt but find ourselves with Jesus as if we have been taken in God’s time machine to walk with him, eat with him … and even die with him.

But the Passover is a time of Joy because it points to God’s victory. Passover preaches not God’s defeat but Yahweh’s victory over the agent of death, Pharaoh in all his manifestations. It points to God’s gracious response to our prayers. So, Psalm 116 has a middle “chorus” that all God’s children sing, from Egypt to the New Heavens and New Earth.

Gracious is the LORD,
and righteous
our God is merciful
[a loose paraphrase of Ex 34.6].

The LORD protects the simple;
When I was brought low,
he saved me …”

This is the supreme confidence of biblical faith. We know we have been set free because we are part of the Exodus generation. But as Jesus is singing this song at the table, and on the way to the Garden with his disciples, it is also a statement of future faith. Because we share in the table, we know that the kingdom of death has been defeated. God has saved our life, now and forever more.

Saved Life, Future Life

This is not merely a matter of going to heaven when we die. When Jesus prayed this prayer with and in fellowship with his disciples at the table, he is pointing to the future in the faith that God will raise him from the dead. God has heard his prayer.

For you have delivered ME from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.
I kept my faith even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’”

Jesus is living the Story.

The table is eschatology linking us to the past and the future. And we join our Messiah as we proclaim his death “until he comes.” Our Messiah is not a dead one.

But we live in the present. Jesus and the disciples, with the Israelites of old, sang “I am greatly afflicted” “Everyone is a liar.” We all know this sad truth from “personal experience.” Even those who sit at the table sadly, at times, share in the lies of the Evil One.

The Psalm assumes our participation in a future meal with God and his people. We lift up the

cup of salvation” (v.13)


offer a thanksgiving offering” (v.17)

and we do this

in the presence of God’s people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD” (v.15).

Microcosm of the Whole Story

The movement of the Psalm follows the movement of God’s time at the table.

Our union with those leaving Egypt. (Past)
Our present agony as we live in a faithless world. (Present)
Our standing in the presence of God joyously feasting because even now God has delivered us. (Future).

At the table we are bound to the past. At the table we have communion with Jesus in the struggle for faith. At the table we are escorted into the very presence of God. The book of Revelation ends with that promise. We are seated at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, our tears are washed away by the God who hears our cries, and God makes his home with us.

What “happens” at the table is a microcosm of the entire Story of God. Those who feast at this table share with those in the past, share in the present, and share in the future.

We are in God’s time at the table.

Choose one of each:  Alabama or Auburn.  Anti-Vax or Pro-Vax.  King James or NIV.  Republican or Democrat.  Liberal or Conservative. 

Personally one of the most difficult times in my life was when, in college, I was hired by a known “liberal congregation” as a campus ministry intern.  My history as an ultra-conservative-right-winged-speak-where-the-bible-speaks-and-stay-silent-where-the-bible-is-silent-church-of-christ-christian had been well known among my peers.  My friends had begun to sense that my allegiances to that side were changing, but the hiring made it official and those once very loyal friends began to tease me about going to hell, have late night heated debate sessions in my dorm room, or write me off altogether as a former friend.

This wasn’t anything new.  One could give different options in the first century.  Choose one of each:  Jew or Gentile.  Circumcision Group or Un-circumcision Group (Gal. 2:11-14).  Worship on this mountain or Jerusalem (Jn. 4:20).

What is it that continuously seeks to divide people from each other?  It certainly isn’t the way of Jesus.  At least not to the extent in which our own tribe (Churches of Christ) has continued to behave towards one another.  One might respond, “Well then, what about Jesus’ own words?”  Luke plainly states in Jesus’ own words, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-51 NIV).  One might also reference another passage in Luke where Simeon prophesies about Jesus, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…” (Luke 2:34).  At first glance this doesn’t seem to be the peaceful Jesus that scripture portrays.  I remember at one point in my life believing that these verses reaffirmed my legalistic viewpoints.  That was until I learned about prophetic tradition.  This tradition used by the prophets of old inserted itself in environments that called for an end to injustices, wrongdoings and cautioned against going in the wrong direction.  Therefore, these words of Jesus and the prophet Simeon speak more to the mission of Jesus than they do to a spirit of division.

Under the headship of King Jesus the church, regardless of doctrinal disagreements, ought to be able to unite for kingdom work.  I have always been deeply saddened by division within our own tribe even more-so than I am about division across denominational lines.  While I understand that these divisions will never fully be resolved until the return of Christ, I would strongly suggest we take Paul’s words to the Philippian church to heart.  “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  (Php. 2:12-13).  The “good purpose” speaks to the prophetic nature we discussed earlier – living out the type of kingdom life that seeks to stamp out injustices against the poor, the weak, the widows and the orphans, but that is not all.  Surrounding the entire passage is perhaps the greatest teaching on the type of spirit that Christ not only showcased, but one that Paul is mandating.  The spirit of humility.  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Php. 2:1-4).

As I’ve ministered through the years I’ve been heartened by the fact that many of my friends have been set free from the bonds of legalism.  I’ve often asked them, what happened?  Their answers have been about the same.  We found ourselves robbed of the joys of belonging to Christ, or they could no longer live under the yoke of perfectionism mandated by their local body of believers.  Since then, they had been ostracized by their home church and in many cases their own family members.  This is not the spirit of Christ.  This is not the division he said he was coming to bring.  Regardless of who we are and where we’ve been let’s all make an effort to return to the very scriptures we know so well and study them again and again through the eyes of someone who doesn’t seek to be reminded they are right, but to be transformed into the very image of Jesus.  (2 Cor. 3:18).

In the month of October we will be talking about two sides of a theological continuum…or are they? In some senses they appear to be quite opposite but in one sense they are really different expressions of the same underlying philosophy. The commonalities and differences of the two will be discussed this month. I am looking forward to the conversation and your comments both here on the website and on Facebook!

I was on a retreat a few weeks ago, out on a run…when I crested a hill and saw this sign saying “Free”…

I know this looks photoshopped but it isn’t…I stopped and took this picture. I thought to myself the people here on the lake must really love their freedom! After all, they live in the middle of no where, in rural Alabama…I began to surmise all sorts of things about them from their political ideology to their living in a remote location away from the hustle and bustle of town…I thought I had them figured out when I got a bit closer and saw the context of the sign…

It wasn’t about a political or social ideology…they were just giving stuff away! I literally laughed out loud! I laughed until I stopped to take this second picture. All of the thoughts I had were completely made up…the caricature I had created in my mind was completely fabricated…now, all of those things could have been absolutely true but the sign didn’t tell me that. Who knows.

Paul wrote these words in Galatians 5 to people who were falling into temptations of the flesh and attacking others who didn’t quite see things the same way,

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

We have a choice to make every single day – to walk by the Spirit or walk by the flesh. The first brings freedom and the second brings death. When we choose to make up things about people we are firmly in the realm of the flesh. Since we have been set free by God let us that freedom in a way that truly blesses others. Let us use that freedom in a way that doesn’t assume anything about people…or at least if we are going to assume that it be positive assumptions of goodwill and charity.

One thing I suggest is that before you make a comment (either in person or online) think through what you are going to say and take note of which things are things you know for sure and which things are conjecture. Then make a distinction in what you are saying between the two. If you find conjecture, turn your declaratives into interrogatives. You will find the conversation will go much more smoothly in most cases because the other person isn’t being forced into a caricature but is free to have and express their view and be heard. Even if you disagree with them, we at least owe people that much.

Thank God we are free! Now let’s live like it.

Have it Your Way

If you want to understand the way our country views freedom, go to Burger King. For around forty years, Burger King’s official motto was “Have it Your Way.” Sure, you could technically order something right off the menu, but because Burger King wanted you to feel like like royalty (paper crown and all), they encouraged everyone to make whatever kind of crazy customizations their heart’s desired. You are the king (or queen), so you decide. Pickles in your ice cream? French fries on your burger? Coming right up!

I can’t know this for sure (at least, not without a heavily modified Delorean), but I bet Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our founding fathers would have loved Burger King. After all, they’re the ones who called “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” God-given, unalienable rights. And what is liberty or the pursuit of happiness if not the ability to order well-done fries with mayo and chicken nuggets on top (as gross as that may be)?

We don’t really have to guess what Jefferson meant by “liberty” (or freedom) when he wrote those words in the Declaration of Independence. In other writings, he defined it this way: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” 

Many of us view freedom from this perspective: the ability to wear the crown and decide what to do for ourselves, without any obstruction or coercion from others (“unobstructed action according to our will”). Freedom, so it goes, is the absence of a master. 

Not My Will But Yours Be Done

But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to understand that the Bible gives us a fundamentally different way of thinking about freedom. And more to the point—Biblical freedom is largely incompatible with the American version that’s enshrined in our founding documents. After all, we can already sense the tension when we consider that Jefferson’s version of freedom teaches us to live “according to our will,” but Jesus prays in the garden “not my will but yours be done.” 

Here’s the main point: Biblical freedom isn’t about the absence of a master, it’s about following the one and only master who truly cares for us. 

The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus comes to give us life to the full (John 10:10). While others lay a heavy burden on their followers, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). At the same time, Jesus is the Shepherd that we (his sheep) are to follow, and there is a burden that we bear as his followers. It’s that we follow a Good Shepherd with a light burden. So it’s not the absence of a master that determines a person’s freedom, it’s the kind of master they choose to follow.

After all, the assumption in the Bible is that everyone will have a master of some kind, so the possibility that we get to be our own master (as alluring as that sounds) just isn’t part of the Biblical equation. 

What Does the Bible Say About Our Masters?

In John 8:34, Jesus says “very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” In passages like Romans 6 and Galatians 4, Paul develops the idea that everyone is a slave to something, whether it’s a slavery to sin (which leads to death) or a slavery to God (which leads to righteousness). Absent from the Bible’s theology of freedom is any sort of option where the Christian is free to put the crown on their own head and be their own master. Sorry Burger King, but Christians can’t always “have it their way.”

So if everyone has a master, how can anyone be free? It doesn’t make sense if you bring the American view of freedom into the Christian faith, but it makes perfect sense of you let the Bible’s definition of faith reshape your thinking. Consider these words from 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”

Disciples of Jesus are called to live as free people while simultaneously living as God’s slaves. How can you be free and a slave at the same time? Is that not a contradiction? Only when you consider freedom as the absence of a master. But in the Biblical framework, this passage makes perfect sense, because no one is free until they become a slave to God.

Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin, so that we can be free to willingly submit ourselves as slaves to God. When we become slaves to God, we experience the freedom that comes from following a master who laid down his life to give us eternal life. No other master has our best interest in mind, no other master formed us in the womb, no other master laid down his life for us. And the only way to become a slave to God is by being rescued from our slavery to sin by Jesus himself. As Jesus says in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Concluding Thoughts

And this all means we need to rethink our view of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of a master, it’s choosing the right one: Jesus.

John Adams once said, “You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.” The same can be said about the heavy price Jesus paid to purchase our freedom. Our freedom has been bought at the high price of God’s one and only son, who willingly died on the cross to set us from from our slavery to sin, so that we might be free to follow Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Let’s not throw away that freedom by trying to put the crown on our own head. 

Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “man is condemned to be free.”

Really? Are people really condemned to be free? Perhaps so. Or perhaps it depends on the person that people follow.

Jesus once said, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32, KJV). Although this quote from Jesus is often cited in legal contexts, such as an inscription on the walls of a courthouse, the freedom Jesus speaks of seems to be a blessing. 

Of course, freedom, as commonly understood in America, is highly valued as a God-given individual right of liberty. As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So from an American perspective, every person is free to do as they please, to speak freely without any restrictions as to religion, politics, the press, and even the right to assemble. The only caveat is when the exercise of freedom by one person causes harm to another but other than that, freedom in America means individual autonomy to do as one pleases.

Many Christians also seem to assume that there is a certain kind of liberty in Christ. To speak of “freedom in Christ” as the apostle Paul does in Galatians 5 often seems understood as freedom from traditions and legalistic practices of the Christian faith.

But I wonder if people really understand what freedom is or what it means to be free.

The Source of Freedom

When Sartre spoke of people being condemned to be free, he did so as an atheist and believed that existence proceeds essence. In other words, people are created as physical beings but who they are is yet to be determined and must be decided by them. “Man,” according to Sarte, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”1 Why so? Because there is not any God whose image people bear by virtue of their creation (divine nature) and with whom they are to have a relationship. So the essence of who people will become is entirely up to them. Such freedom is condemnation because even though people did not create themselves, they still possess the liberty to determine for themselves and bear the responsibility for this liberty.2

Well, I agree with Sartre insofar as if the way people conceive of freedom is their own liberty, as is the case of most Americans, then condemned they are. For Christians though, who take the Bible seriously, the story or narrative told within scripture compels us to think differently about freedom. That’s because the story that Christians are living, as it is told within scripture, begins with God and culminates in the kingdom of God.

Christians believe that all people are created equally in the image of God and so something of human nature or essence proceeds existence. Although it seems too much to make a claim of determinism and say that the entirety of human existence is decided by God before creation, bearing the divine image does make a claim about the purpose of life for people. When we turn to the story of creation in Genesis, we discover that bearing the divine image of God also comes with receiving dominion over the rest of creation. That is, God created people to serve as participants in his temple (the earth) by caring for the rest of creation in a benevolent manner, reflecting the image of God. 

As the story is told, there are two trees placed among the garden where Adam and Eve dwell. One is the tree of life, of which the man and woman are free to eat, and the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for which the couple is forbidden to eat from. Both trees are obviously symbolic of what is only God’s to give, which is life and the ability to discern good and evil or right and wrong.3 Unfortunately, Adam and Eve choose to eat from the forbidden tree which turns out to be catastrophic as human existence just devolves into a cosmic death characterized by evil.

Instead of living under the sovereign rule of God and allowing him to determine what is right and wrong, Adam and Eve wanted to make such determinations themselves. They chose independence from God instead of dependence upon God. As with all of humanity, Adam and Eve sought the independence to determine for themselves what is good and evil, and in some sense, freedom is what they got but it came with a price too. The independence sought by eating the forbidden tree didn’t actually result in knowing the difference between good and evil. That is because knowing what is good and evil belongs to God alone and is something that can never be fully achieved independent of God. Apart from God, humans choose evil and history bears witness to what that looks like.

The Gospel and Freedom, or Tryanny

Fortunately, God has never given up and left humanity to the fate of cosmic death. Instead, God has a redemptive plan of reconciliation and restoration that will be accomplished in the sending of his Son, Jesus the Messiah. This is the good news or gospel.

For Jesus, the gospel is the declaration that the kingdom of God has appeared, and with that comes a call to repentance and faith (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus is summoning people to live under the reign or rule of God once again because that is what a kingdom is — a king ruling over his servants. So with this invitational summons is the call to follow Jesus, which literally means to come behind Jesus and learn from him how to live as subjects of God’s kingdom.

People living under the kingdom reign of God is what Jesus understands freedom to be. In coming back to the words of Jesus about the truth setting us free, the context makes this clear. Following a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees about his identity, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32, NRSV). Freedom is, for Jesus, to know the truth and that is only possible by continuing in his word. Note then that there is nothing in what Jesus says about freedom as individual autonomy to do as one determines for oneself. Rather, freedom is to live once again the life which God created people to live. 

True freedom then is living as participants in the kingdom of God as followers of King Jesus. Such participation is what it truly means to be free in Christ. This is is why in Galatians 5, where the apostle Paul speaks about freedom in Christ, he also speaks of living by the Spirit. What a contrast between the concept of freedom articulated in scripture and the concept of freedom held by most Americans.

Freedom, as it is understood in the western sense and as practiced in America, is individual autonomy. The American idea of freedom emerged from the Enlightenment, with its human-centric view that replaced God with reason as the source of knowledge. The goal of this western concept of freedom becomes the removal of any object that hinders the good(s) of human desire but in doing so it makes the idea of freedom itself the object of desire.4 In other words, the idea of freedom that most Americans hold to be true is actually just another form of tyranny itself, as it enslaves humanity to a desire that can never be fully reached.

The struggle with freedom as tyranny is played out daily among social media and the so-called culture wars. What is worse, is that many Christians are caught up in this struggle too (I too have found myself entangled in this struggle). Over the last year or so this struggle has become visible every time a Christian insists that their individual rights outweigh the well-being of others.5 Hence the protest of wearing masks in public and other social-distancing measures aimed to mitigate the threat of Covid-19.

If individual autonomy is the freedom that people seek, then the words of Sartre about people being condemned to freedom are very prophetic. And sadly so, I might add.

True Freedom: Submission to King Jesus

So here is my parting thought as a pastor writing to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity as Christians was originally given as sort of an insult because of our association with Jesus Christ. 

Not a problem, as we shall gladly wear the name Christ or be labeled a Christian. But let’s remember, and dare I suggest, recover what that means. 

As Christians who take the Bible seriously, the cross or crucifixion of Jesus Christ is very central to our faith. It’s not the only aspect central to our faith, as the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus matter too but there isn’t any resurrection and exaltation without the crucifixion first. So the cross of Jesus absolutely matters but as N.T. Wright so eloquently says, the cross matters “…so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right.”6

Believing that God is putting the world to right means abandoning the false notion of individual autonomy to do whatever one damm well pleases. Instead, to be made right by God is to live in submission to King Jesus as his followers and thereby participate in the kingdom of God. Found only in Christ, this righteousness is what true freedom entails and the world around us will never know of such freedom until they see a church that embodies such freedom.

May the church of Jesus Christ in America live by the Spirit in submission to her King as participants in the one and only kingdom of God! 


  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Man Is Condemned to be Free,” from the lecture Existentialism Is A Humanism, trans. Philip Mariet, 1946, 1948, available at (last accessed on Wednesday, September 15, 2021).
  2. Ibid.
  3. John H. Walton, The Lost World fo Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015, 124.
  4. Ron Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity: Embracing A God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture, Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013, 103-104.
  5. Here Christians would do well to reread Philippians 2:1-13 in which Paul holds up the example of Jesus Christ giving up his rights and becoming an obedient slave even to the point of death.
  6. N.T. Wright, The Day The Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, 22.

K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

This month I’d like to think about the various kinds of freedom we have. Having recently lost both my beloved mother and my husband of 47 years, the first devotion and poem pay homage to their freedom.

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.

~ Hebrews 6:17-20a

In Memoriam: A Saint Passes

Like a little bird breaking
From small confines
Into limitless light, shimmering sun;
Breathless, wings beating,
Blinded by light, impatient,
And then
the joy of
(waves of translucent luminance like foam on the
(and eternity stretching as far
as the untroubled sky)

A promise Jesus made, which is the hardest to understand, was His assurance in John 11:25. He was standing outside the tomb of His friend Lazarus, speaking to Martha who, though disappointed in Jesus’ delay, still had faith in Him. She’d accepted the fact of her brother’s death, and when Jesus assured her that Lazarus would rise again, she assumed He meant in the resurrection of the last day. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus responded. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus confronted all her beliefs. He had just told Martha, in essence, that she herself would not die, and then He asked her, “Do you believe this?” We can’t fault Martha—we have trouble believing this ourselves! But Christians don’t face death the way others do.

For a Christian, it goes like this: you get really sick, or in an accident, and suddenly you go from intense pain into eternal life. Death? It’s just a passageway.

But for the soul which will not bend to God, the pain of illness or the trauma of injury is followed by a permanent condition we call death. It is eternal separation from God.

Jesus doesn’t want this for anyone. He wants eternal communion and fellowship with us, and gave His own life to achieve that end.


We live by faith, not by sight.

~ 2 Corinthians 5:7

This thin thin wire
Sways in generous bulging arcs
From breeze to breeze
Like a child’s jumprope
Or the rippling undulations
Of a lustrous serpent
Moving through thick waters.

We are suspended under
This snakerope
And we are pulled along
By it. There is no escape:
The mountain floor beneath us
Is frighteningly distant.
The trees are miniature layered fans
And its boulders a pebbled mosaic.

A ridge rises before us.
Our eyes tells us there is no
Way over it, and yet
The cable passes through a crevice.

This, then, is faith:
We know we must follow where the cable has
Gone, and let our hearts
Finish the ride,
Finish the ride.

Biblical faith is based not upon what we can predict in the future, but what we can read about in the past.

It’s a risky business, trusting God in this dangerous way.

It means turning over the control knobs of our life, the steering wheels of our directions, to an unseen Guide.

Only by trusting Jesus—someone who’s been the route before—can we have any confidence that we are doing the right thing, for we surely cannot be doing the “safe” thing if we are to follow an unseen God to the death. 


Dr. Latayne C. Scott is the recipient of Pepperdine University’s Distinguished Christian Service Award for “Creative Christian Writing,” and is Trinity Southwest University’s Author in Residence. Her newest book is Talking with Teens about Sexuality: Critical Conversations about Social Media, Gender Identity, Same-Sex Attraction, Pornography, Purity, Dating, Etc. with Dr. Beth Robinson (Bethany Books.) The author of over two dozen published books, including Passion, Power, Proxy, Release (TSU Press) in which these poems appear, she lives and writes in New Mexico. She maintains several informational  websites, including and

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