“…proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants…” (Leviticus 25:10)
We are on the eve of Independence Day, a commemoration exalted by our founding fathers, although in our era less known for what it originally signified than for what it has become – a day off to relax, recreate and watch exploding fireworks.
Probably even the most historically ignorant among us could identify the day as having something to do with establishing independence from England, although how many of us could get the dates and particulars right is an open question.
Yours truly doesn’t write this today to scold the ignoramuses and the oblivious regarding our history. Rather, the purpose is to consider the true meaning of independence and how as a people we seem to get the concept not quite right.
In declaring independence from the British government in 1776, rebels in 13 American colonies proclaimed that they had a right, even a duty, to separate themselves from tyrannical overseers. More than one claimed God was on “our” side. But they took their cue from Thomas Jefferson, a man of questionable religious faith and certainly a man of dubious attachment to Christianity.
In words written by Jefferson, the American rebels declared that what they perceived as their God-given rights were being infringed upon by their government, and concluded that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
This is a given in American lore. It may be complicated by the fact that few, if any, references can be found today in which the colonial advocates of this idea or the other ringleaders of the rebellion invoked Romans 13.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:1–7)
Of course, the Bible is explicit in both its Testaments that while civil magistrates’ authority comes from God, that authority does not extend to commanding God’s people to commit evil or sinful acts. At a later date, I promise to return to a fuller discussion of what Christians should do when commanded by evil rulers. But as a quick guide let’s consider what the apostles Peter and John did.
“But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’.” (Acts 4:19–20)
Whether Christians are commanded, let alone justified, in rising up against evil rulers we will leave for that fuller discussion in the future. For now, let’s consider just the motivation expressed by signers of Jefferson’s declaration. They wanted to be free from rule by others, who they claimed were doing them wrong.
As a result, “liberty” was announced as the desired goal, and soon liberty was proclaimed throughout the colonies. Many might agree that “liberty” didn’t last all that long, especially considering how many ways the new domestic government has entangled every American in a web of do’s and don’ts, taxes and regulations, almost all of them against their will or without their consent.
But the concept of liberty, these days more often known by its synonym “freedom,” has stayed with us, whether we enjoy much of it or not.
As Christians, it’s worth stepping back from the rhetoric and examining exactly what it is that we claim freedom and liberty to be.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow and former senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., has written words worth considering on the subject.
“True Christian liberty, unlike the various ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ movements of the secular world, is not a matter of demanding the ‘rights’ we have,” Ferguson writes. “Dare one say that the American Founding Fathers, for all their wisdom, may have inadvertently triggered off a distortion of Christianity by speaking about our ‘rights’ to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The Christian realizes that before God he or she possesses no ‘rights’ by nature. In our sinfulness, we have forfeited all of our ‘rights’.”
How presumptuous of us to demand our “rights,” when as fallen sinners we are owed nothing except God’s wrath. How arrogant to insist that other men should be forced to grant us anything.
“Only when we recognize that we do not deserve our ‘rights’ can we properly exercise them as privileges,” continues Ferguson. “Sensitivity to others in the church, especially weaker others, depends on this sense of our own unworthiness. If we assume that we have liberties to be exercised at all costs, we become potentially lethal weapons in a fellowship, all too capable of destroying someone for whom Christ has died.”
Therefore, as Ferguson implies, when invoking our “rights” it is prudent to keep them in perspective. When we demand from others, we presume others’ have an obligation to deliver to us what we don’t deserve in the first place.
What liberty we may enjoy, we enjoy only by God’s grace. Not by entitlement.
Conversely, when we fail to extend grace to others, we presume to deny them what we would protest if they were to deny it to us.
“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none,” wrote reformer Martin Luther centuries ago. “A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
A promise is a promise. At a future date we’ll take up the rubber-meets-the-road application of Christian liberty when it comes to government authority. Honest.
Until then, enjoy your Independence Day, such as it is.
by MARK LANDSBAUM