Christian Attitudes to Freedom & Enslavement

address given to Leeds Concord Interfaith Fellowship, 27 April 2023

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2023. All rights reserved.

Thank you for asking me to give you my thoughts on the above. Clearly, one thing we need to consider is what we mean by freedom and enslavement. However, in addition to this we need to talk about how the Christian understands the person and meaning of Jesus Christ. There are different perspectives on this in different branches of Christianity and I come to it as a Free Church Protestant. The Scottish Christian theologian and biblical scholar, William Barclay, made the point that each of us has to find our own interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, one that has meaning for us and enables us to live life more fully.

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Galatia makes the claim “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery”. How do we interpret this? Freedom is a word that is used a lot today in different ways. It forms the rallying cry for all sorts of causes and movements. We hear about freedom movements in various civil wars and political conflicts. We hear of the freedom to work or not to work in industrial disputes. We hear about social freedoms such as the right to live one’s life without regard to conventional social restrictions, for example, in our relationships. We have the idea of freedom of speech and political thought; freedom to practice our religion and act in accordance with our beliefs and conscience. Economists talk about the free-market system and economic strategies based on choice and competition; and so we could go on.

Of course, these various uses of the word freedom embrace a wide range of concepts and ideals and some of the freedoms mentioned might well be regarded as spurious. Some freedoms create restrictions of their own. Some would argue, for example, that the freedom of the marketplace does not produce a fair distribution of wealth so that one person’s success restricts another person’s life and options. Freedom to choose one’s pleasures may well impoverish life as seen by the dependence of some people on the use of alcohol or the use of recreational drugs. And there is always a fine balance between freedom and responsibility. The right of an individual to act according to their own desires and even conscience has to be balanced against the responsibility to observe the rights and wishes of others. Freedom of action for one can impair the life and expectations of another in our personal lives and in our national life. There is no such thing as complete freedom of action and there is no such thing as an absolute right to choose. Freedom always carries with it a need for responsibility which inevitably curtails it to some extent. So, in the face of the various restrictions imposed by external things, our environment, our dependence on others and the society of which we are a part, the limitations of our personal circumstances and so forth, is the freedom of which Christians speak more about our relationship to God? This is not to say that this does not affect the way we relate to the world, but the Christian would claim it allows for a sense of peace and spiritual wholeness even in adverse circumstances.

To think about the subject of slavery, in the Oxford English Dictionary we find that one definition is that a slave is a person who is the legal property of another and who is bound by absolute obedience. Another definition is that a slave is someone who is a helpless victim of some dominating influence. To take this definition first, people’s lives are all too often ruled by something that is outside their control so that their choice and freedom are limited. The examples offered by the dictionary are a slave to drink or a slave to fashion and we have mentioned already the problems of addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling, but it is also true of all kinds of obsession which affect the way we think and live our lives, for example, the love of money, the pursuit of power, the desire for recognition. When external things come to dominate people lose control of their lives and they lose their freedom and dignity as human beings.

The idea that a slave is someone who is the property of another remains a feature of our modern world. This is most obvious in some of the poorer parts of the world where people, including
children, are made to work long hours in bad conditions for subsistence wages, the alternative being starvation, but it is also true in some ways in our own country. Many jobs may pay high wages, but employers expect their pound of flesh and people have to comply or lose their livelihood. Occasionally, it may mean doing or supporting things with which you disagree if you are not to lose your job. More often, I suspect, it means being asked to do more than the job reasonably requires or is entitled to expect, with the result that other areas of life lose out. The work becomes all-consuming and demanding to the exclusion of other things. All these things restrict our lives because choice is removed, and decisions are forced by something outside us with the result that life is impoverished, and our standing as human beings is reduced. Anything which reduces our freedom to choose, any compulsion which drives us to act in one way rather than another diminishes us.

The apostle Paul in his letter to the churches in Galatia gives two lists of behaviours. The first list, living according to our own desires, leads to things such as greed, jealousy, envy, lust, pride. This is listing not just our personal failings. More important, is the fact that each of the behaviours listed are ways of living that destroy relationships and community because they are centred around self rather than others. Such behaviours bind people in one way or another leading to strife and bitterness. As Paul says,

“If [rather than loving your neighbour] you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another”.

By contrast his second list tells us that when we live under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and show in our lives patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, then we reap the fruits of love, joy and peace. It is the Christian’s claim that we see this way of living in the life of Jesus Christ and that when we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and imitate the life of Jesus, we are choosing to do things that build up our community and deepen our relationships with each other. We have the freedom to choose how we live, but there are things we would not choose to do if we are followers of Jesus so in that sense, we become slaves to Christ.

Why does the Christian claim that there is something special about the person of Jesus that we should become slaves to Christ in this way? The Bible reminds us that no one has ever seen God. Our knowledge of God is not the sort of knowledge that we get by inspecting something, by looking at it and analysing it. It is not the sort of knowledge that is gained simply because you go and tell somebody about it or read a book about it. Our knowledge of God can only come through our experience of God. We know God because of what God does for us. For the people of Israel the faithfulness and love of God was something that they knew through what had been done for them in the covenant with Abraham, the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the journey to the promised land, the restoration from exile. Despite their waywardness as a people they perceived God to be someone who was faithful and patient, ready to forgive and start again. Knowledge of God is gained because it becomes visible in the stories of those who have been shaped by God. For the Christian our belief is that we get this knowledge through the life and person of Jesus.

There is a prohibition in the Bible against the making of physical images of God. God has no physical attributes, the principle being that we should not attempt to reduce or confine God. Rather than portraying God as a single image or idea, the Bible speaks to us of the mystery of God, ‘I am what I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’. The Bible speaks of God in various ways, each of which attempts to tell us something of God in terms that we can understand. So, we have God likened to light, fire, earthquake, a still small voice of calm, or to human images of king, warrior, judge, father, shepherd to name but some. All of these represent ways in which we try to come to terms with what we mean when we say God.

However, there is within the Bible a very important idea which the Christian believes has profound implications for the way in which we think not only of God but also for what it means to be human and for our understanding of Jesus.  The key text is Genesis 1:26-27:

'Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.'  (NRSV)

These verses tell us that human beings, men and women, are made in the image and likeness of God. The first point is that it is God who is creating the image, not man. The second is that the word image can have two rather different meanings. An image can represent something in the same way that perhaps a flag represents a nation or a logo an organisation, or a statue represents someone who is absent. On this reading human beings are put on earth to be the representatives of the transcendent God, a God who stands above and outside his creation. The other idea contained within the word image, which is very important to Christian belief, is that it is in some way a likeness, a picture, of what it represents. We are told that we are not just representatives of God but are in some way like God. The other thing the Bible tells us is that human beings are incomplete when seen in isolation from other human beings. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen: 2.18). God created human beings as a community. The interaction between man and woman tells us more about what it is to be human than either man humans we are relational beings and we believe that God the Creator is one who relates to and is concerned with his creation. This is one of the things we are claiming when we say that God is a god of love. As human beings the quality of our lives is seen in the kind of relationships we have with others and the world in which we live.

Our belief as Christians is that we see this perfected above all in the life of Jesus, the life of someone who was completely filled with and shaped by God. It is our captivation by the life of that particular human being that is at the heart of our faith, the life of someone who was selfless and self-giving, seeking only to be alongside those that he loved whatever the cost might be.

The early Christians believed that in the person of Jesus and in the love that he demonstrated in his life and death, they were seeing something of the nature of the God of love. The Christian scriptures tell us that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the God the Father and that those who know Jesus know the Father. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being’ while the letter to Colossians asserts that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God’.

The claim that is being made in passages such as these is that in the person of Jesus we see the perfect human image of the God of love. Jesus shows us what God is like and he also shows us what God wants us to be. Furthermore, Christian teaching tells us that just as Christ shows us God the father in his life so we, when we follow Jesus we become like Jesus and also begin to image God in our lives. Jesus by loving us draws us into communion with God so that we all become children of God and this is not something that happened only to the disciples that knew Jesus in Palestine but it is something that continues to happen through the work of the Holy Spirit. This Christian view of what it means to be a person made in the image God depends not on us as individuals but on our recognition as people worthy of love by Christ. This is something that includes not just the clever, the rich and the powerful but also those who have no power and influence.

Paul in Romans 13 tells us that we must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” which is a command not to put on a set of ideas but a life or a way of living. The epistle of John puts it like this, “As he is, so are we in this world”. What this is saying is that we can't really claim to understand God unless we make God part of our lives and to pretend that we can teach the world something about God if we have not ourselves conformed to the sort of life we see in Jesus is to deceive ourselves. Again, this is returning to the idea that we become slaves of Christ because to do this we need to give up our freedom. If we are to imitate the life of Christ then there are ways of living and behaving that are not open to the Christian. We must put on Christ like a garment to use another of Paul’s phrases and conform our lives to his example. Of course, we will often fail and the record of Christianity over the centuries has not been a good one, but we believe in a God of mercy whose forgiveness is already there if we chose to accept it.

Finally, we need to say something about hope. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the God of Israel revealed himself to the people of Israel by making promises, which opened up the future. This is told to us in the stories of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, the entry into the Promised Land, and subsequently, the rising again of the nation from periods of catastrophe when the moral standards of God were forgotten and had to be relearned as in the period of Exile into Babylon. The whole account is one of God’s constant presence with his people, renewing them, sustaining them and helping them to move forwards. The promises of God are something which open up the future and for the Christian this is something that we experience in the person of Jesus.

The Christian theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes the point that we must look towards and place our hope in the future for this is what makes our faith relevant and meaningful in our world. Human beings experience history as a process of constant change. This can be unsettling but it can also be invigorating because it is in the hope for better things that we find the energy and the determination to keep trying. This drive to change is not something that should be rejected or ignored, for we are called not to live in the past but to live in the future with all that that promises. Our faith is that truth lies in the future, and this enables us to change the present. As we do this, so we move towards the future promise of what God intends for us and for the world.

In terms of the Christian faith our hope lies in the resurrection of Jesus. The Christian scriptures tell us that the earthly Jesus died and was then raised to new life and to heavenly glory by God. Our Christian hope is that similarly, we will become part of a new creation; that our world with all its suffering and evil will be transformed.

To finish I would like to leave you with an illustration I came across recently which expresses it in terms of music. The composer is responsible for creating the music, but the musician has to get to know it and play it before it is experienced. A piece of music is unknown until someone plays it and the musician becomes one of the ways in which the music is presented to and becomes active in the world. As the musician learns to perform the music more perfectly so he or she learns more about the music itself. The musician gets to know the music and in playing it, the music is passed on to others. In order to know God we have to participate in the life of God. As individuals and as a Church we have to learn to play the music and in playing it we get to know more about it and in the way we play it we can show others what it means. Only be imitating Christ in the way we live can we show the world the truth about God.