EN article: The surprising problem of freedom

I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.

Most of us claim to want freedom. We don’t like being constrained. We want to do things our way, according to our preferences, how things suit us. We can get behind the concept of personal autonomy.

What we’re less happy about is when the autonomy granted to us is extended to others. Though we perhaps acknowledge the world would be a very boring place if we were all the same, there’s that little part of us that thinks – despite that – we’re basically right, the way we do things is best and so if everyone was a bit more like us the world would be a happier place. We are the arbiters of normal, moderate credible living and others are different shades of weird based on how closely the ape the way we do things.

A bit like that, good Evangelicals will insist that the Bible is their final authority in matters of faith and practice (it’s in our statements of faith and everything, so we must believe it!) But in reality, the way we feel things ought to be done, or our pragmatic conclusions about what is most appropriate, hold a lot of sway despite what the Bible may or may not say.

Let’s consider a few examples.

I have heard many an intemperate comment about those who don’t hold Sunday evening services. Now, don’t get me wrong, evening services can be great, helpful and all the rest. But the one thing they lack is a biblical mandate. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do them; it is just to say two services on a Sunday is not commanded in the Bible. But the comments I often hear are delivered as though to do otherwise is to openly disobey the Lord. As helpful and useful as evening services might be, as valuable as they may be for our church, we can’t bind that view onto others because it’s simply not mandated.

What about quiet times? Many Christians suggest there is nothing more important to your Christian growth than a daily quiet time. Let’s be honest, reading the Bible is great. I would be delighted if people in my church were excited by reading the Bible every morning. I just don’t think you will find that demanded in the Bible. Ironically, if we read our Bibles more carefully, we might be surprised that there is no command anywhere in scripture to read it! The reason is obvious enough: most people throughout church history couldn’t read. For most people, their engagement with the scriptures was in church community. They read the Bible together, dwelling on it and applying it to each other. The concept of private quiet times simply doesn’t exist in scripture. And yet freedom in this matter is hard to come by, good and helpful as the practice may be.

Finally, what about where we live in relation to our church? Received wisdom is that we all ought to – even must – live within walking distance of the church and encourage all our people to do the same. Whether it is the Anglican clergyman in his parish, the village chapel or the nonconformist wedded to ‘doing life’ in missional community, being geographically close to your church is deemed vital. And I think there is a case to be made for that with lots of potential benefits. It just so happens the Bible doesn’t say it anywhere. And yet, it is rarely mooted as something that may have benefits should you choose to do it but takes on an edge that nigh on mandates it.

Now, my point here is not to pick holes in any of those things. There are lots of reasons – some good, some less good – that we might choose to do any of them. My concern is when we raise what is not Biblical, no matter how helpful or beneficial we find it, to the level of what scripture itself demands of us. That is a problem.

If we were pressed on it, we know these things are not mandated. But our issue seems to be with gospel freedom. It’s almost as though we can’t bear the thought of somebody expressing their gospel freedom not to do what we have determined, apart from scripture, to be best. Perhaps we take it as a personal affront to our view of how things ought to be. Maybe we take it as a challenge to our right-thinking. It could be that we have unconsciously conflated what we think, based on tradition or the way things have always been, with what is stated plainly in scripture. Whatever the reason, we often object – not to what the Bible actually says – but more to what it doesn’t.

We so often have a surprising problem, not with what God demands, but with gospel freedom.