Of Flags, Food, and Freedom

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:32, 36)

“For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord…But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life” (Romans 6:10-11, 22)

“For the commandments…are all summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ “ (Romans 13:9)

“Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (Romans 14:3)

“All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful to me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1)

“So speak and so act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2:12)

The past month has brought a forceful reminder to most of us how tenuous and easily forfeited liberty can be. It does not always evaporate all at once by the actions of a single individual. It is often over the passage of many years that the incremental loss of freedom is felt. However, recent developments have brought an unmistakable perception that events can also speed a contraction of liberty. Whether it be the actions of the Executive, as Katherine Schmidt reminds in Restoring Independence, the decisions of the Supreme Court in a single term, or even in the controversy over the Confederate flag, circumstances can usher freedom to the fringes very quickly. This is no more prevalent than the once universally respected liberty of conscience.

Scripture distinguishes opinions of conscience from matters on which God legislates, or stipulates His will. The questions over flags, food, and drink fall into the former while the nature and design of marriage resides decisively in the latter. It has been shrouded, often through a vague appeal to “love thy neighbor,” that questions on which God clearly speaks (such as marriage) are dismissed to the optional realm of opinion. At the same time, conflicts over flags and other matters are approached, even by Christians, as equally if not more important than what is happening to truth itself in the furor over flag meanings and parts of history that embarrass many today. It is useful to remember that even biblical history contains ample instances of very embarrassing and downright indefensible actions taken by otherwise exemplary people, from King David, who not only committed adultery but murdered the woman’s husband to cover what he had done, to Peter, who denied Christ three times.[1] We hardly consent to or stand complicit with their misdeeds because we acknowledge those wrongs exist. Does recognizing Peter’s cowardice make us cowardly? Somehow, we are unable to see the difference when it comes to individuals and the events in America’s more recent history. Does recognizing an otherwise brave and principled Confederate ancestor make us racist? Are we prepared to condemn Christian masters in the first century for an unforgivable sin? Or does Scripture not say that each is accountable for one’s own sin?[2]

Christians living today must suspend logic to feel guilty or otherwise responsible for the sins of centuries past. This overlooks the fact that a biblical worldview gradually led to a very public pressure to remove not only the trade in slaves but also the owning of such persons. For this to be accomplished against an institution practiced by every nation on earth since the beginning, it is skewing the very fabric of reality to still carry the burden of that guilt in perpetual atonement. We stand in danger of accepting the impossible notion that only perfect men and women deserve our regard and respect. Meanwhile, the only truly perfect Person in history, Jesus Christ, is hidden from public view, His words silenced, and His existence essentially denied. We have allowed an imbalanced perspective, alien to Scripture, to dictate a utopian version of human nature, entrenching a self-righteous refusal to even countenance a single violation to what is an otherwise unattainable code of conduct or face total extermination from all acknowledgement of existence. Do we really feel that it is up to our “spotless” generation to sit in judgment on all past sins? This twists the understanding of our nature and leads to the enthronement of mankind over the past and the future, rather than humbly deferring to God’s place as Judge.[3]

As we approach Independence Day, reflecting on the liberties we enjoy and grieve over those we have lost, we risk losing sight of that most important and unchangeable liberty we possess in Christ. That liberty is very personal and comprehensive. No government can ever take it away. It is ours as long as we walk humbly with and obediently toward our God. It is not merely a license to do as we wish but a law that empowers and makes us freer than any other law can. It makes us free indeed; a promise Christ Himself guarantees.[4] However, we can, like the liberties of America’s Constitution and our laws, give it away. Christians do this by allowing a persistent guilt for repented sins and forgivable debts to have permanent hold upon their lives. It comes to control every action, every decision, and every thought. Instead of Christ’s complete and full forgiveness, we refuse to let go of our past or feel a need to pay for sins He has already removed with prayerful penitence. We sin from time to time, but we are no longer sinners.[5] Having been conformed to His death, burial, and resurrection, we are dead to sin and alive to God.[6] We are a new creation in Christ.[7]

Instead of this new life in Christ, continuing to hold what we once were as if it were still an unpaid debt, living as the unregenerate man disregards what Christ’s sacrifice accomplished once for all. It wrongly presumes that we are somehow beyond Christ’s ability to rescue and redeem. We replace a soul that can never merit God’s salvation with one that through many acts of self-atonement finally attains worthiness and peace without Him. At its roots, this is the same utopian perfectibility in our generation that mandates cultural cleansing as the means to reach the “liberty” of looking at and living with itself. The fruits of fulfillment will forever elude those who seek self-esteem minus the value God holds for the soul or who seek happiness emptied of the abundant loving kindness and saving grace only He can supply.

As the biblical perspective points out, though, redemption, with all the peace and joy it holds, will forever elude those looking for it without God’s love. Rather than looking to be offended or constantly seek recompense for guilt (be it ours or someone else’s), we could be restoring biblical love to its proper meaning and significance. Romans 13:8-10 captures the relationship of law and love. Love, specifically agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay), as Scripture defines it, does not behave as some indulgent grandfather who looks the other way while the grandkids abscond with the cookie jar and proceed to get a stomach ache or rotten teeth. This is not love. As Paul writes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” encapsulates all the commands of the law by “doing no harm to one’s neighbor.” Condoning “alternative lifestyles” partakes not of love but of hatred for the souls who engage in it. It holds the eternal consequences of sin, any sin, as inconsequential and harmless. It confuses concern for one’s spiritual benefit with a perverted tolerance of sin.

In matters of opinion, like what we eat, what we can drink, or whether we fly a certain flag, the same love governs our liberty. The Greek word eleutheria (appearing 40 times in the New Testament as a noun, an adjective, and a verb) is translated “liberty,” “free” or “to liberate,” whether speaking spiritually or materially and even politically. The “weak in faith” can no more “judge” (krino, pronounced kree-no) the “strong” than the “strong” can “despise” (exoutheneo, pronounced ex-oo-thay-nay-o) the “weak.” In the heat of a discussion over questions on which God has not prohibited a practice, this can often be forgotten. As the controversy over both the Confederate and American flags illustrates, the biblical perspective expects something from both those who say, “I can’t do it” and those who say, “I can.” The burden is not only upon the offender but also the offended. Scripture is clear that we do not “rub it in” people’s faces, or fail to be at peace with all men, when it depends upon us.[8] Nevertheless, those who are offended are not allowed to condemn those who believe the flag is a good thing. Scripture encourages us not to stay “weak in faith,” as if that were a permanent condition, but to mature in our thinking and outlook.[9] God hardly wants us to remain weak. It is incumbent on both sides not to condemn a practice God has left to opinion. “For why is my liberty judged by another’s man’s conscience?” Paul asks.[10] What is otherwise good or harmless would only become an evil if it violates the conscience of another. It is not inherently bad. “All things are lawful,” Paul reminds us, “but not all things edify.”[11] Balancing these two principles, the biblical perspective urges that we have no place to shun brethren who honestly believe the flag symbolizes concepts of honor and courage having nothing to do with racism or bigotry. Those who believe it only means one thing – racism – must likewise be respected not insulted or antagonized. This is part of the liberty Christ gives us. “The Kingdom,” Paul observes, does not consist of these innocuous details.[12] The same consideration for the conscience of the unbeliever presides in these matters of opinion, where God has not spoken for or against one way or the other. “Whatever you do, do to the glory of God” not allowing what is good in your conscience to be spoken of as evil.[13] If this means taking the flag down from public display, that is walking according to that biblical love which seeks another’s welfare first.[14] It does not mean, however, as some would rush to charge, you are wrong in regard to the flag. It is but a small part of your liberty in Christ to hold the flag as good. That goodness remains intact to those who believe it to be so.[15]

However, in the overt public pressure on businesses, religious organizations, and individuals to agree with and support homosexuality, there can be no suspension of conscience. This is not subject to a mere difference of opinion. Even if it were (while Scripture clearly states it is not[16]), it would be incumbent upon the advocates of “marriage equality” to respect those “weak in faith,” and withhold the condescension and contempt they have for the consciences of those who disagree. Those passages that summon the Christian to be in subjection to government are hardly limitless carte blanches of government power. The government may attempt to demand conformity but when it contradicts the authority of Christ, “we must obey God rather than men.”[17] The Christian is no more bound by legislative act, executive order, or court decree on such a policy than the apostles were in the first century. We may be sued, we may lose tax exemptions as churches, we may be persecuted all the way to death, but our liberty in Christ and the sanctity of our conscience before God, are neither for sale nor voided by intimidation. This is perhaps the most empowering realization of our liberty in Christ before us at the present time.

Christ reminds us there are not many ways to this ultimate destination of real liberty, there is but one: through the Son.[18] We cannot continue to carry the weight Christ takes off our shoulders and still be His, alive to righteousness and dead to sin.[19] We are now salt and light in the Lord.[20] This fact alone may further discourage the reader that he or she is never going to dig out from the dark hole of worthlessness. God still asks each of us, “Is My arm too short that it cannot save?”[21] He calls us not because we can somehow measure up to His excellence but because He loves us and that love gives everything, even His own Son, to rescue us from ossifying guilt and its paralyzing, even deadly consequences. The entire globe is crying out for the Gospel of Christ. Are we to be found in a mire of regrets over who we were and despair over our seemingly unprecedented and insurmountable problems? How can we presume to deny not only that power to save our own souls but also the power to save every single person who comes to Him? We forget every last one of us is a broken, dysfunctional mess on our own. Having imbibed so much pop psychology, we forget that Christ stands at the door ready and able to transform us no matter how unfixable we feel we are.[22] Rather than expend so much lost energy on ourselves, we could be engaged in the Greatest Commission ever given to simple, earthen vessels such as we are: the speaking of Christ’s truth to a world desperately in need of it. Putting aside the vain pursuit of self-esteem, let us redeem the time fast slipping away.[23]

[1] 2 Samuel 11-12; Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27

[2] Ezekiel 18:19-32

[3] Romans 12:19ff; James 4:12

[4] John 8:31-36

[5] Romans 5:8ff

[6] Romans 6:3-23

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[8] Romans 12:18

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:20

[10] 1 Corinthians 10:29

[11] 1 Corinthians 10:23

[12] Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8

[13] 1 Corinthians 10:31

[14] Romans 13:8-10; 14:15

[15] Romans 14:22-23

[16] 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

[17] Acts 5:29

[18] John 14:6

[19] Romans 6:6ff; Colossians 3:9-11; 1 Peter 4:1-6

[20] Ephesians 5:8; Matthew 5:13-16

[21] Isaiah 59:1; Numbers 11:23

[22] Revelation 3:20

[23] Ephesians 5:1-17