Christian liberty has gotten a bad rap. These days, it’s almost inseparable from a discussion about alcohol. For that reason, some only consider the doctrine of Christian liberty to figure out how much they can get away with. That or it gets co-opted into efforts to prove how cool Christianity really is.
But before it is freedom to something, our freedom in Christ is an assertion of our freedom from something. Christ’s people are free to eat shrimp cocktail, pork rinds or chicken feet fundamentally because they are free from the Law. Our freedom in Christ is freedom from the commands or requirements of anyone other than our Lord, because he has fulfilled the Law on our behalf, having lived the perfect life we could not. No one can legitimately impose any requirements on us as Christians other than those Jesus Christ himself has for us as his people.
LIFE IN THE CHURCH
How does that relate to the church?
Pastor, do you require any particular behavior or lifestyle of your church members that Jesus does not? Are there things that someone must do in order to be a member in good standing of your church that they do not have to do in order to be a Christian in good standing?
Remember what Paul said to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free: Stand firm therefore and do no submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Paul was addressing the false teaching that Christians should be circumcised. The Galatian believers seemed happy to adopt this standard (see Gal. 1:6). Paul, however, saw it as another gospel―not because it denied anything about Jesus’ person, but because it denied the sufficiency of the gospel. If circumcision was something Christians needed to be saved, then Christ’s atonement was in some sense deficient.
Certainly there are extra-biblical things you will require because it’s a necessary consequence of biblical fidelity. There are also things like affirming a statement of faith or taking a membership class that you should probably require for the sake of unity as a particular church, in order to teach what obedience to the biblical command to church membership looks like. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about requiring the many good things that can serve to mature or encourage a saint, but are not necessary in order to live faithfully as a Christian.
You probably don’t struggle with whether or not to re-impose the Levitical code on your people, but could there be more subtle ways you’re tempted to add things to the gospel? Maybe it’s requiring participation in small groups. Maybe it’s heavily pushing non-biblical means of devotion because of how it has served you in your own spiritual growth in such a way that it becomes an identity-marker of your church. Or maybe it’s just that book you feel like every Christian simply must read.
Pastor, guard your flock carefully. As you encourage useful tools, books or practices, work hard to ensure you only encourage and do not require. You may think that homeschooling is the most prudential way to instruct your children. But do not require that of your church members. Your entire theology may have been transformed by John Piper. But do not communicate to your people that they are second-class Christians for not having read him. You may be convinced a particular political party is the only one consistent with a Christian worldview. But don’t tell your congregation they must be Republicans to be faithful Christians.
Guard your corporate worship carefully so that it doesn’t become a breeding ground of Jesus-plus expectations. When our church gathers, we hear God’s Word read and preached, we pray, we sing biblically and doctrinally sound songs, and in their time we observe the ordinances. That sounds basic because it is. Biblically grounded simplicity is a wonderful way to defend the freedom in Christ that belongs to the sheep God has entrusted to your care.
There are times where we’re tempted to come up with new ways to help our people grow into maturity in the faith. But aside from problems of pragmatism, when we concede to that temptation, we’re subtly instructing people that the disciplines and freedoms Jesus has given through the New Testament are insufficient.
In so doing, we train our people to think they need to do more than Jesus asks of them in order to be saved.
I’m not saying non-biblical practices or books cannot be useful (that would be ironic in a non-biblical article!). I’ve been blessed, encouraged and strengthened in the faith by many things not explicitly required of me by the New Testament. But there is a world of difference between “helpful” and “necessary.” I’m certain you know that. Does your congregation know that you know that?
DEFEND THEIR LIBERTY
It’s good for you to be concerned about the health of the church God has entrusted to you. That’s what it means to be a shepherd. But always remember that you are an under-shepherd. Jesus is the one true Good Shepherd. You only work for him. So, as you lead his people through this life, use the means he has given you. In the first place, trusting that God Almighty knows better than you is just good wisdom. More significantly, though, recognize that your authority over the people the Lord has entrusted to you is always derivative of his authority over them.
In other words, be a faithful steward of what Jesus has given to you. Defend your people’s freedom in Christ with your life if necessary. But do not impinge on their freedom, even if you think it’s for their own good. That’s a sure way to break the backs of your sheep. Don’t weigh them down with a load far heavier than the easy yoke of Christ.
I don’t intend to make you feel guilty about how you lead your people. But I do hope you get just a glimpse of the treasure of our salvation through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, and resolve yourself to protect that precious treasure.
We trivialize the doctrine of Christian liberty when we focus on freedom to while neglecting the beauties of freedom from.
What does Christian liberty have to do with the life of the church? In short, virtually everything.
This article originally published at 9marks.org. Reprinted by permission.