Called to Freedom
Galatians 5:1, 13-15
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones Royal Lane Baptist Church
4 July 2021
Hello friends. It has been sixteen years since I preached from this pulpit and eleven since I consecrated Barrett and Jackie’s wedding here. So it is good to be home today with you.
I bring you greetings from the First Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska, where I have pastored these last eleven years. And from your fellow Christians in the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ.
This being Independence Day, I have selected for my text one of Saint Paul’s great proclamations of freedom, found in the letter to the Christians in Galatia. Hear now the word of the Lord:
Galatians 5:1, 13-15
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
So, the congregation I pastor in Omaha, First Central Congregational, is the oldest Protestant congregation in Omaha and one of the oldest in the State of Nebraska. We were founded in 1856 by a small band of pioneers who imagined that someday Omaha would be a major city on key trade routes and that it needed the presence of good, faithful people. Those early founders, besides being boosters for the new territory, were also abolitionists, who came to ensure that when the territory voted on whether it would be slave or free, that they would vote for it to be a place of freedom. This pioneering, pilgrim, prophetic spirit has never left this old and venerable church.
And that congregation, because of its rich history, has an extensive archive. Occasionally I have a reason to look at the old ledge size membership books, which are kept in special boxes and you have to wear special white gloves when handling them. As a history geek, I’ve relished exploring those archives and learning more about my congregation, its ministers, and prominent lay people.
A few years ago I found the sermon that one of my predecessors, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes preached at First Central on Reformation Sunday, October 31, 1948 entitled, “Why We Are Protestants.” I’ve come to cherish that sermon and rely upon it to express some of the deep values of the congregation I serve, values I know Royal Lane shares as well.
According to Dr. Janes there are four key Protestant values—salvation is by individual faith and not mediated through the church, the significance of religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and the holiness of ordinary life. Of course, these four values hang closely together, but today, being Independence Day, I want to talk about religious liberty.
Religious liberty has become a controversial topic in our society. In recent years, various segments of conservative Christianity have begun to defend their discriminatory actions by claiming their religious freedom. Because of this, many younger people seem to view religious liberty as a problem, instead of a cherished value. All of this alarms me.
So, I think it is important for us to explore this topic. What is religious freedom and how should we as people of faith understand this current debate?
To begin answering that question, let me first return to that 1948 sermon by Dr. Harold Janes. This is his description of religious liberty as understood by our Protestant tradition:
[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth. Each group sees a part of the truth. “We know in part,” as Paul said. Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives. Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
This is a rich passage, and in order to better understand all these ideas, I want to return to the Epistle lesson for today, from Galatians, for it is also the passage that Dr. Janes quoted in his 1948 sermon. This passage comes as Paul is arguing for the freedom of grace as opposed to what he calls the slavery of the law. Followers of Jesus, according to Paul, do not need to be bound by obedience to the law because they live according to grace and love. We are free, not having to earn our salvation by work and effort. But our freedom is not license to do whatever we personally want. Our freedom is shaped by love, the kind of self-sacrificial love revealed in Jesus. The kind of love that respects and values our sisters and brothers.
The great Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, wrote:
Now Christianity is [a] true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbor as he does of himself. The Christian is the [person] who through the indwelling Spirit of Christ is so purged of self that he [or she] loves . . . neighbor as . . . self.
Barclay then picks up on Paul’s final statement:
In the end Paul adds a grim bit of advice. “Unless,” he says, “you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible and unlivable at all.” Selfishness in the end does not exalt a [person]; it destroys him.
As both Dr. Janes and William Barclay point out, our Christian tradition of liberty is rooted in the love of neighbor, the removal of selfishness, and humility about our own views. Liberty, then, is a form of love towards others that enables us to live together. This is the essential quality of religious freedom.
When the Pilgrim and Puritans, the spiritual ancestors of my current denomination the United Church of Christ, came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith. However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along that same freedom to others. This was particularly a problem for the Puritans. They went to war with the Natives. Burned some they thought were witches. Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority. And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty and the founder of the first Baptist congregation in America. I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who were on the Mayflower and those who left with Roger Williams because they believed in liberty.
Roger Williams is the key early American person who promoted the equal liberty of conscience. For Williams the core problem was the same as that which St. Paul referenced— how are we to live together in love. Williams was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority. He was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.
Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be
imprisoned.” Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have that breathing space. In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.
From these Baptist ideas would develop the American tradition of religious liberty. Should you want to read a history of the development of that tradition and all its complexities, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. In it she presents the six principles that have guided America’s complicated history balancing religion with the public life of a pluralistic democracy.
Essential to the American tradition derived from Roger Williams is the idea of a public space in which everyone’s views are allowed to interact. For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect. It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary. It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else. Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right. You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience. Or, as St. Paul put it in the letter to the Galatians, quoting an even more ancient text, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And this, my friends, is why I’m so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept “religious freedom.” Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being. Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty. They are hostile to it.
It is brazen dishonesty to wrap biases in the language of religious freedom. It risks substantial harm to the Republic. To the entire American democratic experiment. And even to the Christian gospel.
It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite. This dishonesty must be resisted.
Dr. Harold Janes warned in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”
Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.
Now, that does not mean that these issues are simple. They are in fact quite complex, with broad gray zones that can be difficult to interpret. Legislators and judges must constantly examine those areas where the values of our society create complexity and conflict. They must examine and decide with reason and compassion, nuance and patience.
The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us. It is a social practice. It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves. It manifests in kindness and hospitality. It is guided by humility and generosity. For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And, as such, the equal liberty of conscience then develops into a robust defense of human and civil rights. Because we value religious liberty and the rights of conscience, even of those who are different from ourselves, we fight to end racism, for Native American rights, the equality of women, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and persons who are transgender.
As Paul so clearly stated: You were called to freedom. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence. Love one another.