Indiana and the Freedom of the Gospel

04/06/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

During the church's highest holy season, Indiana's religious freedom bill has captured our public conversation. Nuclear negotiations with Iran, a presidential election in war-torn Nigeria, and outrageous violence in Kenya notwithstanding, we can't take our eyes off the Hoosier State and its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Even as I write, breaking news has it that Indiana Republicans have amended the bill to rule out discrimination against LGBT folk by businesses within the state. For Christians, the controversy raises a pressing question: Does religious liberty authorize Christians to exclude some fellow citizens from social goods because we disapprove of their behavior?

Ever since its arrival, debate has swirled concerning the intent and implications of the original bill. Many of the bill's defenders deny it was ever intended to legalize discrimination against sexual minorities or any other class of person. Even legal experts haven't been able to agree as to what exactly the bill would affect.

On the other hand, public censure of Indiana has come from churches, educational institutions, business, and even other states. The Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis immediately protested the bill, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), headquartered in Indianapolis itself, announced plans to cancel its 2017 convention in Indianapolis. Many colleges, universities, and corporations have condemned the bill, while several other states have banned non-essential travel to Indiana by state employees. With college basketball's Final Four scheduled for the weekend, the four head coaches joined in a single statement, and the NCAA has offered a pronouncement of its own.

It's not a good thing for Christians divide on predictable partisan lines. When religious conservatives cluster over here and liberals over there, we undermine the integrity of the gospel. What biblical and theological resources might help us move beyond this impasse?

The Indiana bill says nothing explicit about LGBT persons or their legal status, but the public controversy has focused precisely on those questions. May a baker or photographer refuse to serve a wedding for a same-sex couple on the basis of their sexual orientation? May a landlord refuse housing to a gay or lesbian couple? May a business refuse employment to sexual minorities as a matter of religious principle? What are the implications of religious liberty?

I will not comment here on the theological and ethical questions related to LGBT persons and their inclusion and affirmation in the church. I'm very much on record endorsing the church's unreserved blessing of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, but that's not the issue in Indiana and other states with similar legislation under consideration. I'd like to name an issue I haven't seen addressed so far: in my view, religious liberty and Christian liberty are two very different concepts, with very different implications. Religious liberty is very much a modern concept, while Christian liberty is as old as the gospel. We'll think through this topic in conversation with Paul's letter to the Galatians and Martin Luther's thoughts on freedom.

In Galatians Paul insists that non-Jewish believers should not be required to convert to Judaism in order to participate in the churches. Other preachers are teaching that such Gentile believers must become Jews, including the circumcision of the men among them. (We're talking about a quite painful surgical procedure performed upon adults in an age without antibiotics.) Paul interprets that requirement as an attack upon the new believers' freedom. "For freedom Christ has set us free," Paul writes (Galatians 5:1).

Paul's teaching in Galatians 5:1 somewhat resembles the language of religious liberty. That conversation is largely negative. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense; I simply mean that religious liberty protects us from what others may do to us or require from us. The religious freedom clause in the US Constitution speaks precisely to this notion of religious liberty. The government may not regulate our religious lives. Religious liberty is a secular concept that basically operates in a negative mode. Christians should support this kind of religious liberty, as most American churches do.

But Paul quickly moves on to a different dimension of freedom, what we might call Christian liberty.

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." (5:13-14)

Unlike religious liberty, Christian freedom calls us beyond ourselves and toward our neighbor. In his treatise on Christian liberty Martin Luther writes that Christians cannot earn God's favor with our good works - God doesn't need them. But our neighbors do: as God has helped us in Christ, we should freely help other people. A Christian, Luther says, is Lord of all things and free in all things. At the same time, a Christian is a servant, tending to the needs of everyone. Christian liberty, then, involves not our freedom from obligations but our freedom to serve all people.

Not once does the New Testament enjoin believers to discriminate against groups of people in the public sphere. Gospel freedom provides no grounds for Christians to enforce our morals upon others or to discriminate against any class of people. Christians may disagree with one another concerning the morality of same-sex relationships, but we should always stand on the same side when it comes to human dignity and universal access to social goods. Unfortunately, that hasn't always been the case. Many Christians defended slavery, many resisted the right of women to vote, and many too opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Too often Christians have appealed to religious freedom in order to legitimate their right to marginalize others. We ought not mistake religious freedom for gospel freedom: gospel freedom calls us to serve our neighbors, never to discriminate against them.

Many thanks to the Rev. Mary Brown, Professor Dirk Lange, and Professor Matthew L. Skinner for the insights they contributed to this column.

About ON Scripture

Learn more about the ON Scripture Committee

Like ON Scripture on Facebook

Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture

ON Scripture - The Bible is made possible by generous grants from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation