On the Liberty of the Christian

By Robert Schmidt

When Luther wrote his treatise in 1520, On the Liberty of the Christian Man, it was accepted by friend and foe alike.  Here was little of the thunder and polemic found in the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, or The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  Instead there breathed in it the quiet of the German mystics, a deep spirituality.  One could not hope to equal Luther’s sentiments, nor his profound Biblical learning.  His work rightfully stands as a monument, not only to the truth of Christian Liberty in his day, but of all time.  We do not seek to duplicate it for our time, even if we could.

A New Challenge to Christian Liberty

Our task is different.  At the beginning of a new century human freedom is being curtailed and confined on every side.  Though technology has freed people from drudgery, the large institutions necessary for such technology have created a new bondage.  No matter in which direction the individual looks, large organizations and institutions are present with mechanisms for control.  Education, government, commerce, churches, professional sports, food distribution, and medical care are being conducted by even larger institutions.  Seldom is the individual able to do things in his or her own way. Worse yet, few individuals even have the initiative to try.

Furthermore, the increasing size and complexity of institutions is going to continue.  Ever since the beginning of time, the overall pattern of history has been moving toward ever larger and more complex institutions.  We have moved inexorably from the shepherd playing his flute to the symphony orchestra, from the city-state to the nation, and from the home business to the multi-national corporation.  From this vantagepoint, history is neither formless nor cyclical.[1]  Instead it has been sporadically but relentlessly moving toward ever larger and often oppressive institutions.

The Threats of Institutional Power

For the purposes of this essay, we might define institutions as formalized relationships between people which define roles and behavior. Institutions, as such, are absolutely necessary for human welfare and survival.  A family is an institution, as is the local florist.  However, these are institutions in which the participants have some degree of say and control.  As institutions become ever larger and more bureaucratic, the degree of control exercised by the participants becomes so small as to be largely non-existent.  As a result, the increasing size of institutions and their pervasive power are slowly destroying an essential characteristic of people, the ability to make moral decisions.  We like to think that people have a moral sense that sits in judgment on their actions and those of people around them.  In reality, however, most of us take our cues not from an “objective moral consciousness” but from institutional norms and procedures.

Thus airline salespeople bribe officials of governments to get contracts for planes in order to keep people in their plants working.  Diplomats lie and deceive to protect their nation’s interests.  Lawyers are hired by companies to avoid and evade taxes.  In each case the desires of the institution are so powerful that the moral concerns of the individual pale in comparison.

Another problem with “institutional morality” is that it substitutes institutional maintenance and aggrandizement for the institution’s original functions.  Nearly every institution in the world began with a noble purpose.  The Ford Motor Company was begun to make affordable automobiles. International Telephone and Telegraph began in order to build telephones systems in third world nations.  The United States was formed for the principles of representational government and as protest against unjust taxation.  It was often only after great effort and sacrifice that such institutions were born.  Nourished on blood and sweat, they were carefully tailored to accomplish a worthwhile purpose.

Once in existence, however, certain bureaucratic laws often take over the functioning of the institution.[2]  Then the status and security of the organization subtly replaces the function for which the organization was begun.  Once this happens, institutional roles become predominant.  Now the Ford Motor Company is more interested in the price of its shares than they are in supplying low cost transportation.  International Telephone and Telegraph is far more interested in its growth, profits, and power than it is in how well a telephone works in Chile.  The United States government with its vast bureaucracies is far more interested in just keeping the structure going than it is in a more equitable representational government or fairer taxes.

Interestingly enough, institutional rules are always attainable.  At one time the people working for a new institution would dream great idealistic dreams in order and be mobilized for thrilling and exciting work.  But after a while, people dream smaller dreams, if they dream them at all.  Where a young seminarian dreamed of reaching the world for Christ, now as a local pastor he will be happy to gain five new members and hopefully make it to a more prosperous parish.  “Making it” in the institution takes the place of doing what the institution was formed to do.

Once the goals are lowered, they can be attained.  The achievement of moral goals is perhaps the most deadening blow to true morality.  Once the individual has attained the moral goal, he or she can quickly become self-satisfied.  When an institution has been around for a while, it becomes self-satisfied and soon begins to stagnate.  Industry knows this principle as well.  This is why cosmetic manufacturers change product lines and automobile makers change models every few years.

Furthermore, when a major disruption takes place with the destruction of facilities and infrastructure, such as what happened to European industry during World War II, the manufacturers were able to build new plants with new agreements with labor.  As a result they were able to do a better job than some of their more established rivals in the United States.

“Law” as the Mechanism of Institutional Power

What is it that makes institutions behave in the ways we have described?  Using a Biblical category we might term it “law.”  Here we do not refer to a specific law, nor even to an institutional law.  Rather we are speaking of the principle of law.  This is of what St. Paul speaks so eloquently in his books of Romans and Galatians.  By “law,” Paul wished to describe a morality that has been codified and will be enforced through sanctions.  Law is the threat of punishment when people break a civil code.  This use of the law protects human life and property in society.  Law is also the basis of the contracting and covenanting relationships between corporations, individuals, firms and their employees.  The power of the law is that it contains within itself the spirit of rightness and demands acceptance on the part of all to whom it applies.

Law in and of itself is good.  The principle of law in the abstract is excellent.  Without it life itself would not be possible.  Yet, law becomes demonic when larger institutions use it not for good purposes but for bad.  Thus, when an institution simply wishes to increase its power or seeks to cover up its own ineptness or corruption, it can and does use “institutional law” to give it the appearance of rightness and legitimacy.  As a result, tyranny in government, industry, the church, and all institutions is reinforced and buttressed by the use of law.

The paradoxical aspect of the law is that while it is intended to inculcate and enforce morality, it often ends up undermining morality and making people worse instead of better.  While this is true at the corporate level, it also can be seen in individuals.  Because of human sin, people often end up doing wrong simply because there is a law that says it is wrong.  Does not the simple observation of our rebellious nature bear this out?  When I am forbidden a pleasure that was less than enticing, suddenly the very prohibition of the pleasure makes it exceptionally desirable.  Paul refers to this in Romans 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”

In order to live by the law, human nature pares down the requirements of any code to make it into a keepable law.  The classic example of this was the Pharisees, who forgot about the larger dimensions of the law such as justice and mercy, yet made sure they gave a tithe of their spices (Matthew 23:23).  Pharisees, however, were not worse than the rest of us.  The law has this effect on all of us.  If we cannot live up to a high code of law, we will create those we can keep.

In its close association with rightness, the principle of law is used by all institutions as a catalyst for obedience, institutional loyalty, and public relations.  But this law does not bring about a greater morality.  Instead it creates guilt, pride, a false identity, hatred between people of competing institutions, and finally, institutionalized violence.  With all of these negative consequences, what is a Christian to do in the face of ever larger institutions and the rules and regulations that make them work?  Once again, let us look at the two theses of Luther’s work on Christian Liberty and apply them to the situation in which we find ourselves.

A Christian is a perfectly free Lord, subject to none.


A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Freedom from Law

Let us briefly examine the first thesis.  When Christians of the first century called Jesus their Lord (kurios) or Savior (soter), a rebellion was born.  Both terms were used of Roman emperors.  When Christians applied them to Christ as their Lord and Savior, the ultimate power and rule of the Emperor and State was being called into question (Philippians 3:20; 2 Peter 3:18).  Now ultimate power was being denied to the emperor and given to Christ.  In its simple and most profound sense, the Kingdom of God had arrived.  Now Jesus was the Lord and Savior.  Furthermore, no one could serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).  If Christ is Lord, no one else can be Lord.

The Roman political organization, built on the concept of absolute authority, understood the implications of this far better than we do in a pluralistic society.  They realized the tremendous threat of having a Lord and Savior above and out of the reach of the present institutional “Lord” and “Savior” of the Roman Empire.  Christians presented no economic threat to the Roman rulers.  Christian ceremonies, while misunderstood, were no more weird than the practices of other religious groups.  The only threat Christians posed to the Roman authorities was the potential of stealing away the ultimate loyalty people had given to the Roman government.  Politically, this is why Christians were persecuted in the first centuries.

Today, when a Christian confesses Christ as Lord and Savior, he or she is also stealing power from all the institutions to which he or she belongs.  If Christ is Lord, my company boss is not Lord, my government is not Lord, and the president of my denomination is not Lord.  Yes, as a Christian I am to be obedient, but only to the degree that the institution is not working against my Lord.  Thus, it is better to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  The authority of any institution is only a “delegated” authority.  Were the elite of our institutions to understand the implications of this simple confession of faith that Christ is Lord, they might not be so eager to encourage people to be good Christians.

Every once in a while the implications of this basic Christian confession do come to light.  It happened when young men, in the name of Christ, refused to fight in Viet Nam.  It also happened in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod when a student body and their teachers set up a seminary-in-exile in St. Louis in the spring of 1974.  It happens when physicians and nurses refuse to practice abortions and Christians stand up to be counted against some of the great injustices in our world.

Christians are free from the authority of all institutions.  Through the death and resurrection of Christ, they have been freed from the wrath of God because of disobedience to authority.  Because of this great work for us, Christ is now our authority.  Being freed from the wrath of God, Christians are also free from the laws of institutions because of the wondrous way in which Christ has made us his own.  Christ became the Lord and Savior of the church not through the “law” but through the free grace of God offered to us through the Gospel.

For Christians in the tradition of Paul, Augustine, and Luther, the Gospel is not the capstone of the law.  It is fundamentally opposed to law.  The law for Christians is dead because in Christ, all died to the law.  The law could not and cannot justify.  Instead, it has only had the capacity to decrease morality, and increase pride, violence, and all the evil things to which we have referred earlier.  Law, especially if it is formed and shaped by God’s law, is not evil in itself.  It is but a catalyst when joined to sin causes these terrible results (Romans 7:4-25).

Christ becomes Lord and Savior for Christians apart from the law (Romans 3:21).  He does this through the Gospel.  The Gospel states that Christ becomes Lord and Savior for people by justifying them freely by grace through faith.  Paul says it so eloquently; “they are justified by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24,25).  Many other passages could be cited, for this was the whole focus of Paul, Augustine, Luther and others in the Gospel tradition.

The significance of the Gospel of justification for the Christian’s life in various institutions is a profound one.  Since salvation and the Christian’s ultimate allegiance to Christ as Lord comes from grace and not the law, the principle of law is finished.  Now the fabric of all institutions is law.  This means that as the principle of law is finished for the Christian, so institutional law is also finished.  Not only is the boss no longer the boss, but his way of doing things is equally finished as an ultimate authority.  From this point forward, no person is the Christian’s superior, and every code of rules and traditions is nothing to a person in Jesus Christ.

This does not mean that the Christian will decide against institutional norms.  Indeed, it is most likely that Christians will decide for such rules and institutional rules nearly all of the time.  Indeed, it is quite likely that the Christian will be found arguing vehemently on their behalf.  Christians will usually be the most obedient of all workers and citizens and spouses.  This, however, is not because they have to be obedient but because they wish to be obedient.  They have been saved by Christ and will be dutiful out of the same grace that saved them.

The Christian Threat to Institutions

However, the Christian’s allegiance to Christ and the way of grace make him or her a threat to all institutions of society.  If the Christian is made free from the law of God, beautiful in its purpose and sublime in its construction, that person is certainly made free from the petty and bureaucratic laws of institutions.  This means that they do not have any binding force on the individual’s conscience.  Every command is open to doubt; every instruction is liable to disobedience.  A Christian, born of grace, is so shaped as to question all law, especially those that prop up institutions.  Probably nothing dies harder than the habits of obedience to laws, customs, and traditions.  These things have informed nearly the full range of our consciences and moral sensibilities.  To question these moral dictates understandably make us nervous and anxious.  If we do not obey institutions and their laws, what then? Will we not open society up to anarchy and chaos?  This freedom seems too much.  Let us rather crawl back to slavery.  Let us go back to the bondage in Egypt as Moses’ critics urged.  Let us go back to the Jewish law as the Judaizers in Galatia counseled.  Yet, Moses’ critics died in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22), and Paul called the Judaizers accursed (Galatians 1:8).

In Christ God has called us to be free people.  Only free people can make moral decisions.  The prisoner alone in an 8 x 12 cell cannot decide for or against fornication, murder, or freeing the hungry.  He has lost the liberty to decide these and many other moral questions.  While he retains a moral sense over a few small things in his cell, his options are greatly limited.  The Gospel of grace and the resultant Christian liberty frees people from the norms of institutions.  Only when this is done does the individual have the ability and freedom to make moral decisions.  In the Gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus, people can once again recapture their moral humanity.

The Benefits of Exercising Freedom

In exercising moral decisions, people can again assert their humanity in making moral choices.  Humans are different from other creatures precisely in their capability in making moral decisions.  Without this exercise of moral decision making, people lose their humanity.  They become ciphers, gray shadows without heart and soul, insignificant and unimportant to themselves and those around them.  As a result, when large institutions take from people their moral choices, mental depression sets in.

Such depression is seen in the faces of millions of people employed in large companies where they have little control over their work, the products they make, or the decision on whether those products should even be made.  When citizens in a large nation feel they have lost all control over government, they cease to vote and become politically apathetic.  They burrow further into their private lives and die to civic responsibility.  However, once people in large companies and nations again discover their freedom to choose, they can assert themselves as free children of God.  Then depression fades and the very act of making decisions restores to them their humanity and joy.

The freedom of the Gospel also restores to people personal and collective initiative.  While the Gospel does not provide capital for going into business, it does free people from the idea that big institutions are necessary to provide such resources.  For example, many denominational Christians have thought that denominational mission boards, professional clergy, seminaries to train such clergy, and money to support them were necessary before the church could do overseas missionary work.  At the same time these same Christians were going overseas every year in increasing numbers.  The Gospel declares that institutional patterns are nothing.  Lay Christians are perfectly able to take the initiative to do the work of evangelists, begin Bible study groups, baptize new converts, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, educate local leaders and leave behind a functioning congregation.  The Gospel of Christian freedom provides not only the opportunity for personal initiative but also its motivation.  But more of this under the second thesis of this essay.

The Gospel of Christian liberty also enables people to discriminate between important and trivial moral concerns.  Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13f on the subject of the obedience to government are very instructive on this issue.  While these and other passages have often been used indiscriminately to urge obedience to institutional (in this case governmental) rules, the context of both of these passages indicate something quite different.  In both cases, obedience is urged, not because it is important, but because it is unimportant.  In Romans 13 we are to be obedient and pay taxes so that we owe no one anything.  We are to be kept free from earthly obligations so that we might not have any hindrance in our love for one another.

Similarly in 1 Peter we are to maintain good conduct to outsiders (Gentiles) so that we can get on with our more important tasks as Christians. In these instances and others, being free from the law helps to put all law and rules into a different perspective.  Now we are more conscious of what is really important and what is but trivial because we are no longer under any law.  Being above the law, we are not to use our freedom to sin as is so eloquently spelled out by Paul in Romans 6:1-19 and Galatians 5:13-15.  Rather, we have a better perspective to discriminate between laws, good and bad, important and trivial.

The Power of Sufficiency

There is a mighty power that comes from the Gospel.  However, it is not the power to control, nor the power to rebel in order to take control. Instead, it is the power that comes from God to do for yourself what giant institutions have come to do for us.  When the individual with the grace of God can accomplish for himself/herself what a giant institution has been designed to provide, the institution loses its power over the individual.  This is because the person no longer is dependent on that institution.  Thus, if a parent decides for home schooling her children, there is no need to be dependent on schools, teachers, or state funding of education.  She is free of them, and in that freedom she protests their power and bleeds a bit of that power from them.

The most classic modern example of stealing power from an institution through self-sufficiency was Ghandi’s march to the sea.  When the British placed an onerous tax on salt, Ghandi and a significant part of India with him marched to the sea to get their own salt.  They did not gain power through violence nor, in this case, disobedience.  Instead they gained it through self-sufficiency.  In a similar fashion, the Gospel gives people sufficiency.  In this case it is not self-sufficiency but grace-sufficiency.  Freed from the law, people are given the power to be fully themselves and able to function as they see fit.

Power given through the Gospel is quite different from either the power of institutions or the power exercised against institutions.  Both institutional power and power against institutions are based upon coercion and, in the case of government, violence.  Thus, when a police force exercises violence in the name of the law with weapons of violence, they invite criminals and lawless people to use violence against them.  Conversely, when rebels use violence against constituted authority, they invite retaliation in kind.  The power of spiritual grace-sufficiency makes people in power nervous. Sometimes, as was the case with martyrs, violence is used against those grace-sufficient people.  However, when that violence is not returned, violence ebbs and often dies.  Violence has no staying power against that marvelous strength the Gospel bestows upon believers.

The power of the Gospel of freedom gives people the best way to challenge and prod our huge institutions to go back to doing what they were first created to do.  Suppose people really find out that they can be the Church without professionally trained pastors, huge buildings, and enormous mission budgets.  As people begin to do for themselves what the institution feels that only it can do, the institution will feel threatened.  Predictably it will storm and shout against such liberty.  However, it is not likely that the freed people will ever listen.  The only way the institution can recapture any of the loyalty and faithfulness of these people is by doing a better job that the freed people can do.  Thus, Christian liberty becomes the “invisible hand” prodding institutions to do a better job of what they were created to do in the first place.

Naturally, there is a difference between doing this in a church denomination and in a government or large corporation.  Yet, perhaps it is only a difference of degree, and not of principle.  Thus, if ghetto residents were able to gain more and more control over their schools and precinct police stations, the oppressive powers of an alien administration would be more and more weakened.  In a similar way, the more Native Americans control their own reservations and economic enterprises, the freer they will become.  If then the former institutions (city government, Bureau of Indian Affairs) are to maintain their status, prestige, and power they will need to invent new beneficial functions or simply die.

In the economic field, numerous spin-off corporations underscore the same principle.  An engineer discovers a new process that his company ignores because of its cost.  The engineer enters business for himself in competition with the parent company.  The parent company then must either adapt to that change or face the increased competition.  Unfortunately, in real practice, the parent company is likely to try to put its new competition out of business, but more on this a little later.

The Paradoxical Effects of Liberty on Institutional Size

The implications of the Gospel of Christian Liberty on the size and power of institutions is somewhat paradoxical.  Christian freedom will make institutions larger in one dimension yet smaller in another.  Even though many evils of our present time come from large institutions, the dynamics of Christian freedom will aid in making institutions even larger.  In order for politicians to become nationalists, they first had to become free from the norms of their clan, tribe, or locale.  Similarly, in order for them to become world statesmen, they will need to become free from nationalist norms.  The process of groupings and institutions getting larger and more complex will not cease.  It will continue to be the pattern of history.  The Christian Gospel will, moreover, accelerate the movement toward bigness and complexity precisely because it provides the freedom from smaller, more restricting institutions. However, in providing a haven of freedom from all institutions, it will also provide a humanizing force against these same institutions.

Some of the forces for ever larger groupings and institutions are already at work today.  Better communications, ease of travel, the Internet, increased literacy, and common world problems are forcing the world leaders into dealing with the world as a whole.  Though world government is a ways off, linkages in dealing with common problems grows every year.  More and more conferences draw participants from around the world.  Dealing with global warming, hunger, the role of women, deforestation, and a host of other concerns are making us all into global citizens.  More and more young people see their ultimate loyalties to humanity rather than toward their nation.  Freed from one set of institutional norms, people naturally become involved in larger units and groupings.

Conversely, the freedom from the law brought about by the Gospel will also pave the way for smaller associations and institutions.  Freed from denominational norms, a Christian is free to celebrate communion with three other friends who formerly belonged to different denominations.  Similarly, Native Americans are free from United States nationalism to be more closely associated with their tribe and clan.  Smaller associations, furthermore, will be looked to more and more to provide a countervailing power to larger institutions.  Here we will pick up a thread we dropped a few pages back. What does the engineer do to protect his fragile business against the giant company he just left?  He probably will not survive unless he allies himself with other small businesses.  Thus we see pressures for smaller associations growing in the same ratio as the pressures for larger institutions.

The freedom from institutional norms also opens up the way to what some observers are calling the third wave of civilization.[3]  This civilization based upon knowledge rather than on agriculture (first wave) or industrialization (second wave) leads to the de-massification of society.  In economics and business it produces customized services, market segmentation, and “particle marketing.”  Educationally it moves away from educational institutions built on the factory model turning out a standard product.  Rather it is to tailor-make an educational program best suited for the student in his or her context.  For Church people this move toward smallness means redoing theological education to better prepare men and women for their ministries in the contexts in which they will be working.

Above all the return to smaller institutions will again empower the family to its importance as the most important institution of society.[4]  Now more people are working at home through their computers and faxes.  More parents are doing home schooling and more medical functions are migrating back to the home.  In the same way Christian freedom will enable the home to be the very center of Christian life through worship and Christian instruction.

The Transcendent Source of Christian Liberty

Regardless of the many ramifications on the institutional life derived from the freedom of the Gospel, little will be accomplished unless individuals realize their freedom and act on it.  Where do people get the power and strength for the exercise of such freedom?  This freedom is a gift that comes from a base or reality that lies outside the institutions of society.  Were it not from outside an institution, it would, of necessity, be of an institution and be restricted by that institution’s norms.  This is why, for example, no congregation or denomination can guarantee this freedom.  For the Christian, this freedom comes alone from Christ and his promises.  Christians at loggerheads with institutions can refresh themselves in the revelation of their freedom in Christ.  This continues to be the ever-living motivation for clinging to Christ and his freeing word.

However, more is needed.  Any person in Christ who would exercise Christian liberty received nurture and support in the association of other free people.  While it is true that any engineer can better protect his struggling business by allying himself with other small businesses, Christians can do even better.  The engineer is likely to find his liberty curtailed by the small business association and its new norms.  This is not so with the Christian.  As Paul envisioned it, the Christian Church was not just another institution of the law.  It was rather the free gathering of people that were united against devastation brought about by sin working against the law (Romans 7:7-12).  This is why there could no longer be distinctions caused by the law.  Thus, according to Paul, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Yet, to exercise the freedom in the Gospel, even the promises of Christ and the fellowship of the free are not enough.  For those who would be free, the cross of Christ is always waiting to be picked up and carried.  For those who would be free from the norms of the institutions, suffering inevitably waits.  The martyrs of ages past and of this century as well have often paid the price for the realization of their freedom.  Many are the Christians in the 20th century that sat in jail because they were too free.  Martin Luther King Jr., Toyohiko Kagawa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others in the 20th century who have suffered for the freedom they asserted against the laws of their societies.  Though Christ has gained for us true freedom that comes from outside of ourselves, we too may feel the scourge and thorns to live out that freedom.  But Christians can do it with a smile on their face knowing that in the resurrection the pain is forgotten and the freedom will be full.

The Duty of the Christian

So much for freedom; let us now look at the second thesis:

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Freedom is never enough.  Taken by itself freedom makes pretty thin soup.  Freedom needs direction and purpose so that it might accomplish something.  The direction that God opens up to a Christian is the same direction to which the Law of Moses was pointing.  The Law of Moses, recorded in the Pentateuch, is certainly one of the most remarkable codes found in human history.  In effect, the Law of Moses said to the nation of Israel, God has freed you from making bricks for the Egyptians.  Now God wants you to become “willing” slaves of humanity showing them how to be free people and live under the covenant of the Kingdom of God.

Behind the letter of the law was a passionate concern for the poor and oppressed.  Being poor and oppressed themselves, the Israelites were to have profound sympathy for the slave, the orphan, the widow and the foreigner dwelling in their midst (Deuteronomy 24:19; Zechariah 7:10).  Being the slave of all meant being the slave of those who were most easily oppressed.  Appetites were limited that one person’s selfishness might not lead to another person’s poverty.  Punishment was severe that the innocent might not suffer.

Through regulations associated with the seventh year and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), slaves were freed, land was to rest, people were to take a needed rest, and land was to be given back free to the descendents of the first settlers.  Thus the law sought to guarantee freedom of opportunity, freedom to work, freedom to help, and freedom to grow.  In the New Testament, Jesus universalized the concerns of the Year of Jubilee in his sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:18,19).  There he read from Isaiah’s reference to the Year of Jubilee (Isaiah 61:1f).  In one short sentence he proclaimed every year as a fulfillment of the Year of Jubilee.  Were Christians today to become dutiful servants of all, they will first proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to those who know no freedom.

The law was established to give the poor and oppressed freedom.  But, paradoxically, the law because of sin could not give freedom.  The sanctions of law and the psychology of the law warred against the very freedom of opportunity, work, help, and growth that the law was designed to accomplish.  Yet, the legacy of the Mosaic Law does provide the overall direction of human activity.  It points to the freedom to work and grow and enable people to realize their full potential as the children of God.  To be “perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all” means first of all to bring about this fullness of life to all people in a world governed by ever larger and more complex institutions.

Gospel Cues for an Institutional Ethic

In bringing liberty to the captives, Christians should use the unique resources not of the law but of the Gospel.  These resources might be summarized as newness, innovations, surprises and hope.  While Jesus came emphasizing the same concerns that were found in the law, he brought a quality of newness to a tired people.  His first recorded words in Mark were that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15).  That was a new and startling statement.  Because his message was new, it could not be put into old wineskins (Matthew 9:17).  Though beautiful in design and purpose, the law has in it the monotony of reciprocity.  This reciprocity is found in the statement, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Violence begets violence.  But Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39).  Jesus’ teachings on this subject and others come as a new message to people locked into old ways of thinking.  Following this characteristic of the Gospel, Christians might well ask of their efforts to free others, “is it new?”

Closely coupled with newness is innovation.  While innovation is new, it is highly creative.  Turning water into wine is not only new it is also an innovation (John 2:1-11).  The same is true for the feeding of five thousand people with no more than five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:19).  The innovation connected with the Gospel is productive.  It produces food and wine, giving people options they have not had before.  In these cases and others, innovation is the message of the miracles.  Christ neither goes into the winemaking or food distribution business.  Instead he proclaims with his mighty works that such innovation is possible.  Doing the new thing in a productive way is the innovation Christians can practice in proclaiming liberty to the captives.

Together with newness and innovation is the notion of “surprise.”  In its Gospel proclamation the New Testament is simply full of surprises. Surprise – God becomes a man.  Surprise – Jesus is born of a humble maid.  Surprise – death is not the end; there is a resurrection.  Surprise – people are saved by grace through faith, without the deeds of the law.  Whenever people with their own certainty conclude that all is lost, a surprise opens up new potentials, creating new options and providing new freedom.  For Christians to work in the manner of the Gospel, surprise should also be our strategy.

Newness, innovation, and surprise together signal the possibility of hope.  Contrary to all the “necessities” of laws, either institutional or moral, the Gospel brings hope.  Hope, however, is not simply the hope of heaven once this miserable life is ended.  Hope is proclaimed to all who find themselves hopelessly bound in the snares of laws not of their making and not to their liking.  Hope is a blind man hearing that another blind man received his sight from a man called Jesus.  Hope is living helpless in a favela in Brazil and knowing that the last residents of the hovel in which you live, made it out of the hillside slum and are now living in a decent house.  Hope is hearing that a truck brought rice during last year’s famine and maybe rice will come again this next year.

When one analyzes the works of Christ during his ministry and what they actually accomplished, one can either lose faith in him or else be converted to a different concept of his mission and our own.  In the last analysis, Jesus did not do very much.  Not that many people were healed or storms stilled, or dead raised.  Were his works only for showing that he was the Messiah?  No, otherwise he would have given sign and wonders to people who counted (Matthew 16:4).  He accomplished what he came to accomplish.  He set the captives free by giving them that which was new, innovative, surprising.  And in doing so, he gave them hope.

Consonant with Christ’s ministry has been the ministry of the church throughout the ages.  The glories of the Church never came when the Church sought to increase her own prestige.  Instead, the Church received her best praise when she brought new, innovative, surprising, and hopeful institutions into existence.  When monasteries were built into the new German lands in the early Middle Ages, hope for a better life was brought to thousands of people there.  Education, scholarship, medical care, better agricultural practices were suddenly available.  All these were accompanied by a religion that freed people from superstition and fear.  No wonder the monasteries brought whole tribes to Christ and to a greater freedom than they had ever experienced.

In like manner Christians have brought forth hospitals and medical care.  Christians are credited with bringing to Western Europe universal primary education.  Even capitalistic institutions have been attributed to some Christians who broke with the medieval injunctions not to lend money with interest.  Certainly in the last several centuries some of the greatest contributions of Christians have been in the establishment of schools and hospitals in the poor nations of the world.

The Beginning Is the End

However, here we must be careful if we are not to lose ourselves in good but misleading works.  The Christian genius, operating out of the Gospel, is not found in medical care, book learning, or better agriculture, as fine as these things may be.  There is nothing essentially Christian in feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and imprisoned.  In fact, we know that these acts are expected of all people (Matthew 25:31f).  The Christian task is to begin universal primary education.  The same is true for hospitals, social welfare agencies, capitalism, and a host of other worthwhile institutions.

If “beginnings” are truly the Christian contributions toward freeing the captives, suddenly the whole debate between “witnessing evangelicals” and “social action Christians” is really beside the point.  Those concerned with witnessing have to grant that Jesus not only preached the Gospel but also made new beginnings for the poor, the halt, the lame, and the blind.  On the other hand, social action Christians must admit that Jesus and the Church have never continued to do for people what they could do for themselves.  Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God embodied both the message of hope and the catalyst of a better life for all people.

If “new beginnings’ are the unique Christian contribution toward providing freedom for the oppressed, we have narrowed our focus to such a point that Christians can actually accomplish what they need to do.  In recent years the mission of the church has been paralyzed by the immense task it faced.  How could we preach the Gospel to everyone in our generation?  How could we feed all the hungry or visit all the sick and imprisoned?  In every case the resources of the church have never been large enough.  After a while the appeals to mission have been regarded as, at best, wishful thinking. Clerics often get lost in their rhetoric; laity go back to business as usual and the mission of the church comes to a halt.

However, if the focus of the church is on “new beginnings” there is real hope for the mission of the church.  One such “new beginning” is for those we have called “lay people” to take responsibility for teaching and preaching the Word of God.  Another new beginning is for them to exercise their Christ bought freedom to celebrate the sacraments.  This not only frees people from denominational control but also the limitations on the growth of the church.  Now the church can expand exponentially without the need for expensive clergy or church buildings.  With this new beginning Christians are also free to cross denominational lines and work together for programs of witness and aid.

With the focus on new beginnings there is also hope for feeding the hungry and proclaiming liberty to the oppressed.  It is not the business of church people to feed all of the hungry.  Rather the church needs to help find the ways and means whereby some poor people can feed themselves under very difficult circumstances.  If an idea works once, perhaps it can be reduplicated time and time again.  This is exactly what has happened with “Project Heifer.”  In this program some Christians had the idea of supplying poor farmers with well-bred heifers.  These are given to poor families as a gift. However, when that heifer has a calf of her own the family is to freely give that calf to another poor family.  Similarly, Habitat for Humanity, also begun under Christian auspices, helps the poor build their own homes.  The poor and others are then encouraged to help others build their homes.  Home ownership thereby becomes a possibility for people who were far too poor to even dream of owning their own homes.

When ideas such as these catch on, they have a life of their own.  The ideas travel faster than the wind, and no ocean will ever be able to stop them.  Ideas are also needed for better objectives and institutions for education, for agronomy, for industry, for food distribution.  If “new beginnings” are to be the focus of the Christian mission, then the arts are also within the purview of our common task.  Here newness, innovation, and surprise are the very building blocks upon which art grows and flourishes.

This focus on the mission of the church underscores the necessity of doing a different kind of church work.  In the past so-called church work has been largely institutional and traditional.  Millions have been kept busy in carrying out denominational plans for evangelism stewardship, building programs, and publicity.  Slowly the most creative minds have left with few challenges to their imaginations.  Intellectuals have drifted away from the church unemployed by conventional Christians who often preferred them not to think.  With the focus on “new beginnings” the Church will need to do all in its power to regain and foster the best analytical and creative minds she can find.  Furthermore, this will not be for the benefit of the Church, but for the world.  This means that the best minds should not only be educated by the Church and for the Church’s benefit.  Rather, they must be recruited in the world, challenged by the Church and be set to work in new beginnings to attack the world’s most pernicious problems.

The focus on “new beginnings” also gives us a direction in addressing the most intractable political and social problems of the world.  At this writing these are the problems of starvation, refugees, and genocide caused by war and low intensity conflicts.  Ancient tribal, racial, religious, and national loyalties are inflamed leading to the most inhuman behavior.  Callused killings, maiming, torture, and using starvation as a weapon in war are excused for “religious” reasons.  In settings such as these the most surprising “new beginning” is forgiveness and working for peace.  The finest Christian minds and hearts need to be recruited to work for peace in such circumstances.  Already there are many fine examples of such forgiveness and peacemaking.  In the last days of the Nigerian Civil war several Quaker conciliators did much to bring the war to a peaceful end without vengeance and bloodletting.[5]  In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to both white and black South Africans who confessed their crimes during the years of apartheid.[6]  Christians can learn from examples such as these and apply them to similar situations elsewhere.

Where does this leave us today as we find ourselves in institutions of all shapes and sizes, each nibbling away at our freedom and binding us with their rules, bureaucratic traditions, and standard operating procedures?  When possible Christians should work within the institutions in which they find themselves.  However, having tasted the heady wine of freedom they will seldom be content in those institutions that have lost a worthwhile purpose.  If they do remain within those institutions they are likely to find ways to purify the objectives of those institutions and protest the power that is used for selfish purposes.

Beginning New Institutions

When reformation of existing institutions is not possible, Christians should again begin new institutions.  This has been the pattern of the past and may well be the model of the future.  There is a tremendous need for new institutions around the world.  The reasons for this are not hard to discover. Nearly all businesses and corporations are chiefly concerned with profits.  As a result they are not primarily concerned with medical aid for the poor, land reform, environmental concerns, and intervention in political and social crises.  At the same time governments find it increasingly difficult to fund activities to address these concerns.  Poverty breeds political unrest.  Political unrest increases the need for weapons, and spending for weapons causes more poverty.  As a result new institutions are desperately needed to address common human needs at the beginning of the 21st century.[7]  Thousands of these new institutions (often called Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs) are started every year.  There are more than 1,400,000 non-profit institutions in the United States.[8]  The number of NGOs in the developing world has grown tremendously over the last twenty-five years and is estimated at between 6000 to 8000.[9]  NGOs have been begun all over the world to address human needs that are not now being met by either the commercial or governmental spheres.

Christians have been and should continue to be in the forefront of those helping to develop these new institutions.  In order to counter widespread illiteracy and the ignorance of adults to cope with the technology of our knowledge-oriented society, the world desperately needs adult schools that work.  This is especially true in the poorer nations of the world.  Christians there might hand over their primary and secondary schools to governments able and willing to take them over.  Then Christians can concentrate on a relevant adult education necessary to equip people to participate in the knowledge-based society of the future.

Another beneficial institution NGO might be a Christian Credit Cooperative.  Particularly among the very poor, capital for increasing production is very difficult to obtain except at exorbitant interest rates.  Were new Christian institutions to charge even reasonable rates of interest they would greatly aid the poor in securing the necessary capital for agriculture, small industry, and homes.

On the national and international level, there is also a crying need for new institutions.  In some less developed nations Christians might well be the only cohesive group able to form a national rather than a regional party.  Even though this would be impossible in other settings, Christians might still form a political interest group against corruption or advocate a better distribution of income, land, or food.  On the international level, it is becoming clear that the majority of the world’s problems will require a greater amount of international cooperation.  These include governing multinational corporations, providing for a world food reserve system, forgiving the debts of the poorest nations, ending the use of land mines, and providing for a fair and ecologically sound use of ocean resources.  While the United Nations and other international bodies provide much of the administrative structure governing these issues, it would be most helpful to have Christians lobbying on behalf of the poor and dispossessed.  Here again Christians are needed to bring into being the consciousness raising institutions.

The Uniqueness of the Christian Mission

Whenever Christians put their mind to accomplish their “mission,” a question arises as to whether that mission is uniquely Christian.  Is making new beginnings a uniquely Christian undertaking?  The word, unique, has a double meaning.  In one sense, it means “different from all other groups and enterprises.”  In this sense the new beginnings concept is not unique.  Even though one could make quite a case out of the fact that in the modern era the far majority of new things have come out of Western Civilization influenced by the Christian Faith, there have been other catalysts for positive newness in our world.

In another sense, however, “unique” refers to something different and special to its own nature.  Thus, the work undertaken by an institution should be uniquely consonant with the nature and foundation of the group itself.  If then, it is the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of all people that is at the very heart and core of the Christian community, it follows that the task of the community is unique to that center.  The “new beginnings” concept we have sought to describe does just that.  In a world governed by the concepts of law and necessity, surprise is always welcome.  When people are caught and trapped by powers beyond their control, innovation is honored.  When the wind blows out the last candle in the hovel of the poor, they pray for anything that can give them hope.  Christians can and will bring that hope as people who have been freed in order to be “servants of all, subject to all.”

When Luther concluded his treatise on Christian Liberty, he praised good works but reminded his readers that works could never save.  We say the same thing.  To start anew for the sake of the poor and oppressed is one of the finest works that Christians can do on this earth.  Yet, even these fine works cannot save.  Salvation still only comes through that new, surprising Gospel that God loves us who are imprisoned by the old, the impotent, and the hopeless.  We close as Luther did long ago: May God at last be merciful to . . . us, and cause his face to shine upon us, that we may know his way upon earth, his salvation among all nations, God, who is blessed forever, Amen.


[1] See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 228-237.

[2] This is the basic argument of Max Weber in his Economy and Society (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968).

[3] Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Creating A New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave (Atlanta: Turner Publishing Inc., 1994), passim.

[4] Ibid., pp. 86-87.

[5] Cynthia Sampson, “To Make Real the Bond between Us All: Quaker Conciliation During the Nigerian Civil War” in Johnston and Sampson (eds.) Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 88-111.

[6] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (New York: Grove Publishing, 1999).

[7] Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post Market Era (New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1996), pp. 236-243.

[8] Ibid., p. 241.

[9] Stephen Ndegwa, The Two Faces of Civil Society: NGOs and Politics in Africa (West Hartford, CO: Kumarian Press, 1996), pp. 17-18.

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