Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Thought (Part II)

freedom1     Freedom of thought is the most basic of all freedoms. It is essential to man being able to learn what is good and right – to be able to make choices – the fundamentals of how man is supposed to live in this world. As the apostle Paul said, men were made “that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27 ESV). It is a tragedy of the highest magnitude that many people who claim to be seeking after God have the least concept of freedom of the human spirit and have been most opposed to the right of men to think for themselves.

There are religious people who would even deny others the right to live if they are not of the exact same religious conviction as themselves. We in western society may not have done quite the same thing, but in principle we do something very much akin. What we do is more subtle, but just as much against the freedom of the individual to think for himself.

There are many ways we deny ourselves the exercise of the right of free, independent thought and violate the right of others to do the same. We suggest here two ways we do this. First, we allow others to do our thinking for us – and there are always people who are all too glad to tell us what we ought to think. We blindly assume the official teachings, creeds, doctrinal statements or traditions of a particular denomination to be equivalent to divine truth. We affiliate ourselves with a certain religious group because we like the people, not because we have investigated what they teach and agree with them. Because certain things have long been taught we accept them without critical investigation. Because we like a preacher or because he has a “reputation” among those with whom we are associated, we listen to him without comparing what we hear him say with what may be read in the Bible. We assume that the peculiar slant our group places on certain biblical teachings is the absolute, definitive truth of God. When we do any of these things we make ourselves slaves to the man or the system that promotes that teaching.

The fundamental reason we do these things is because we do not exercise our responsibility to read and study the Bible freely and independently. If we do read it, it is almost invariably tied to the teachings of our church “brand.” When we do so, we are not freely thinking, we are merely parroting the party line, marching in lock-step with the prevailing powers. When we do so we put ourselves in a denominationally defined prison just as surely as if we were arrested and incarcerated by a government. If we really exercised our right to think, we probably would be excluded from most religious organizations on earth!

Second, we deny others the right to think for themselves. When churches are involved in doctrinal dispute and one side denies the other the right to a reasoned conclusion different from their own, they are attempting to deny others their freedom before God to think for themselves. When preachers insist that their congregations believe what they teach without question, they are denying people the freedom to think for themselves. By identifying with one group or another we put ourselves in clearly labeled, iron barred cells, where we don’t have to think and everyone knows exactly what we believe. We are immediately suspicious of anyone who dares to break free from the established system. If, perchance, someone dares to defy the intimidation and psychological pressure brought against them to attempt to control their thinking, they are consigned to the “outer darkness” of ostracism and castigation. Lifelong friends and even families are riven asunder, never to be reconciled. What a horrible travesty perpetrated in the name of the Lord who created us free and accountable only to Him under the presumption of faithfulness!

The objection will be raised that when people differ with accepted thought they are “in error” or that they have become guilty of apostasy. This presumes that the group against whom they dissent are not in error. But who has the right to define truth – God or man? Almost without exception the things men differ and divide over are things they have assumed to be truth essential to fellowship with God. We fear that those who question accepted assumptions have severed themselves from God. Obviously a person who thinks “outside the box” does run the risk – and often will – make mistake, but who can guarantee that the thinking of any particular group is absolute, iron-clad truth? A mistake in thinking by an honest, sincere, responsible individual is far, far better than a mistaken idea imposed on a foolish, gullible, unthinking person. An honest person will correct his thinking; a fool won’t.

It is evident to me that we use the boxes (or is it prisons?) in which we place ourselves and others as a kind of short-cut to figuring out all about another person. “Oh! You’re a member of such and such a church.” End of conversation! We have them all figured out! We know exactly what they believe! We know that we have nothing in common religiously because we do not believe the same things. And we know we are not willing to consider anything they might have to say because we are in our own safe little box. It all is a cop-out to avoid thinking and questioning and examining the possibility that we could be wrong! We also deny ourselves the benefit we could gain from each other by studying together and learning from each other – and we so need to study and think within the context of the community of faith. In such a setting, we can compare, correct and sharpen the thinking of each other.

There aren’t any perfect religious organizations on earth. All are made up of men and all men are fallible, even, or maybe we should say especially, those in positions of “authority.” The very fact of the multiplicity of religious bodies is testimony to the failure of man to attain perfect understanding. All of us, no matter how well intentioned, are human, and that, by that fact, means that we will err. Even the most educated, the most religiously devout, the most sincere human will err. Given that fact, which is in the greater error, the one who in his own earnest search for God’s truth comes to a wrong conclusion or the one who denies him the right to do so, insisting that he must not question a sectarian creed?

With freedom comes responsibility. Ultimately, we are all accountable to God and to Him only. We need to allow that realization to moderate all our conclusions. Accountability to God and love for our fellow man necessarily limits our freedom. It means that our thinking be responsible and sober. The realization that I will answer to God for my thoughts as well as my actions will serve as a restraining influence. Concern for others will cause me to think and act responsibly toward them. I will not responsibly think or act in any way that is hurtful.

You will not be my judge in the last day, nor will I be yours. I only know that God is a merciful judge and to Him only I appeal my case as I beg to respectfully declare my freedom from every authoritarian religious edict and the institutions that issue them. Differ with me if you will. I respect your right to do so. Call me in question if you feel compelled to do so, but as friends, let us sit down with open Bibles and freely reason together. Exercise your right and freedom to think for yourself as God intended you to do, but think responsibly!

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV).

Reposted from November 21, 2010.

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