Guest blog: The limits of freedom

By Bruce Judd

I find it fascinating to see that some people, including some Christians, both in Australia and overseas, are protesting about Covid-19 restrictions – such as church shut downs, social distancing and face mask wearing – in the time of the most severe pandemic in 100 years that has killed so many people; esepecially when churches have been found to be a common locus for virus infection clusters. The claim is that it is a violation of their personal religious freedom and right to assembly.

Indeed, one well known Evangelical pastor in the USA has actually filed a law suit against his State government to prohibit Covid-19 restrictions on indoor worship services. It was argued that the restrictions were unreasonable and unconstitutional, especially since black lives matter and other “favoured groups” had been allowed to “engage in
‘political’ or ‘peaceful’ protests purportedly against racism and police brutality” and “refused to comply with pandemic restrictions.” He won, and his services were allowed to resume; presumably also without social distancing and face masks. At the time California had reached 622,000 infection cases and over 5,000 deaths. He was supported by President Trump who had declared churches to be
“essential services” and threatened to fight any state who stood in the way, citing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

(This applies to both the federal and state governments in the USA).

Notice the prominence of the words “free” and “freedom” in relation to religion and speech. This freedom is held very precious by US citizens as well as in our and many other democratic societies.

Without wanting to be political about this, it does raise a key question: is freedom unlimited or should it be limited? Actually, the Bible has quite a bit to say about freedom. When God created the first human beings in his own image, he granted them freedom. This is epitomised in the presence of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. And, indeed they did exercise such freedom to choose the fruit of that tree – and the rest is history. While they had the freedom to choose, they were directed by God to constrain their freedom by not partaking of the fruit of that one tree. From that time until now, freedom has been much abused and misused.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that as Christians “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). But he also suggests that such freedom does have its limits. This is for two reasons. The first is found in 1 Cor 6:12 where, writing about problems of sexual immorality in the church, he states: ‘“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything”. The principle here is that we need to place limits on our freedom for our own benefit, and that excessive exercise of freedom can end up with us relinquishing that very freedom.

The second principle is found later in the same letter in 1 Cor 10:23,24 where in addressing the issue of whether it is right to eat meat offered to idols, Paul writes similarly: ‘”I have the right to do anything”, you say—but not everything is beneficial.’ then he adds: ‘“I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive.’ And finally expanding on this further states: ‘No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.’

From the flow of this argument, it would seem that here the ‘beneficial’ refers to others rather than to the
individual him or her self since it is followed with ‘constructive’ which is translated from the original Greek word oikodomeo which means “to build up” or in this context, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, meaning “to promote growth in Christian wisdom,
affection, grace, virtue, holiness, blessedness”. This emphasis is reiterated in the final statement: “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

It can be seen from these two passages that there needs to be constraints on the exercising of our freedom, for our own good, and out of consideration for the good of others. Surely this also applies in the current Covid-19 situation. Our freedoms need to be
constrained for our own protection and that of others.

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