In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was hanged by Nazis six years later, and now reigns with Christ in paradise) wrote an essay explaining American Christianity to his fellow German churchmen. The title: "Protestantism without Reformation." At some point, I think I'd better flesh that out a bit here on this blog. For now, check out these timely paragraphs:
"America calls itself the land of the free. Under this term today it understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech, and action. In this context, religious freedom is - for the American - an obvious possession. Church preaching and organization, the life of the communities can develop independently without being bothered by the state. Praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere, coupled with the sharpest condemnation of any limitation of such freedom which has taken place anywhere. Thus 'freedom' here means 'possibility,' the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the Church."
That was then, this is now. But Bonhoeffer goes on to explain why the loss of this kind of 'freedom,' i.e. the right to the free exercise of religion, is not actually tragic for the Church; for religious liberty, while a good in some respects, is not in fact the real freedom of the Church.
"If the freedom of the Church is understood essentially as this 'possibility'" - i.e., the kind of freedom that is vanishing before our eyes today - "then the idea of freedom is still not properly discerned. The freedom of the Church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the Church is not a gift of the world to the Church, but the freedom of the Word itself to gain a hearing. The Church's freedom is not an unlimited number of possibilities. Freedom only exists where a 'must,' a necessity, compels it on occasion against all possibilities" - see St Paul in 1 Cor 9 on the 'necessity' laid upon him to preach the gospel; Bonhoeffer is saying that we are only truly free when the utter urgency of the gospel compels us to preach this liberating Word. "The praise of freedom as the possibility of existence given by the world to the Church can stem precisely from an agreement entered upon with this world in which the true freedom of the Word of God is surrendered. Thus it can happen that a Church which boasts of its freedom as a possibility offered to it by the world slips back into the world in definite ways - that a Church which is 'free' in this way becomes secularized more quickly than a Church which does not possess this 'freedom' as a possibility.
In other words, a church like the confessing Church in Nazi Germany which preaches the true Word of God is actually more 'free' than a Church in America which holds back from preaching the truth in order to protect the 'liberties' that the federal government sees fit to grant it. Which is why we must be careful not only to lament in these dark days, but to hope.
"Freedom as an institutional possession" - i.e., religious freedom as we have known it here in America for three centuries or so - "is not an essential mark of the Church. It can be a gracious gift given to the Church by the providence of God; but it can also be the great temptation to which the Church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the Churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God. Only where this Word can be preached concretely, in the midst of historical reality, in judgment, command, forgiveness for sinners, and liberation from all human institutions, is there freedom of the Church. But where thanks for institutional freedom must be rendered by the sacrifice of the freedom of preaching, the Church is in chains even it believes itself to be free."
That is the question: which kind of freedom will we choose to enjoy? Make no mistake: if we capitulate to the creeping totalitarianism of culture and government by toning down and carefully qualifying the truth of the Word of God, we will be in chains. But on this Pentecost, we rejoice in the truth that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3.17). Come Holy Spirit, revive the preaching of the Word of God in this land. Amen.