Freedom and Authority

freedom and authority

By Pastor Paula Burchill

I went to Concordia College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Minnesota, and while there, a required course for all freshman was called Principia.  The theme for our year was Freedom and Authority.  Probably more than almost any other course, this is one I seem to regularly think about.

Granted it was 29 years ago that I took the course, but here is what I remember.  Freedom and authority have a somewhat ironic relationship.  One would think that the less authority in one’s life, the more freedom one would have.  But that just isn’t true.  An example:  If I told you, “make me something,” you would likely be perplexed for awhile as to where to even begin.  But if I handed you a canvas and some paint and told you to make me something, the confines under which I told you to work would afford you the freedom to get going and get painting and you would be far more likely to create something.  Especially if you knew it didn’t have to be good!

The Greek myth I remember discussing was the story of Tantalus.  He was punished by being put in Hades with a tree above him with unlimited fruit and a stream below with unlimited water.  As soon as he tried to consume either one, it would recede out of his reach.  One interpretation I made was that it was almost like he was cursed with abundance and too many choices and therefore rendered helplessly frustrated.  The more choices we have the harder it is to choose.  Anyone else rendered helpless in the grocery store aisles like I am sometimes?

We value freedom so much in our culture and rightly so.  But true freedom can only exist when there are boundaries, authority.  That is one reason God gave us the law.  If I could steal or kill or commit adultery whenever I want, then in those acts I’m taking away the freedom of others.  So for the most people to have the most freedom, there must be authority, boundaries and law.

This is something that is so hard to understand I think.  We likely understand it for society, but in our own lives?  I think many of us want freedom to do what we feel like when we feel like it.  But is that freedom?  I don’t really think so.  I remember when my kids were little, I was kind of a stickler about their nap schedule.  But I found that they were so much happier when that authority was there—and they slept better at night. They certainly slept better than the kids we knew who just napped whenever they got tired.

As the kids get older, freedom reigns.  It seems anything goes for our teens today and I worry about them.  If they don’t have boundaries and authority to push against, will they be as free to flourish and be creative and feel secure?

I understand that authorities can be repressive.  But I think we forget that having no authority is equally repressive.  The law is first and foremost a gift.  Yes, it also accuses us, but first it is a gift that protects us and makes life go better for us.

So I struggle with how to talk about this in our current culture, where taking away someone’s individual freedom seems to be the ultimate sin.  Where if we say something isn’t right, we are called repressive.  Maybe the church needs to hold up the law as a gift.  Not for our salvation, but for our lives with our neighbors.

As I said, I have been thinking about this for 29 years.  So obviously there is no easy answer.  I do find it ironic again, though, that with the more and more freedom and choices we continue to give to our children, their levels of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed.  We live in unprecedented times.

So I will say this:  Parents, hang tight!  Don’t be afraid to be an authority.  Church, stand firm.  Don’t be afraid to talk about the law.  And God, give us humility and your amazing grace.


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