The most common analysis of liberty I have heard in Christian churches and magazines reduces the concept to a slogan used by rednecks who want their guns, beer, and rebel flags. Unfortunately for the well-groomed Christian leaders who perform such reductions, those aren’t negative traits to begin with, and even if they were, the critique would be a straw man.

Christian liberty is the right to do what is in line with our conscience and an obligation not to judge brothers in Christ when their conscience differs. There is a caveat of course; there are some things which we know are immoral (adultery, for example), and if someone suggested their conscience compelled them to commit adultery, we would not be violating Christian liberty in condemning the person. There are other things we know are moral obligations (loving God and one’s neighbor) which, likewise, are not superseded by conscience.

The bounds of conscience are up for debate, which makes this a hard subject for some, but I think we can broadly agree that primary doctrinal issues are not negotiable, while preferences certainly are. This does not mean there can be no debate among preferences; we ought to debate because some preferences may be better than others. But Christian liberty means that if we can’t come to an agreement, we are to respect each other regardless. We cannot think less of each other.

Enter masks. I use them because of our current situation, but I think many, many things could be substituted.

This year, churches around the world have taken a variety of policies regarding masks. Most importantly for our purposes, however, is what has happened in those churches where Christian liberty is lacking. I’ve seen this happen in several places, but it follows a particular pattern:

  1. Masks are suggested as a way to love one’s neighbor (i.e. equivalent to a moral imperative).
  2. Masks are strongly encouraged (natural consequence of equivocation).
  3. Those who don’t wear masks are treated like they are selfish.
  4. Those who don’t wear masks are treated as if they don’t love their neighbor.
  5. Those who don’t wear masks are rejected.

Without Christian liberty, this pattern is predictable. Christian liberty, on the other hand, would follow a different course:

  1. Masks are suggested as a way to slow the spread of the virus.
  2. Some reject this, some do not.
  3. Masks are worn by some and not others.

I tried to make the difference clear, but I will summarize it: without Christian liberty, things that seem good are granted as good. They take on a moral component. When something has a moral component, we start to get obligations and prohibitions. If we grant instead that something might be beneficial or not (that is, we discuss intrinsic utility rather than morality), we don’t enter the realm of moral obligations and prohibitions.

Christian liberty preserves unity. So long as Christians are not identical copies of each other, you cannot have unity without liberty. When we assign moral components for amoral behaviors, we become Pharisaical.