Autonomy and Community in Biblical Perspective

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1999 issue of Dignity, the Center’s quarterly publication. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.

 

How are we to evaluate the Western tradition of autonomy from the perspective of Scripture? What resources can the Christian theological tradition bring to help temper the corrosive effects of autonomy and individualism today?

In one sense, to speak of autonomy for the Christian is somewhat of an oxymoron, since the Christian lives all of life under God's sovereign direction. The Christian is constrained by the moral parameters of God's word and the activity of the Holy Spirit in guidance and direction. Though the Reformers liberated human beings from a static view of the world that characterized the Middle Ages, they were very clear about the believer's place under the sovereignty of God. From the perspective of Scripture, believers do not own themselves, but belong to God, having been purchased by the death of Christ (I Cor. 6:19-20). As a result, the believer is free not to do whatever he or she pleases, but rather, is free to do what is right. The New Testament is filled with admonitions to temper one's Christian freedom with love and responsibility to others and the community. The apostle Paul makes it clear that believers are not to abuse their freedom from the demands of the Law for salvation, but are to use that freedom in order to pursue love, not their own selfish desires (Galatians 5:13-14).

One's freedom is not to be used as a pretext for doing evil, but rather believers are to live life as slaves, hardly an imagery that would promote unconstrained autonomy (I Peter 2:15-16). Numerous places in the New Testament call the believer to a life of servanthood, using the term for "bondservant" or "slave" which is figurative of the most constrained person in all the ancient world. Paul admonished the church to restrain even the exercise of legitimate Christian freedom in the moral gray areas out of regard for the brother or sister of weaker conscience (Romans 14:1-23; I Corinthians 8:9). Paul modeled this voluntary restraint of freedom in his own ministry when he gave up his right to earn his living from his preaching and church planting in order that the common good, the cause of the gospel, might be advanced (I Corinthians 9:14-18). He imposed numerous restrains on his freedom in order to more effectively serve the church and advance the gospel (I Corinthians 9:19). Individual believers were to follow this model, giving up their freedom in order to be subject to one another in the life of the church (Ephesians 5:21). Thus, it is safe to say that the Scripture has little praise for men and women uncommitted to a community of committed relationships.