I’m not much of a bowler, but I remember taking our kids to a bowling alley several times for an evening of fun. When they were very young, the most fun was had when the manager put “bumpers” in the lane gutters. That kept the ball out in the middle of the lane so it had a chance of knocking down some pins, which of course was the whole point. The bumpers weren’t a guarantee of success. Sometimes the velocity of the throw was so low that the ball stopped before it hit its target, or barely nudged a pin or two. But having the bumpers put limits on the decidedly un-fun possibility of throwing gutter ball after gutter ball for the kids. With bumpers, they were free to play.
I’m feeling like our culture has embraced a very distorted concept of freedom. I’m hearing it everywhere. Apparently, much of our country feels like freedom means saying and doing anything one desires. Apparently, being a real American means exercising your freedom, and exercising your freedom means that no one is going to tell you what to do. I hear this exact quote in the news almost daily, whether it’s referencing masks or vaccines or immigration policies or gun rights or first amendment debates: “No one is going to tell me what to do.” No limits. No bumpers.
Now, there are many disconnects for me in our culture, so ordinarily this wouldn’t perturb me much. But what does have my attention is that I’m hearing this same distorted view of freedom espoused regularly in the Church, among followers of Jesus. Any limits, any restraints on individual “freedom” are seen as anti-American and therefore surely must be anti-Christian as well. Good Lord.
Are you having these conversations with people? We need to be teaching and walking our people into a better biblical understanding and a deeper maturity of faith. Godly wisdom requires looking not only at my own situation, but also the effects on other people. Especially the effects on other people. Following Jesus involves learning to let Someone Else tell us what to do. Part of that training means practicing restraint for the sake of others. The truth is, we need bumpers on our bowling lanes. Limitations and restraints actually allow us to thrive, while doing anything we want quickly leads to imprisonment.
Fortunately, in creating us as people with free will, God gives us the freedom to choose limits. In scripture, he even provides guidance in what those limits look like. The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the call to watch out for the needs of others (Philippians 2:3-4) and to give ourselves away for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel (Mark 8:35) are all bumpers that keep us from the potential disaster of doing anything we feel like. These restraints are never failproof, of course. We can easily turn them into a soul-deadening legalism.
The current clamor for a freedom defined as “no limits” has nothing to do with the kind of freedom scripture talks about. It is not the kind of freedom Jesus turned people toward. Real freedom, Christian freedom, involves choosing to restrain ourselves for the sake of others. We are truly freest when we make wise choices around limits. Anglican pastor Tish Harrison Warren wrote about this in her New York Times column on September 26th, and you can access that column here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/26/opinion/choice-liberty-freedom.html. It’s worth reading.
If you are a pastor or faith leader, it’s very important to find ways to engage people around this issue. But here’s the caveat I’ve been thinking about lately: we can’t possibly have this conversation with others about real freedom…until we learn it ourselves. No surprise there, right?! Being a pastor always involves being a person first, not simply playing a role. Are we practicing restraint, are we choosing others over ourselves, are we modeling what it means to limit what we could do in order to serve those around us? Do we have people and systems of accountability set up that act as bumpers to keep us walking the right direction?
Any pastor who has been listening to the Christianity Today podcast series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” (which seems to be everyone I know) ought to be scared to death. Or at least driven to some deep reflection and conversation. Who are you
accountable to? What does that look like? Are there people who will call you out for being too independent, making unilateral decisions, being so worried about your rights or reputation or legacy that you aren’t watching out for those around you? Do you need to specifically ask someone(s) to serve as a bumper?
The clarion value of Mike Cosper’s Rise and Fall series is not the degradation of one leader or church but wondering why we in the broader Church repeatedly elevate people to leadership who do not have mature egos. Part of that maturity involves self-limitation and restraint. Without those things, freedom turns into a prison. With them, the community around us is freely served and pointed towards Jesus instead of us. That’s a good thing. Just like bumpers at a bowling alley.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.