The foundation of individualism and personal freedom is found in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. God shows His people that He relates to each person individually not to groups like tribes and nations. Cultures which have been influenced by Christianity have moved these ideas forward over the centuries and extended freedom into their political and economic systems.
Discover the Origins of Freedom and How to Attain it
The President of the United States of America (not the awesome music group) many times is referred to as “The Leader Of The Free World”. Where do we get this idea from? The Free World. What are we freed from? What are we now free to do? Somewhere in the corner of your mind I hope you realize the question is to you individually. If you don’t get to exercise freedom in your own specific life, is it really worth anything?
What is freedom?
A place to start to understand freedom is in the letter Paul wrote to the Gaelic people in Asia Minor.
Galatians 5:5: It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
In Paul’s letter he is calling us to be free from disobedience to God our Father. The yoke of slavery is sin. You and I are now free to obey by placing our faith in Jesus. But there is more there if you think about it. Paul is also describing freedom from family traditions or cultural obligations.
We live in a culture today where those things aren’t a big deal. However, pre-modern human society was built upon the idea of tribal identity. The tribe (your family essentially) lived life one way, which meant everyone lived life that way. You weren’t free to choose for yourself. If your tribe attacked another tribe to get revenge, then you attacked. You didn’t get to choose what you wanted to do or think about how to achieve true justice.
The Hebrews in the Jewish Scriptures grew up with this same mind set, but even then, more than 2500 years ago, God was teaching them that He pursues relationships with individuals.
Ezekiel 18: 14 Now behold, he has a son who has observed all his father’s sins which he committed, and observing does not do likewise.
15 He does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 or oppress anyone, or retain a pledge, or commit robbery, but he gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, 17 he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, but executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes; he will not die for his father’s iniquity, he will surely live.
18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity. 19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.
20 The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
It should be clear from what God tells Ezekiel that He is confronting the idea of tribal identity. You don’t have to suffer for what someone else does, but you won’t be blessed for someone else’s obedience either. That was a revolutionary idea in the ancient world where tribal guilt and atonement was important to pagan religions.
Examples of freedom in history
The Israelites push back on this concept in verse 19. It makes sense since there are instances when God blesses or judges groups of people together. Think of the example in the book of Jonah. God is planning to destroy the whole city of Nineveh because of their great sin (Jonah 1:2, 3:4, 3:9). He doesn’t distinguish between the amount of one man’s sin versus another.
Yet, this doesn’t contradict what was written in Ezekiel 18. God isn’t saying he will punish a man for another person’s sin. He is proclaiming that all residents were guilty before Him and deserving of judgment. The good news is that they all responded with repentance. God relented in His anger and the whole city of Nineveh was saved (Jonah 3:10).
The point is that the whole city was either going to experience judgment or blessing from God. He wasn’t going to divide the city into multiple groups in order to give them different outcomes.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that the idea of personal forgiveness or judgment before God can be seen throughout the Bible. These various instances provide a basis for the philosophical concept called individualism. If God deals with individuals, then we should deal with other people as individuals. Paul makes that perfectly clear in another part of Galatians.
Galatians 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
The group identity is stripped off of each individual in the passage above, and as a result it is seen that each person has equal value and is unified in their humanity alone. This idea for hundreds of years has worked its way through twists and turns into the Church and Western culture.
The Church and Western culture
Progress has been slow and inconsistent, but the American values we have today go back to the gospel you see in Galatians 3:26-29. We know not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, education level, religious practice, and political affiliation. We say things like “you do you” because we value and celebrate individualism, while also not excusing sinful behavior.
Looking back we can see how individualism played a role in the development of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, the Industrial Revolution, the Columbian exchange and Democracy. To be sure, we, as fallen people, misuse individualism to our harm. Still, the exciting world we live in today is based on personal freedom, which starts with God personally freeing us from sin through the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ.
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