Freedom and the Holy Spirit
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty"
(2 Corinthians 3:17)
By Philip A. Matthews
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty." But as we know from the rules of logic, the contrapositive is also true: "Where there is no liberty, there will be no Spirit of the Lord." In other words, the Spirit can work only where It is given the liberty to work.
Some churches do not give the Spirit of God the freedom to do whatever He wants to do among them. They try to force God to do His thing in their way, at their time, according to their imagination of how things should go, according to their traditions, based on what they can accept, and fitting in with their theological doctrines. Needless to say, if God does not have the freedom among them, then He cannot and will not work among them. The Spirit can only do as much as it is given the freedom to do.
Liberty In Worship
What are some examples of limiting God and hindering the Holy Spirit? Take the area of worship, for example. Individual and corporate worship, a key component of life in Christ, must be given over entirely to the freedom and control of the Holy Spirit. For God to have His way with worship, the Spirit must be given liberty to inspire and motivate as He desires. Worshippers must feel fully free to express themselves to the Lord. In fact, this must be encouraged. They must not be required to stifle their emotions, to limit their outward expressions, to refrain from clapping or getting excited, to sing softly and expressionless, to remain reserved and dignified-and dead. After what God has done for us all, after how different our lives have been made, after we consider how utterly great and awesome He truly is-unexpressive worship ought to be a "cardinal sin."
Throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments, wherever the Spirit of God was free to inspire and control worship, the natural expression of those under its influence was never cold, dry, formal, unemotional, reserved, and completely controlled by human efforts. On the contrary, from the days of the prophets to the days of the apostles, being "in the Spirit" or under the influence of the Spirit was always accompanied by complete, uninhibited freedom of expression in some manner: loud (not subdued) praising, ecstatic utterances, prophesying, singing, dancing, shouting, running, overflowing with uncontainable joy, crying, falling down, and so forth. This was the normal, natural expression, not something weird and out of the ordinary.
Indeed, it would have been out of the ordinary for someone to be filled with the Spirit-or for the Spirit to "come upon" someone-without the Spirit expressing Himself freely and uninhibitedly. And the interesting thing is that every move of God since the time of the apostles has been accompanied by similar manifestations.
Abandonment To God
The word "hallelujah" comes from a Hebrew word, 'halal,' that includes the concept of praising God ('Jah') clamorously, in a raving manner, and with abandonment. This is the kind of praise King David offered when he brought the Ark of God to Jerusalem. "David danced before the Lord with all his might" (2 Samuel 6:14). This showed his utter abandonment in praising God. All reserve had fled the scene. While this may appear to be a wrong or even dangerous worship attitude, both the Old and New Testaments reveal that this is the biblical way to praise. With utter abandonment. Without reserve. In a celebratory manner. "In the Spirit," which means under the control of the Spirit instead of humanity (fears, inhibitions, thoughts, and feelings).
Biblical, Spirit-controlled praise is never driven and limited by doctrine and traditions. Certain traditions allow for only certain messages to be expressed. But what if the Holy Spirit has something else to express? What if God wants to move on someone in a way that is not according to tradition? He would not be free to do so in an atmosphere driven by doctrine and traditions.
"Quench not the Spirit," Paul warns in 1 Thessalonians 5:19. Only heightened awareness of and increasing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit will insure that Spirit-filled praise, worship, and life is assisted and not hindered by respectable traditions or the limits of humanity. Why should anyone hold back in his praise and worship to God? To make sure that "things don't get out of hand?" To keep from offending other people? To avoid embarrassment? To maintain respectability? In speaking of his uninhibited praise, David said, "I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes..." (2 Samuel 6:21 NIV). But Michal, David's wife, was greatly offended by his freedom in worship. She didn't like what he wore nor how he acted. She despised and ridiculed him, for which God severely punished her. Michal's fate, barrenness and fruitlessness, is the fate of all those who limit God's Spirit.
A Deliberate Release Required
For the Holy Spirit to have complete freedom and liberty, a person must make a conscious, deliberate decision to release himself into the Spirit's control, i.e., to quit holding onto his inhibitions, fear of others, self-consciousness, or fear of losing control and getting "carried away." All of these indicate a type of holding back from utter abandonment of one's soul, body, mind, and spirit to the control of the Spirit of God.
In addition to the above emotional inhibitions, there are many doctrinal inhibitions: certain things must or must not be felt or done; certain ideas must or must not be accepted; certain words or phrases must or must not be said in certain religious circles; or certain "qualifications" must be met in order to "earn the privilege" to praise God. But the fact is that much of our respectable "reserve" is just a socially-acceptable way to maintain pride. All of it accomplishes the same negative result: It dams up the release of the Holy Spirit and blocks it from flowing freely. The Holy Spirit cannot flow freely when hindered by the contraptions of humanness. Neither the Holy Spirit nor human beings are free to worship in an atmosphere of inhibitions, fear, reserve, restrictions, and other types of emotional baggage and spiritual bondage.
When talking about liberty in worship, some sincerely concerned soul usually comes up with this classic objection: "Yes, that sounds pretty good; we could use a little help, a little more freedom of expression, but we need to be careful that we don't go too far." That, in a nutshell, is exactly how to continue limiting spiritual expression in worship because too much subjectivity is involved. How far is "too far?" According to whose standard is it "too far?" The standard is surely not to be based merely on what certain individuals might be accustomed to or comfortable with, because everyone has a different comfort zone. These fears and inhibitions are the very reasons why many people do not feel free in worship: some unknown persons (usually referred to as "they") might be "watching me, ready to criticize or condemn what I do."
Such attitudes inhibit and limit the people and the Holy Spirit as well. The focus should not be on keeping everything under control or trying to avoid going "too far" and getting "carried away." Instead, the main focus of the church should be to create and maintain an atmosphere of spiritual freedom for the Holy Spirit to work. The Holy Spirit must have this atmosphere of freedom if He is going to have the preeminence in the congregation of His saints.
Other Areas Needing An Atmosphere of Freedom
This principle of deliberately giving the Holy Spirit freedom-of not "quenching" the Spirit-does not apply to worship only. It carries over into every other area of the life of the church. One area is in the way the church does ministry. The Holy Spirit, not church traditions and doctrines, must be the driving force and provide the guiding principles for church ministry. What are those principles? As long as sin is not involved and as long as the true message of the gospel is not obscured, the church must be free to use any means and methods, any resource materials, and any Spirit-gifted person to efficiently further the work of the church.
How is this principle to be applied? Here are just a few examples:
(1) The church must be free to use any song or music inspired by the Holy Spirit, not just traditional songs in the hymnal. While hymns express much about the character of God, praise and worship songs, although often simple, express certain emotions, desires, and aspects about the Christian experience that hymns simply do not express. Thus, for certain people, hymn singing alone does not allow them to express their praise freely.
(2) The church must be free to use any biblically-sound, God-given Christian resource materials, not just those denominationally-created (i.e., materials created by a single group of associated churches). God has always spoken and continues to speak through Christians of different religious backgrounds. Utilizing resources-books, training materials, educational media, and other written and recorded products-from only one part of the body of Christ results in missed opportunities for spiritual knowledge and growth. The church misses out on what God has given to other Christians throughout the world. The gifts given and the resources developed throughout the body of Christ are to benefit everybody, because this is one way the Holy Spirit helps all Christians to come to the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13).
(3) The church must be free to use any Spirit-gifted person-male or female, young or old, of any ethnicity, of any social status-in its efforts to minister, even if they do not have the same religious background and may differ on various secondary issues (i.e., issues that are not essential for a person to be saved). This does not mean that doctrinal beliefs are unimportant or that a church is required to indiscriminately use anybody in every capacity. Christians should be utilized in the areas in which the Holy Spirit has gifted them. But it is foolish and shortsighted for anyone to assume that the Christians he happens to associate with are the only Christians in the world being used of God. Every church and every Christian ought to be able to receive benefit from whomever God is gifting and anointing. Once again, the main criteria are that sin is not involved and the true message of the gospel is not being obscured.
(4) Another area in the church that needs liberty concerns the general atmosphere and spirit maintained in the church. The atmosphere in the church must be one in which everyone feels loved and accepted. This does not mean that the church cannot have or maintain a standard of holiness. It simply means that the church must define holiness as the presence of God's Spirit in the believer's life, not merely the following of a set of religious rules and expectations. If Jesus Christ had maintained an attitude of condemnation and perpetuated an atmosphere of guilt, He never would have been such a popular guest at the dinner parties of sinners.
But in order to maintain an atmosphere of love and acceptance, the church needs to be free of guilt and condemnation. Thus, it needs to be free of the spirit of legalism: lots of do's and don'ts. Religious law never brings liberty but bondage. It never creates an atmosphere of freedom but an environment of fear, internal comparisons, emphasis on "measuring up," and judgment. Concentrating on secondary issues-issues that are not essential for a person to be saved-eliminates the spirit of liberty. Political dynamics-pressures to accept or not accept, to approve or disapprove, certain Christians, doctrines, or practices-eliminate the spirit of liberty. Preoccupation with oneself, attempts to gain approval from others and to live a group-oriented religion, versus having an individual relationship with God-all of these eliminate the spirit of liberty.
God By His Spirit Must Reign
Giving the Holy Spirit freedom to work is critical because that is the only way the Holy Spirit can work. God and His Spirit must be exalted to the highest position possible in each life and in the church in general. There is a "throne" within every person's heart, every church, and every movement. Either God sits upon that throne, or something else sits there. Whatever sits there is worshipped as god. For example, in the heart of an individual, either God or self sits on the throne. In a church or movement, either God by His Spirit sits upon the throne, or the movement's doctrine and methodology sit there to be worshipped as god. If a movement is exalting and worshipping its own doctrine and methodology, it eventually loses the glory and anointing of God and becomes powerless and ineffective.
Why does the glory disappear? The glory leaves because God said, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). God Himself-not His blessings, benefits, gifts, or teachings-must be loved and worshipped supremely. When this is not done, the Spirit of God gradually withdraws. The glory and anointing also disappear because people cease to obey the Spirit when they exalt doctrine and methodology. Thus, the Spirit, which is the source of glory and anointing, is grieved.
The phrase, "doctrine and methodology," includes everything that characterizes a particular religious movement: its methods of operation, its history of what God has done in the past, its basic, distinguishing teachings, its name and reputation, its traditions, its concept of "acceptable" service to God, its idea of "spirituality," its way of "doing" church, and so forth. All of these things may come from God, but they are not God. When these things are exalted and worshipped-that is, when they become the main focus and emphasis of that movement-then that church has replaced the lordship of the Holy Spirit with the lordship of doctrine and methodology. The movement no longer focuses directly on the presence of the Spirit of God but on how to operate its religion. The method of how to operate its religion then rules the church.
What is the evidence that the "god of doctrine and methodology," not the Holy Spirit, is ruling a church? There are two unmistakable and undeniable signs:
(1) There is a lack of anointing and effectiveness in the church. Churches are weak, stagnant, and dying only because they neglect to closely follow the Holy Spirit. Prayers are not answered only because the wrong god-a god that has no power-is sitting upon the throne receiving worship from the people. (See Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, 1 Kings 18.)
(2) There is a lack of freedom given to the Holy Spirit in practical ways. For example, "Don't sing that song here; it comes from another church. Don't use that material or those books; it comes from sectism. Don't get happy here; that's too much emotionalism. Don't exercise your gift here because you're too young, or this is not our customary time, or you don't meet our religious qualifications. Don't use that word here because it violates our acceptable religious lingo. Don't associate with those people over there because they are not with 'us.' Don't do it that way, because that's not how we have always done it." These statements are very reminiscent of the restrictions the Pharisees placed on Jesus Christ-"Don't heal anybody today, because that will violate our sabbath laws" (see Luke 13:14). They rejected the Son of God Himself because He did not fit in with their religious way of doing things.
These attitudes show that very little consideration is being given to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may be using that person or that method or that time or that song to bring a blessing to His people. The Holy Spirit is ruled out when there is no realization that there is no special virtue, power, or anointing in doctrines or methods, but only in the Holy Spirit having its way. The main task of the body of Christ is to maintain a certain level of fruitfulness. (See John 15:16).
Thus, the number one concern of the church must be to maintain that special anointing, effectiveness, and divine Presence produced only by the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Means, methods, and customs will change from place to place, age to age, and culture to culture. When certain means, methods, and customs cease to be effective, then the Holy Spirit must have the freedom to choose to anoint other means, methods, and customs. There is nothing sacred about any means, methods, or customs. Only Jesus Christ is sacred. He must be obeyed meticulously and His Spirit never grieved.
Quenching the Spirit Is Sin
God is not as interested in His church observing some symbolic "sabbath laws" as He is in the church effectively saving souls. If a certain system of religion enables a church to faithfully follow the "sabbath laws" but does not enable it to effectively save and deliver souls, bodies and minds, then that system is a hindrance and must be released. If the church refuses to let it go, then that religious system is exalted to the place of honor that God and His Spirit alone deserve. This act of exalting something-anything-above God is a direct act of pride, rebellion, and selfishness-the grave sin of idolatry-for which a church must humble itself and repent before God will ever fully bless it.
This binding of the Holy Spirit ("grieving, quenching, subduing, and suppressing" in various translations) is the very same spirit that kept Jesus Christ from doing many mighty works in certain places and eventually crucified Him. The Holy Spirit cannot work where it is not given the freedom to do so and where religious people have made their doctrines and methodology a god. (See Matthew 15:1-9.) The ideal atmosphere for the Holy Spirit is one of openness and liberty, where God is truly allowed to do His work and His will in His way. Anything less grieves and hinders Him.
The purpose of this article is not to persuade people and churches to make lots of changes just for the sake of change, but to encourage people to put God back on the "throne" in their personal lives and in the church. Let us truly make the Holy Spirit preeminent. Let us dare to do nothing simply because of its historical significance or because we like it and it feels comfortable, but only because it has the fresh anointing and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit upon it now. Let us recognize the startling truth that if the Holy Spirit is given the liberty to rule the church, it will make sure that the church stays effective and anointed. If the church is not effective and anointed, then it is obvious that the Spirit has been pushed aside. Every individual and church that is missing, to any degree, the full anointing and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit, should honestly ask the following question: "Lord, how have I or how have we pushed You aside?" And we should respond to His answer with contrite obedience.
People are looking for a place where God can be experienced in His power, glory, and present reality, where the Bible is happening now, where things are alive and relevant today-and where church history takes the back seat it is supposed to take.
Fellow Christians, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Where there is no liberty, the Spirit of the Lord will eventually cease to be. Where there is no Spirit of the Lord, there is no true anointing, no glory, no vibrancy, no growth-and no life. A church that is not growing from the outside is stagnant and dying-even if it takes another twenty years to shut down completely. May God bless us all to learn to let God, through His Holy Spirit, have His way.
© 2001 Philip A Matthews