Where do our rights, like the freedom of conscience, come from? The Bill of Rights? Government? Church leaders? The Bible? God?
The real question is do they come from God or from man? If from man, they can be taken away, because what man has a right to give, he has a right to take away. If our rights, on the other hand, come from God, mere mortals cannot take them away. Politicians, kings, and despots may come and go, and may very well infringe on those rights. But they lord illegitimate authority, not God-given authority. The rights that unprincipled men usurp, in a proper worldview, can still be returned to their rightful owners by rejecting the usurpers. This is the concept of “natural rights.”
This idea is essential to American liberty, but should not be confused as a “political” idea. The concept is critical to all of humanity, greatly affecting our liberty from those in every generation who would attempt to rule over us, not just in the political realm, but in the spiritual as well. As humans, we must know from whom our rights originate. If we don’t, we’ll be easily enslaved, as the whole of human history shows.
Like the people who followed the Pharisees, the people following Stanton’s teachers have given their freedom of conscience over to them—not unlike Esau selling his birthright—and thus put themselves in bondage to them. And yes, “teachers” at Stanton are an exact replica of the “rabbis” of Jesus’s day in a very real sense, since “rabbi” just means “teacher,” and their sole purpose is to interpret the will of God
This bondage to the opinions of fallible humans is expressed by “seeking counsel” from the religious authorities–the teachers–not just in major decisions, like who you can date or marry, or where you can move, but also in everyday decisions, like what activities are acceptable for parents to let their kids take part in, whether you can have a glass of wine at a restaurant with your wife, or what clothing you can wear (without getting rebuked or looked down upon, at least).
In short, every decision in life must be run through the “counsel” of these self-appointed “rabbis.” In the first century, this was expressed by asking the rabbis if they should tithe their spice rack, or how long was a sabbath day’s journey, and if it’s “work” to help your ox out of a ditch. Now, it’s expressed by asking the rabbis if a family vacation is OK, or if one can go into another church’s meeting place for a wedding, or whether women can wear ankle bracelets. And the list goes on. And don’t think you can speak out against this rabbi class without repercussions. Remember, your right to hold your own conscience sacrosanct—to stand or fall before God alone—has been handed to the rabbis. You’ve sold that birthright for a bowl of soup, or some pretended unity.
Without true freedom of conscience, leaders cannot lead, they can only enforce. They become tyrants lording their own consciences over their subjects, whether intentionally or not; whether maliciously or not. This is indisputable when church members have no freedom of conscience of their own to form their own opinions. They must submit to the opinions of their superiors.
And this is the crux of the bondage Stanton members are in. They willfully hand their consciences over to their teachers/preachers/rabbis/pastors/overlords (a rose by any other name…), in the same way a Catholic might subject his conscience to that of his priest or pope. Opinions are handed down from above, and the people must accept them or have their consciences pressured, usually by social repercussions, into submission. But as my parents used to tell me as a teen, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” He just can’t tell anyone without fear of reprisal.
The irony is that Alexander Campbell led the charge in freeing men’s consciences from the shackles of other religious leaders of his day. He argued strenuously for the elimination of manmade creeds, equating them to instruments of torture for the consciences of free people in his essay The Parable of the Iron Bedstead. But the heirs of his movement in the Stanton sect have designed stronger and more cunning shackles than their forebears, all but stripping any freedom of conscience from their subjects.
Stanton teachers may not have written creeds, but they sure do have plenty of unwritten ones. And one dare not cross them, under penalty of “withdrawal” for “murmuring.” As the saying goes, if you want to know who your masters are, find out who you’re not allowed to criticize.
How do we know that God meant for his people to be free to follow their own consciences? Simple. Every sermon in the New Covenant scriptures and every letter written to the first century churches appealed first to the reason of the hearers and readers, not the authority of the speakers and writers. When Peter preached his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, his words were intended to convince the audience, not coerce them. “Come let us reason together,” Isaiah wrote. Remember that?
If Peter, or Jesus, Paul, or any other New Testament writer had appealed to their religious authority instead of simple persuasion, we would be having a different discussion. They didn’t. They presented evidence and arguments with the intention of educating consciences and persuading them, not bringing them around by compulsion.
We have only to recognize Luke’s praise of the Bereans as “more noble than those in Thessalonica” to see this principle in action. Why were they “more noble,” we should ask? Because they searched the scriptures for themselves. It was not because they got the right answer from the most highly esteemed rabbi. Or the most highly esteemed evangelist or teacher, for that matter.