Fromm, Freedom, and First Corinthians


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In the movie, “Support You Local Sheriff,” James Garner as sheriff gets Bruce Dern to sit quietly in a prison cell with no bars in it, later even getting Dern to help him install the bars, by convincing him that crossing the imaginary walls surrounding the cell would be far more dangerous than sitting quietly and passively in his place. While humorous, it speaks to a human feeling that life is safer and better when one doesn’t push beyond certain boundaries. As a child, being wrapped up– cocooned– in my quilt at night seemed so much safer than exposing myself to the unknown darkness of my bedroom.

Erich Fromm was a German Psychologist, 1900-1980. One of his works was “Escape from Freedom” written in 1941 (aka “Fear of Freedom”)— a timely writing in light of the expansion of Fascism at that time (overlapping as well with Bolshevism, and later Maoism).

As one of Marxist sympathies, Fromm saw history in terms of economic and class struggles— with an overall historical progress. Such progress he saw bringing greater freedom to people. Yet, such freedom does not bring happiness. In fact, freedom tends to lead to social disconnection and loneliness. As such, people look for avenues to address the “problem of freedom.”

Not everyone accepts Fromm’s thesis. I recall listening to an old audiotape by a Libertarian/Objectivist speaker who argued that he and people he knew embraced freedom. He may be somewhat correct but I suspect that a broader sampling of the public would support Fromm’s view that freedom is rather scary. Additionally, the speaker appeared to be speaking with the opinion that absolute freedom would position himself as one of the “winners” rather than one of the “losers.” This is a fairly dubious presumption. In the seesaw battle between Freedom and Security, people gradually shift their resources toward Security.

Fromm argues that three bad ways that groups address freedom are:avt_erich-fromm_9948

  1.  Authoritarianism.  Find security by allowing an individual, someone else, make the choices… having both control and responsibility for what happens.
  2. Automaton Conformity.  In the Philippines one might say “Pakikisama” (at least in its negative sense). Individual choice is replaced by control via group norms and taboos.  This forms a closed or legalistic society.
  3. Destructiveness. People struggle with choice and deaden the fear of freedom with addictive, criminal, and other self-destructive behaviors.

All of these have relevance in church. Authoritarian churches place their power in one charismatic, controlling leader, who makes decisions for the group. Other churches place a lot of fear, shame, and guilt on individuals within the church to ensure conformity to church values (often become quite legalistic as these norms are eventually given moral weight). The third one, destructiveness, is typically more individualistic than characteristic of a church as a whole, except in times of corporate stress (typically as a church splits or undergoes a crisis of leadership), or in embracing heresy.

All of the above are linked to spiritual abuse in some manner, but especially the first two.. Authoritarian churches have the abuse primarily centered on one single abuser (or a small power bloc), while with “automaton conformity” the abuse is more tied to the overall culture… a repressive conformity.

Healthy response to freedom (and in Christ we do have freedom) is seen by Fromm as “self-realization.” Within a Christian context, this may be transparency and mutuality. The body metaphor of the church (each part working together for the good of the other) seems quite relevant here. It seems like, applying some of Fromm’s thoughts, the church can’t simply declare we have freedom in Christ. People struggle with such freedom. Rather, it must train people how to embrace such freedom in a positive interdependent way.

Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to freedom in the church. Paul gives wisdom when it comes to the question of whether one can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul’s answer is YES you can. However, don’t eat if it bothers you (be uncomfortable by this freedom) and don’t act on your freedom so that it causes problems with others.

With this in mind, I believe we can now get to I Corinthians 10:23-24.

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.…

The church of Corinth struggled with freedom in Christ. I have heard these verses used to push radical individualism and an antinomian mindset (Destructive response to freedom). I have heard them used to form a new quasi-legalism (Automaton Conformity). After all, since there is always the possibility of a “weaker brother” lurking somewhere, we should always avoid exercising Christian freedom. And I have known people who, so disturbed by the freedom they have that they run desperately to an authority figure to tell them what to do (Authoritarianism).

But a better understanding is not found filtered through individualism, but through a relational, mutual, community of the “Body of Christ.”.

I have great freedom to do as I wish in Christ. However, I support and build up members of my church as they, likewise, support and build up me. So I exercise freedom as it is healthy for myself and others. And I limit the exercise of my freedom, not out of coercion, but out of love.

If you are interested, you can read Fromm’s book on-line HERE.

A review of Fromm’s book from a church perspective by Barnabas Ministry is HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Fromm, Freedom, and First Corinthians

  1. I voluntarily limit my freedoms even though I believe that there is no wrong in doing the things from which I abstain. Sometimes I think that practicing freedom is the only way not to limit the freedom of others. While I may not be causing them to stumble, I often wonder whether or not they are constrained because of me?

    • An acquaintance of mine, a pastor, liked to separate between sincere weaker brothers and “professional weaker brothers.” The former one should show concern for regarding stumbling, but not the latter. May have a point.

      But I remember him telling an interesting story. He had a friend who was a new believer in Christ. One day he invited his friend to a baseball game. His friend got very tense. He was rather disturbed… but then explained. Before he was a Christian, he would go with his buddies to baseball games— there he would get drunk, swear, carouse, and bet on games. For him, that is what going to a baseball game entails. The pastor told him that if he was uncomfortable, neither of them would go. However, the pastor suggested that maybe he could learn how to enjoy a baseball game as a good thing in a good way.

      I suppose it takes discernment. (After all, I have met people that believe electric guitars are the devil’s instrument. Sensitivity is important, but helping them learn is also important.)

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