While the idea is open to criticism, I think we can accurately talk about the Church as a “voluntary association.” The Church doesn’t understand itself voluntary in the sense that a secular fraternal organization does. The Church is a voluntary association because we respond freely to God’s grace.
Maybe the clearest example of this is the baptismal service. The candidate (or the sponsor on the candidate’s behalf) freely deny Satan and instead chooses to worship Christ as “King and Lord.”
Moving from theology to law, this voluntary quality of the Church is why laws about freedom of association matter to Orthodox Christians. Laws that compel, or deny, right of citizens to voluntarily join gather together hamper (and might even undermine) the ability of Christians to respond freely to “gather together as the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Ultimately no government can compel my obedience. Yes, the civil authority can prevent me from gathering with the Church but it can’t prevent me from joining the Church in heaven. In fact, as the martyrs testify, it might even speed me along the way to the latter as it seeks to prevent the former.
That said, it seems to me better to me that the Church has the civil freedom to respond to God’s grace. This means not only the freedom to worship God as we see fit inside the church building but also to evangelize in the Public Square.and shape our personal and professional lives according to the Gospel.
It also must mean the freedom to shape our personal and professional lives according to the Gospel.
Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacobs pointed out recently, “freedom of association has taken a beating in recent decades” especially as it pertains to making economic decisions based on religious convictions or ethical values. ” Merchants and contractors have seen their right to form or avoid voluntary commercial relationships with others steadily curtailed.”
Theologically as much as civilly,”To be free, by definition, is to make choices that others may not favor.” And let’s not be naive, Christians aren’t immune from the temptation to misuse our “freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association.” Christians like everyone else make decisions that “lead to unfairness” for others.
“But over time” freedom of association and economic freedom are generally “far more effective antidote(s) to prejudice and abuse than government coercion can ever be.”
For both Church and State, the freedom to create voluntary associations is “vital.” What we can’t overlook, however, the Church’s freedom to worship and to evangelize is intimately connected with the freedom for ALL Americans to shape their economic lives as they see fit. Just as no “law or court can tell you whom to befriend or what candidate to support or which neighborhood to live in. Neither should the state have anything to say about what company you’re willing to do business with — or whether a company is willing to do business with you.”
Without economic freedom, Orthodox Christians lose the ability to shape a significant portion of our lives according to the Gospel. This is why, even when we disagree on moral grounds with the decisions they make, it is imperative that we defended the economic freedom of others.
For all that this defense of economic freedom of others might seem a distraction from the Gospel, it is nevertheless an important, if admitted secondary, part of the Orthodox Church‘s moral witness.