Question:What is freemasonry and what should the Christian response to this organization be?
Answer:To some, freemasonary is a Satan-inspired conspiratorial organization of secret anti-government, anti-Christian men, and to others it is a fraternal social organization very similar to the Elks and the Lion’s club. The truth lies somewhere in between, but for the vast majority of participants it is closer to the latter description.
It is the history of this organization–vastly different from the Elks and the Lion’s club–which has, in part, marked it for so much scrutiny. Dan Brown, author of the infamous DaVinci Code, did nothing to diminish the perception of the Masons as a murky, secret, world-dominating group of the powerful elite, as he falsely connected them with the mythical Illuminati.
So, let me begin with an extremely brief summary of the history of this interesting group. Its origins are rather obscure–going back to the late Middle Ages, when the stone masons were one of many guilds of craftsmen such as those who made barrels or leather goods. In this case, the free masons were the guild of those who cut stones, and therefore who built the great churches in the late Middle Ages. What is obscure is how the guild morphed into the esoteric organization which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries across Europe and in what later becase the United States. What began as rituals, handshakes and degrees of professional stoneworking skill became what would seem to most of us as bizarre semi-religious secret practices which has nothing to do with the cutting of stones. The extremes of secrecy of these rituals naturally has always brought a great deal of suspicion on the members–especially on the inner circle of practitioners of freemasonry. Adding to this is the fact that many very influential men have been involved in the freemasons.
So, what is this semi-religious activity about? I believe it is fair to say that it is hard to describe, and that for most of the participants it is really not about religion at all. However, there are some for whom masonry (a name equivalent to free-masonry) did become a kind of religion. The philosophy/religious approach it is somewhat related to is deism. Deism is fairly rare today, but during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was the refuge of many on the religious left who rejected the central claims of Christianity, especially the supernatural nature of Jesus Christ, yet still accepted the idea of a supernatural deity. A deist agrees that there is a creator/God, but denies his role in our daily lives. There are several different schisms in free-masonry, but most require commitment to the idea of a supreme being. Famous deists include Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were freemasons. Freemasonry may have had some influence on the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Unitarian Universalist Church was created from a deistic perspective and many freemasons were members of this church. It is hard to give a useful analogy, but we could think of the freemason idea of God as similar to AA, which points people toward a “higher power,” but not to any higher power in particular. These semi-religious free-masons developed a rather odd ritual which involved worship of an esoteric deity not necessarily associated with Christianity. This included what any outsider would naturally see as a bizarre set of rituals and many levels of secret “deeper” knowledge. This can be seen as a similar phenomenon to the Gnostics who played a similar role in the late Roman Empire and who had such a negative interaction with the Orthodox Christian Church. The levels of secrecy in the masons may have developed, at least in part, because their developing belief system was inherently non-Christian and certainly would have been very controversial and even dangerous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Is there even an iota of truth to all the speculation about conspiracies and connection to earlier esoteric secret groups? The answer is yes, there is an iota of truth, but probably just an iota. This aspect of masonry has been greatly exaggerated. For example, during the French Revolution, many or most of the revolutionaries were masons. The French Revolution implicity rejected biblical Christianity and it should not be too big a surprise that freemasons played a role in the French Revolution. Freemasons were involved in other revolutionary movements, for example in Russia. However, it would be easy to exaggerate the role of masonry or to make the mistake of seeing the organization as the cause of such revolutionary upheavals. If there is an apparent connection between freemasons and other esoteric fraternal groups, it may be primarily because those who join in such secret organizations with their hidden knowledge and sense of fraternity are all a bit similar, even if they were separately invented. An interesting connection is to note the fact that Joseph Smith began a masonic lodge in Nauvoo, Illinois which all his chief leaders joined, and the almost identical handshakes, symbols and levels of secrecy which he made part of the temple practices in Mormonism. Joseph Smith was nothing if he was not smart about how to form a religion which would appeal to people’s sense of a need for meaning in ritual. It is this inherent need for a sense of access to deeper knowledge and ritual which continues to draw people to the more esoteric forms of masonry. However, on the whole, we can reject all or at least nearly all the conspiracy theories which have surrounded free-masonry for the past three hundred years. On the whole, although the organization is clearly not Christian, and could even be thought of as mildly anti-Christian, it is for the most part a harmless group of men which actually does a fair amount of good in their social work activities. Lyndon Johnson was a member as is John Elway. Most become involved out of a sense of civic responsibility, not to take over governments or even to oppose Christianity.
Could a Bible-believing person be a member of the masons? I would not want to make an absolute blanket statement. The large majority of members of this organization are simply looking for an group to join in order to have fellowship and brotherhood, as well as to help their local communities. Yet, the underlying philosophy of the esoteric aspect of this group is deism and is definitely not Christian. We could describe this perhaps as a bit like being involved in yoga. In principle, yoga is Hinduism, plain and simple and surely a Christian would not ascribe to Hinduism. Yet, virtually all who participate in yoga are simply taking part in exercises which are probably very good for their health. But, the farther one delves into yoga, the more one realizes that at heart there is a philosophy behind even what seem to be harmless (actually helpful!) exercises whichs involves pantheism and finding the god-self within. No Christian can agree with this false theology. So, is it sinful for a Christian to do yoga exercises? For me, personally, I choose not to take part even in these simple yoga exercises, as I would never consider joining the free-masons, but I believe that for most participants, to be involved simply in yogic exercise or even to join a local civic organization such as the masons is a gray area and one we should not judge one another over. However, as a Bible teacher, I personally choose to be above even the possible appearance of compromise on theological questions, so I would not personally participate in either freemasonry or yoga.
There is a lot more that could be said about masonry and their checkered history, but this will give us at least a bare-bones introduction to this very interesting organization.