What Christians Mean By Freedom
This week’s lectionary readings include Galatians 5 in which Paul states that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
It is, at first glance, a strange saying. Christ has set us free for freedom? It seems redundant, almost like saying, “For being saved Christ has saved us,” or “For coming to church we’ve come to church.” It all seems rather obvious and unnecessary to say.
Why, then, might Paul make this strangely self-evident statement? He is, in my estimation, seeking in Galatians 5 to clarify the distinctive understanding of freedom that Christians ought to have.
This isn’t an abstract or irrelevant issue in our current moment. Indeed, “freedom” is the issue that’s dominating our national conversation at present. “Freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion” are the talk of the town, centring around one notorious rugby player.
I’m quite disinterested in talking about that particular sportsperson, though I am interested in the discourse about freedom that is currently being undertaken in this country, and indeed, in our churches.
Since the time of the so-called Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries—when the emphasis shifted from the community to the individual—our understanding of freedom in the West has changed radically. We began to understand freedom as the ability to take whatever actions we might choose without interference by others, especially governments. John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian Enlightenment philosopher, wrote in On Liberty that, “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs…”
In this way of thinking, in other words, freedom is the ability to determine our own lives, to make whatever choices we might want, so long as those choices don’t harm others.
Is this not the way we generally understand freedom in our time? When people speak of being free, isn’t this what we mean—being unrestrained in the choices we make?
Certainly, this is the default notion of freedom at the heart of debates around, say, freedom of speech. In many cases, people think that freedom of speech should mean that we ought to be able to say whatever we want, regardless of how offensive, or controversial, or distasteful, or even hurtful it might be. In other words, I should be able to say whatever I want without interference. This belief is held, indeed asserted, by many Christians.
The problem for Christians is that this kind of thinking about freedom isn’t remotely Christian.
Most ancient philosophers—not only Christians—held a very different view of freedom. For them, freedom wasn’t merely being unrestrained in one’s choices. In fact, Aristotle believed that defining freedom as doing what one likes is defining it badly, since always acting according to one’s desires is a kind of slavery. Freedom for these ancients was the ability to fulfil the purpose for which one had been created. In their minds, freedom wasn’t just freedom from something—it was freedom for something. They may have disagreed about the purpose for which we have been created, but they generally agreed that being free meant realising whatever this purpose is.
There is a vast difference between this kind of thinking about freedom and our own. One with this understanding of freedom might ask:
- Why am I even here?
- What kind of person am I supposed to be?
- What is the story of which I am a part, and how do I properly participate in it?
This, it hopefully goes without saying, is the notion of freedom that was held by the authors of Scripture, although it was of course directed towards God’s purposes. So, when Paul says that it’s for freedom that Christ set us free, we can begin to see what he might have meant.
It is to fulfil our reason for having been created that Christ liberated us. It is to participate in this grand story of God creating and then restoring the world that we have been set free.
This makes sense when Paul goes on to say this in Galatians 5:13–25:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not destroyed by one another.
Walk in spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit, and what the spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led in spirit, you are not subject to the [Jewish] Law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: whoring, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, rages, rivalries, dissensions, heresies, envies, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-mastery. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live in spirit, let us also be aligned with spirit.
A text like this asks us to consider who it is that is really free. Is the person whose life is led by the power of their latest whim really free? Is the person who makes seemingly free choices to satiate their fleeting desires really free? Who, or what, is really in control here?
Or, was Mother Teresa free? If she was, I very much doubt she felt like she had much of a choice to live in the way that she did. Or was Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche who died last month, free? (I suspect that, if you were able to get an unfiltered answer from people, most folks would admit that they think spending your life living in community with people with severe intellectual disabilities is giving up one’s freedom, not expressing it.)
We have, as a culture, become so obsessed with protecting our ability to make whatever choices we want that we’ve forgotten that our choices are often expressions of our captivity to our lusts and our emptiness and our fears. Paul’s words about the works of the flesh in Galatians 5 are not condemnations so much as observations—when we live in such a way as to give priority to our desires, we end up engaging in the kinds of practices he lists. By doing so, we miss out on experiencing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
In other words, we turn away from the reason for which we were created, seeking to fill the resulting hole with that which can never satisfy.
On the other hand, when we walk in step with spirit, led by God and not by our own longings, we will experience the true freedom of fulfilling our very reason for existence, displaying the fruit of such true freedom—love, joy, peace, and so forth.
The truth is that a life lived in utter freedom, shaped by love, would probably yield very few choices for us. And we would willingly hand our choices over knowing that we were participating in a story bigger than ourselves, fulfilling the very reason for which we were created.
In saying this, I’m not seeking to be harsh to those outside of the church while giving those within the church a pat on the back. Paul’s teaching is, after all, aimed at those within the church.
Truly, I’ve been quite disheartened by the way some Christians have gone on recently in demanding their own freedoms. To go back to the issue of freedom of speech, it seems many Christians want to enshrine their ability to say whatever they want in the public sphere, especially with regard to LGBTIQ people.
But I have bad news for them: following Jesus means we don’t get to say whatever we want.
If freedom is the fulfilling of our God-given purpose of conforming to the image of Jesus and participating in God’s renewal of all creation, then our “freedom of speech” takes a very particular, even peculiar, form. Freedom of speech for Christians is no more and no less than speech which contributes to our being formed into the likeness of Jesus, and to our participating in God’s love-filled mission of restoration for the world. If our speech doesn’t fulfil this qualification, it’s not free.
This isn’t to say that our speech shouldn’t be truthful, or at times even confronting. I mean, take a look at Jesus’ interactions with the powerful—they weren’t always “nice.” But note that, even when Jesus was speaking the truth in confronting ways, it was always from a place of love, not self-assertion or domination.
In contrast, I’d suggest that much Christian rhetoric is driven not by God’s love, but by our fear—our fear of losing our power and privileges, of becoming marginal in society.
But the church has always done best when it’s not the majority, when it’s not in control of society. The truth is, there’s nothing to fear—God is working all things to their intended point in history, and we get to participate in what God, in Christ, through the Spirit, is doing.
So, what is your freedom for?
In one of this week’s other lectionary readings, we see Jesus, at the height of his popularity, turn his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51ff). For him, perfect freedom was expressed in his willingness to head into the midst of conflict, to lovingly confront the powers that had rebelled against God, and to die for the sins of the world. This kind of freedom is unintelligible to our world. But it is the moment to which all Scripture points, the moment which defines the story of which we are a part.
Jesus’ freedom was for the reconciliation of the world, even to the point of suffering and death. And we are called to follow this Jesus, the perfect image of God. The question looms over us, then: How are our lives, both individually and as a community, oriented towards participating in this kind of loving, self-giving freedom?
Answering this question in this context is impossible, since learning to be truly free is an ongoing process for an entire community—there are no easy answers. But, at the very least, we can say that we need to unlearn the concept of freedom that we have inherited from the modern world. We need to learn a new kind of freedom, one rooted in serving God and others, and dying to ourselves.
This won’t be easy because, ultimately, Christian freedom is the inverse of everything we’ve been taught to think of as freedom. In worship, prayer, fellowship, communion, service, and study, however, we can learn it together.
The blessing of it all is that, because true life and freedom comes in serving God, it’s not like we have to do it—it’s that we get to do it.
Oh, God, to know you is life. To serve You is freedom. To enjoy you is a kingdom, to praise you is the joy and happiness of the soul. I praise and bless and adore you. I worship you. I glorify you. I give thanks to you for your glory. I humbly beg you to live with me, to reign in me, to make this heart of mine a holy temple, a fit habitation for your divine majesty. Amen. (Augustine of Hippo)