There is an interesting bit of scripture in Galatians where Paul states: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1a, NIV). It is part of the larger context of Galatians, as Paul is contrasting our freedom in Christ with the bondage that we seem to perpetually gravitate towards. He is absolutely confounded that the Galatian Church would abandon their freedom in Christ for enslavement to The Law, religiosity and works righteousness. His exasperation bleeds through the letter, and I wonder if it is because this problem was not unique to Galatia.
I can think of numerous examples in my own life, and the life of the churches I’ve served, where enslavement is heralded as the gospel. We seem to delude ourselves at times, and slip back into old habits that negate the finished work of the cross. It got me thinking about freedom, and what Paul meant by saying that it is for freedom, that we were set free. I am beginning to wonder if and even concluding that I don’t really understand freedom.
I think many of us would embrace the concept of free choice as our understanding of freedom. In particular, we recognize the lack of choice as bondage and thus identify the opposite of that as freedom. As long as we are able to make our own decisions, we are free. In my own life, this definition has made a great deal of sense, until a few years ago. In pondering Paul’s words I am beginning to see things differently.
I no longer think free choice encapsulates freedom but is only a first step or an open doorway toward freedom. I say this because as long as the freedom of choice exists, I can choose the path of bondage. This begs the question of what freedom actually is, and I have found that it seems to revolve around life. Things that inhibit life are often considered or described as bondage (think of the addict, the prisoner, the invalid, a paralyzing fear); conversely, someone liberated from these prisons has found new life and new freedom. To take it further, I have found that whenever I exercise my free choice with decisions that separate me from God, I’m choosing bondage. This helps frame my understanding of freedom in simple terms: freedom is life, and I believe life is only found in Jesus; thus, freedom is intimacy with Jesus or love. I think my point becomes clearer when we ask ourselves what Christ died to set us free from in the first place: bondage to the fear of death.
Think about Adam and Eve for a moment. They undoubtedly had freedom, and their freedom included room for choice. However, when they chose to eat the forbidden fruit and thereby rebel, they were not exercising their freedom. On the contrary, the choice they made to believe the Serpent’s lie plunged humanity into the depths of death and bondage to such an extent, that the cross became necessary. But therein lies a stunning contrast, for Jesus also had freedom. But his choice was to refute the Devil’s lies, and willingly lay down his life on the cross; he chose to love that manifested in spectacular obedience and sacrifice. When Jesus chose, he chose to love and freedom. Paul’s words simply echo Jesus’ example of using your freedom to choose freedom.
I see people faced with this dilemma frequently. When they learn that they are under no obligation in Christ, what will they choose? You are free to spend as much or as little time with Him as you want. You don’t have to read the bible; you don’t have to spend time waiting on Him; you don’t have to be generous with your life; you don’t have to do anything; in fact, you are free to do whatever you want, no matter how right or wrong. But make no mistake, what you do with your free choice leads to one of two places: growing maturity in Christ, or growing enslavement to death.
In an odd bit of irony, free choice itself is often a powerful impetus for church leaders to control their congregations. When a pastor sees enough of his congregation make choices of bondage, said pastor often resorts to control because—it is in their best interest! The Church is not alone by any stretch in this phenomenon, as world history is rife with examples of kings, queens, and other power-mongers exerting brutal control because they feared what the population as a whole would choose on their own. This is precisely why the concept of free choice is so scandalous in the Kingdom. We are free in Christ, completely; no matter what any pastor or theologian tells you; no matter what fancy euphemisms they use (ahem: the doctrine of covering, shepherding movement, etc.), we are no longer under the law. It is for freedom that Christ set us free; and we are so free, that we are even allowed to throw away that freedom.
Of course, the response to control others in the name of their well-being is antithetical to the Kingdom. Jesus never operated in this manner, and it was the Pharisees and other power brokers who played that game. The problem with control is that it retards growth, and makes the one with control a middleman between the people and God. I don’t believe that is what is envisioned when God says: “ … they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11b, NIV). Unfortunately, in spite of the best intentions, only intimacy with Jesus heals and truly frees people. Yet, when pastors and elders become middlemen, they are impeding the body from growing in intimacy with Christ. In essence, control forces leadership in the body of Christ to invert itself from an agent of maturity into a stumbling block. This is similar to where the Pharisees found themselves when Jesus said they were blocking the entrance to the Kingdom (Matt 23:13).
In the end, these are examples of how easily we gravitate back to slavery. So often we use our freedom in Christ to choose bondage because we have confused it with life, and believed a lie like Adam and Eve before us. Other times we simply play games with our stunted understanding of freedom, by convincing ourselves we can choose bondage but still be free in Christ. There is great hope in Jesus, which no matter how many times we blow it and choose death he is always waiting with open arms, just as the Father was in the story of The Prodigal Son. However, the delusion that we can willfully choose death, yet reap life, is rubbish. Don’t forget that God looks at the heart, and so the compulsive addict who cries out for help in their failure is probably more free than the religious man who lives in self-righteousness (see Luke 18:9-14).
My hope is that in pondering freedom you and I will both grow more deeply rooted in Christ, and Christ alone. Too often I have either abdicated my free choice to an intermediary or used it to indulge my brokenness. I don’t believe that is what Jesus died on the cross for. After all, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
PostScript 2015: Freedom is indeed a gift, but I am reminded that freedom is not in and of itself the point of the Father's plan. I continue to encourage others that it is, in fact, love. Divine love is the source, the fountainhead of all things God, and while freedom is wonderful, freedom is a fruit of divine love. We are free to the degree that we live loved and live love.