Bible reading Galatians 5:1.
All around the world one can always hear cries for ‘freedom’. Let’s try to define what freedom means. “Freedom is the state of being allowed to do what you want to do”. Various goals may be included in these expressed desires. They may include independence, bringing in democracy, having sovereignty, autonomy with self-determination, self-government and home rule. Freedom is frequently spoken of in connection with various ‘human rights’. Heartfelt pleas may emanate from children and teenagers to their parents, from young adults towards their community leaders, from people who want what they see as ‘progress’ rather than the existing ‘tradition’, or from anyone in rebellion against the status quo for families, communities, churches or even national governments.
The New Testament group of words for ‘free’ are eleutheros, eleuthero and eleutheria, nouns generally meaning ‘freedom to go wherever one likes’, ‘freedom from restraint or obligation’, verbs meaning ‘to make free’, or ‘to justify’.
There is one very clear picture painted of this word in the New Testament, using the noun with the verb, before warning about the dangers of an opposite misunderstanding and application:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”, Galatians 5:1, (italics mine).
“Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again”, Contemporary English Version.
“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you”, The Message.
“Freedom is what we have—Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free people, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again”, Good News Translation.
In over 49 years of Christian ministry I have heard not a few Christians completely misunderstand what this Christian freedom really is. Some think it is license to live exactly as they want to live with no constraints. Their Christian witness is always lost. Others understand it to mean they have no responsibility for considering anyone else other than themselves. They hurt many people. More use it to overthrow any form of God-given leadership. They usually sink to the lowest common denominator of their group. Many try to trap others into legalistically following a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to be part of that Christian group and be accepted. All these four groups of Christians are sadly wrong, in my opinion.
Free as a bird?
I have come to realise over the years that some Christians are even in bondage to freedom! They are slaves to their ideas of freedom. Let me explain what I mean. In the early years of the charismatic movement, around 1975, a friend of mine was speaking at a camp weekend for Christian young people in England. During worship singing most hands were freely raised, stretching up to express the greatness of God and their own desire to receive everything He was offering them. My friend was in the back row of seats, sitting with his head and body bowed and his eyes closed, presumably praying. Later on a lot of the young people present were very critical of my friend. ‘Why wasn’t he feeling free like the rest of us in our praise and worship?’
I smile as I think of this even now. What does that criticism really mean? The bottom line is these folk wanted every person to be free just like they are free. Think on that for a minute. They do not really want the other person to be free to choose for themselves. They only want them to do what they themselves are doing! They want everyone else to be like them. They only see the meeting as freedom in the Holy Spirit if everybody’s hands are high. No one is permitted to be free in any other bodily pose. Without saying it, in their strict opinion, there is only one way to be free! I say that is wrong. That is not true.
I have been in churches where differences have arisen between people on a variety of issues. As examples, some want only the older traditional songs used in worship, while others like only the new or latest ones. Some have their Christian understandings confirmed by the older familiar language of Bible translations which use their own mother tongues, while others are stimulated into thinking and Christian growth by more recent or new scholarship in up to date translations. It is so sad when Christian believers argue and fall out with one another over such minor things! The lostness of the lost, who are outside of Christ and who are our Jesus-given mission field to save from eternal hell, must surely outweigh any other considerations. Give your energy to witness for your Lord Jesus, not to struggle about forms of worship or translation details.
Of course, the accuracy of Bible translation is central to the heart of Christianity and must not be compromised. But most of us Christians, myself included, have only a smattering of Hebrew and Greek language working knowledge. When a gifted Christian preacher or teacher ministers, God uses them to explain and apply ‘the Word He originally breathed’. Similarly, I find it good to let God use my reading or hearing of different Bible translations to inform me, opening up and challenging my Christian understanding. In my own devotions and study I usually keep to one translation to help me in memorising the Bible text itself. I think learning Scripture by heart is essential for the true disciple of Jesus.
Planting and practising Scripture in order to live freely
“ Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on His law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers”, Psalm 1:1-3, (italics mine).
“I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You”, Psalm 119:11 (italics mine).
“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out Your precepts”, Psalm 119:45, (italics mine).
“But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do”, James 1:25, (italics mine).
“Like new born babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation”, 1 Peter 2:2 (italics mine).
Free to think about what others believe about it too
How can we avoid misusing freedom and causing sinful division? Paul had seen many Gentiles become Christian believers on his missionary travels. Back in Jerusalem quite a number of the Jewish background Christians were concerned that Jewish traditions were being lost among all new believers. A big disagreement became possible in the early church:
“When we (Paul, Luke and their team) arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality”, Acts 21:17-25, (italics mine).
The Jerusalem church leaders including James acted very wisely in pre-empting acrimonious division. Paul and his team practised what they preached elsewhere. They submitted to something that was unnecessary, in order to maintain unity among believers of different backgrounds.
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law”, 1 Corinthians 9:20, (italics mine).
This action needs true Christian love. It also demonstrates – shows to other people – true Christian love. It acts as Jesus would act. It actually is the risen Jesus in action living through believers.
“It (Christian love) does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs”, 1 Corinthians 13:5.
I love this translation which brings out the meaning to me:
“It (Christian love) does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful”, New Revised Standard Version.
Yes, Christians are free to be led by the Holy Spirit of God:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, 2 Corinthians 3:17.
We are not in bondage, as slaves, to any laws or traditions except, of course, the laws of the country where we live, and the constitutional rules of any company, mission or church to which we belong, Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-15; 4:15-16. We must always discern between what is extremely important or absolutely necessary, that is essential, what may be good but not extremely important or absolutely necessary, and therefore non-essential. We must not negotiate on basic fundamental, foundational essentials, but on non-essentials there can be freedom and variety.
At Khartoum International Church there were about 250-300 people attending services over any month. Brenda and I knew of over 30 nationalities and over 35 different Christian church denominations represented. The possibilities for disagreement and misunderstandings were many! Therefore our beliefs and practices centred on two focal points: our Lord Jesus Christ and the English language. On virtually anything else there could be a loving acceptance of variety. People could be free to quietly prefer what they did and the way they did it ‘back home’ (because most were not Sudanese), but while they did so we asked them to accept what we did, and the way we did it, ‘here’ in our events. Oddly enough one of the most difficult times was Christmas when the English, the Australians, the New Zealanders and the Americans all sang the same carols, but used different tunes! Services involved a lot of tense negotiation.
With my students at Christian Training in Cornwall I used a simple form to ask them to consider what were the basic essentials they would look for when deciding to join a local church in a new area. It gave rise to good discussion. I include it in the Discussion questions at the end of this chapter for you to enjoy.
Truly free people are not in bondage to freedom
“Some people cannot readily distinguish between the essential and the non-essential: if they abandon an old order for a new one, they feel it necessary to give up everything associated with the old order – neutral or even helpful features as well as others. But this is to exchange a positive form of legal obligation for a negative form. Thus, at the opposite extreme from those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who followed the ancient customs as a matter of course there may have been others elsewhere who discontinued them on principle. Paul’s policy was different from both. Truly emancipated souls are not in bondage to their emancipation. Paul conformed to the customs or departed from them according to the company, Jewish or Gentile, in which he found himself from time to time, making the interests of the gospel the supreme consideration”.
May God give us the wise freedom to always do the same today. The key is knowing what are divine requirements that God says must be done and what are voluntary actions which might be undertaken or omitted as expediency directs.
How Paul used of his freedom – “made myself a slave”
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings”, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, (italics mine).
Notice Paul writes “I have made myself a slave to everyone”, vs19.
“As shocking as it is profound, God’s Word teaches us that true freedom can only be found through slavery to Christ. … Every person is a slave – either to sin or to God … Slavery to Christ not only means freedom from sin, guilt and condemnation. It also means freedom to obey, to please God, to live the way our Creator intended us to live – in intimate fellowship with Him. Thus having been freed from sin we have been enslaved to God”, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life”, Romans 6:22; “ Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves”.
1 Peter 2:16.
Do you realise it is possible to be a slave sinfully, to the wrong kind of freedom? In spite of 2 Corinthians 3:17 there is no such thing as absolute freedom in the Holy Spirit. If I am absolutely free I can punch you hard on your nose! But where is your nose’s freedom in being hurt, possibly broken, by my ‘freedom exercising’ punch? Paradoxically, for everybody to have freedom there have to be some limits on everybody.
Many things people campaign for, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religious worship, freedom to travel, freedom to feel free, being a free spirit, living a freehand life, all carry a counter balancing side. If you can speak freely so can I, possibly saying a different message than yours. You may wish everybody to worship as a Moslem while I may wish everybody to worship as a Christian. Supposing you in drawing your freehand life scribble all over my freehand life? There have to be limits in order for the best freedom to be maintained for most people.
“ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’– but not everything is constructive”,
Christian brother or sister, aim to live a beneficial and constructive Christian life always honouring our Lord Jesus.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love”,
It is so easy to give in to our human and fleshly desires that tell us what we want is right, always, even concerning Christian freedoms.
“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom”, James 2:12.
This presents an interesting conundrum, a law that gives freedom. We are all sinners who break God’s law. Only God’s mercy will prevent us from going to hell. None of us dare point our fingers at others and say, ‘We are better than you’. ‘We’ve been freed while you haven’t’. We are not free to do that or anything like it. Seeing ourselves as we truly are, mercifully forgiven sinners, will help us relate harmoniously to others.
Are you a servant of Jesus or a slave of Jesus?
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves”, 1 Peter 2:16.
We will only experience genuine freedom when we live as God’s slaves. Being a born again Christian involves a completely new way of thinking and then living accountably to God. Notice how many times the earliest believers called themselves ‘the Lord’s slaves’. See Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 7:22; Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 4:12; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1 and Revelation 1:1.
“For them, the two ideas were synonymous. To be a Christian was to be a slave of Christ … Yet a casual read through the New Testament and you won’t see it (that is the word ‘slave’, in many places). Why? “It has been covered up by being
(deliberately) mistranslated in almost every English version … Though the word ‘slave’ (doulos in Greek) appears 124 times in the original texts, it is correctly translated only once in the King James. Most modern translations do only slightly better”. It is probably the bad images of colonial slavery, people in chains or at least in captivity, that caused this substitution.
Read British preacher Charles Spurgeon about 150 years ago:
“Where our Authorized (King James) Version softly puts it “servant” it is really “bond-slave”. The early saints delighted to count themselves Christ’s absolute property, bought by Him, owned by Him, and wholly at His disposal. Paul even went so far as to rejoice that he had the marks of his Master’s brand on him, and he cries, “Let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks (stigmata) of the Lord Jesus”, Galatians 6:17. There was the end of all debate: Paul was the Lord’s; and the marks of the scourges, the rods, and the stones were the broad-arrow of the King which marked Paul’s body as the property of Jesus the Lord. Now if the saints of old time gloried in obeying Christ, I pray that you and I … may feel that our first object in life is to obey our Lord”. May we always see ourselves as slaves of our trinitarian God, God the Father, and God the Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit.
Usually today the word ‘servant’ is inserted for ‘slave’. You may want to check your Bible. I checked the list opposite in my NIV and found fewer than half translated doulos as ‘slave’, the majority used ‘servant’. It is important to understand the key difference between these two words:
· ‘Servants’ are hired, and may choose who they work for, having some autonomy as well as personal rights.
· ‘Slaves’, certainly in the time of the New Testament and much later, were owned, thought of as things, completely the owner’s property, totally at the owner’s disposal, having no human rights of their own.
If we want everyone to be as we are, do what we do and like what we like etc., we are probably in bondage slavery to ourselves rather than being bond-slaves of the One we say is our Lord Jesus Christ.
I try to see myself as one sinful person, having been born again by the Holy Spirit and set free in the Holy Spirit, now voluntarily choosing to be a slave of Jesus Christ in my daily life all the 24 hours a day and seven days a week that God will allow me to live. I pray that you will join me in this. Will you?
1. Explain what you understand by the word “freedom”.
2. Having done No.1 explain your understanding of “Christian freedom”. (You may want to refer to my section “Free as a bird” in this chapter).
3. Have you (or someone you know) ever, “submitted to something that was unnecessary, in order to maintain unity among believers of different backgrounds?” Share how easy or hard it was to do.
4. Say why you did it, giving biblical reasons where possible.
5. When there are rules set to govern our behaviour, for example in our country, in our place of work or in our church denomination, is it true to say ‘we are free’? Why? / Why not?
6. Reflect on the phrase, ‘Freedom within certain limits’. Explain
a). how that ‘freedom’ and those ‘limits’ can truly exist together, and
b). why any ‘limits’ are needed.
7. In what ways does the following text challenge some contemporary views of Christian freedom?
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the
right to do anything’– but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others”,
Be specific with examples if you can.
End notes:  www.collinsdictionary.com  See Acts 15:1-35.  F. F. Bruce Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Paternoster Press: Exeter) 1977, pages 346- 347.  John MacArthur Slave: The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ (Thomas Nelson: Nashville) 2007, pages 200-201.  John MacArthur Slave: The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ (Thomas Nelson: Nashville) 2007, pages 12-13.  Charles Spurgeon Eyes Right sermon 2058 Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pilgrim Publications: Pasadena, TX.) 1974, 34:689.