The apostle’s view runs counter to that of most Americans.
Two years ago when I published my study guide to the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I titled it Charter of Christian Freedom. I did so because Christians have long regarded Galatians as a powerful statement about the freedom Christ has conferred upon believers.
The apostle’s point comes through most boldly in Galatians 5:1:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
This verse is Paul’s gospel claim within the sphere of public debate. It could be printed on posters and mounted prominently in every church.
It is easy, however, to pervert Paul’s message if we do not take time to understand what he means by freedom. We especially do so when we Americans bring to Paul our own prevailing understanding of freedom.
The Common American Understanding of Freedom
When America issued its Declaration of Independence in 1776, it stated that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ever since Americans have made liberty one of their most cherished—if not the greatest–values.
But what does freedom mean to most Americans today? When I hear my fellow citizens talk about freedom, I get the sense that what freedom means for them is license to do whatever they please. No external compulsive power is able to tell us what to do or how to live.
Nothing—whether government regulation, social convention, institutional authority, or family pressure—blocks us from doing whatever we want to do. Our home is our individual castle which presides over our own world of individual sovereignty. This concept of freedom, I believe, lies at the core of a lot of libertarian as well as identity politics.
The problem is: How do you maintain a wholesome social order with this understanding of freedom? For this concept of freedom remains essentially ego-centric. What counts in the end is my ability to do what I please. The momentum behind such a concept of freedom is the drive to fulfill my own self-interest, my own well-being and prosperity.
The ego-centrism may not just be confined to individual persons. It can also characterize groups and societies as corporate individuals. And so we can find that ethnic or religious groups can make the advancement of their own well-being the primary focus of their energies. Likewise, nations can say all that really counts in international relations is each country following its own national self-interest.
Finding Our Way in Such a World of Freedom
How do we negotiate our way in such a context of freedom? Usually by two options. One is competition. All free individuals are in competition with one another. In competition, conflict is resolved when one party wins and all others lose. It tends to be a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose.
It was the fundamental assumption of ancient Greek society, the society in which Paul’s readers and listeners had grown up. Greek city states presumed that strife (eris)– strife between states, between social classes, between individuals–was the natural condition of life.
Paul recognizes the perils of this understanding of freedom when he warns his readers:
If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).
That was abundantly fulfilled in the history of ancient Greece. All the rival city states fought each other incessantly, as each individual state sought to achieve hegemony within the Greek world. In the process they weakened each other so much that when Macedonian imperial power invaded Greece, no city state could successfully resist such integrated power.
The other negotiating option is compromise. But to someone who prizes his or her self-interest above all other values, compromise can feel distasteful. I have to moderate my own desires and needs by accommodating to the desires and needs of others. That can feel like I am settling for second best, not the best. We find this distaste for compromise among many extremist groups today.
Paul’s Concept of Freedom
So what does Paul mean by freedom? I think we get at his concept of freedom in Galatians 5:13-14:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Freedom for Paul is the experience of being liberated or released from our dominating ego-centrism. It removes all the obstacles that keep us from being the people God created us to be, from living the life that God calls us to live. That life embraces two important tasks:
- To recognize, develop, and use our God-given gifts, talents, and skills for God’s glory and for service to others, and
- To give ourselves in love to others and to receive their love and service in return without impediment.
Paradoxically when we live into such love and service to others, we find ourselves becoming most fully the individuals that God created each of us to be uniquely. Our own personal fulfillment is the unexpected by-product of this paradoxical freedom.
Obstacles to Freedom
The obstacles that keep us from experiencing such freedom may be many. They can be:
- Psychological hang-ups,
- Social prejudice,
- Family or societal expectations,
- Paralyzing feelings of guilt or shame,
- Distorted thinking,
- Political or economic oppression,
- Ethnic or religious discrimination,
- Spiritual woundedness,
- Physical diseases and disabilities.
Especially potent obstacles for Paul are spiritual forces at work in the world. Paul refers to them in passing in Galatians 4:3, when he speaks of “the elemental spirits of the world.” Elsewhere he will call them the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Today we might describe them as the systemic structures, mindsets, and expectations that govern the way the world operates.
They are so deadly to human freedom that Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:10-12:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Life can be full of obstacles that keep us from being the unique persons God calls us to be. That is what the work of God’s salvation is all about, setting us free from all these obstacles. Salvation is all about liberation. That is clear from the Exodus story, which becomes the paradigm for all of God’s future works of salvation.
When we enter fully into this kind of freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free–we can be truly spontaneous in our way of living, for our whole being will be governed by the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. It is at the same time a responsible freedom. It takes seriously God’s call to respect the dignity and value of all others, including even the natural creation.
When we enter into this kind of freedom, we can finally live without a spiritual or psychological hang-up the counsel that St Augustine gave his congregation centuries ago:
Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt….*
* St. Augustine, Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12