Paul wrote the above words at Galatians 5:1. The phrase has been used by some to prove that all are free in the Christian Church to believe whatever they wish, that doctrine is not essential, and that love is the sole engine moving the Church. What did Paul mean by this statement regarding freedom, or liberty?
We know from Paul’s other writings that he did not tolerate for a moment “another gospel or “another Jesus” or “another spirit.” [2 Corinthians 11:4] Indeed, right in Galatians he was quite firm, when he said: “But if even we or an angel from Heaven should bring you a Good News different from that which we have already brought you, let him be accursed. What I have just said I repeat--if any one is preaching to you a Good News other than that which you originally received, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:8, 9 Weymouth Translation] These do not sound like the words of a man who has little concern for what is taught in the Church.
Almost all of Paul’s letters deal with the subject of what he calls “the Truth” and “healthy doctrine.” [1 Timothy 1:10; 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1] That he does not encourage a free and open atmosphere where just any teaching may blow in and out are his words to the Ephesians: “ … so that we may not remain babes, being tossed about by waves and borne around by every wind of teaching, by the slight of hand of persons always working toward methodical error, but rather maintaining truth in love, growing into him in everything, the one who is the head, Christ.” [21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures - NCMM] What Paul encouraged, was not the free movement of just any ideas and beliefs about Christianity, but what he calls “truth in love” that matures into the Head - Christ.
To discover what “truth” the Nazarene taught it is only a matter of reading the Gospels. Paul does give an abbreviated list of the “doctrine of Christ” and its fundamental principles at Hebrews 6:1, 2, “Consequently, having left the basic teachings of the Christ, may we pass along to perfection, not laying a foundation again of [“elementary principles”] -- repentance from dead works, faith toward God, teachings on baptisms, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and ageless condemnation.” [NCMM] Paul describes this “foundation” as include: repentance from dead works, faith in God, teachings on baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and everlasting judgment. On at least these primary teachings there could be no room for movement. No freedom to decide, for example, that there is no judgment because everyone will be saved. In Paul’s list it is interesting to see what he omitted.
With this background we return to Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ set us free.” What “freedom” does Paul mean? Who are the “us” of the verse? Also, can we find examples in Galatians were this “freedom” is not absolute, but rather qualified and limited?
The word “freedom” stands in opposition to the word “slavery” in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If we back up from Galatians 5:1 we can see the context of Paul’s words. He has been discussing two women - Sarah and Hagar. Hagar, Paul writes, is “in slavery with her children.” He means the Jews under the confines of the Law of Moses. These Jews were enslaved to the multitude of commandments and regulations of the Law. Sarah on the other hand was not a slave, but a free woman married to Abraham, and her child Isaac was according to a divine promise. Therefore, those Jews who had become disciples of the Nazarene were released from the Law of Moses as the children of a free woman. So Paul’s final verse in chapter four says: “Therefore, brethren, since we are not the children of a slave-girl, but of the free woman -“ [Weymouth Translation] When Paul says “we” he means, first, those Jews who could really trace their lineage back to Sarah.
This Sarah was something of a symbol of a celestial Woman, or what Paul calls, “The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” [Galatians 4:26 Revised Standard Version] On the matter of this celestial Woman compare notes on Hebrews 12:22-24 and Revelation 12:1. Indeed, in Greek the word “freedom” [ELEUTHERIA] in Galatians 5:1 is feminine and may be rendered “her freedom.”
Paul continues his declaration in the rest of Galatians 5:1, “ … stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [RSV] The word “again” indicates a former state of slavery to the Law of Moses as Jews. The area of Galatia had a large Jewish population and so the context of Paul’s epistle to the churches in that area was largely written to Jews first. When he says “stand fast” he indicates that any “freedom” is qualified. These former Jews had to now “stand fast” against that element in the Church, called Judaizers by some, who wanted the Church to remain subject to the Law of Moses. [Acts 15:1, 2] Thus, these Jewish Christians had been set free from the Law of Moses.
We might ask: What were these Christians not free to do? First, there were not free to determine for themselves what the Gospel was as though there were many forms. [Galatians 1:8, 9] And, secondly there were not free to determine for themselves moral standards. Paul writes at Galatians 5:13, “You however, brethren, were called to freedom. Only do not turn your freedom into an excuse for giving way to your lower natures; but become bondservants to one another in a spirit of love.” [Weymouth Translation; compare also 1 Peter 2:16] For example, Paul lists what he calls the “works of the flesh” at Galatians 5:19-21, “Now you know full well the doings of our lower natures. Fornication, impurity, indecency, idol-worship, sorcery; enmity, strife, jealousy, outbursts of passion, intrigues, dissensions, factions, envyings; hard drinking, riotous feasting, and the like. And as to these I forewarn you, as I have already forewarned you, that those who are guilty of such things will have no share in the Kingdom of God.” [Weymouth Translation]
So, the Galatians were not free to introduce “dissensions” [or, divisions] and “factions” [or, Greek “heresies”]. They were not free to allow a little doctrinal and moral “leaven” to creep into the Church. For Paul also writes, “You were running the race nobly! Who has interfered and caused you to swerve from the truth? No such teaching ever proceeded from Him who is calling you. A little yeast corrupts the whole of the dough.” [Galatians 5:7-9 Weymouth Translation] When Jesus used the word “leaven” he meant Jewish doctrine or teachings. [Matthew 16:6, 11, 12] Such doctrines included observance of the Law of Moses, as well as certain Greek philosophies that had corrupted Judaism - soul immortality without the need for a resurrection, and a place of eternal torment.
Consequently, there is no such thing as absolute, unqualified freedom within the Church of Christ. For true “freedom” to exist several factors should be included. For example - there can be no freedom without Biblical truth. [John 8:32; 17:17] Also, there can be no freedom if God’s Spirit is not present. [2 Corinthians 3:17] There can be no freedom with certain Christine laws. On this matter James write: “But he who looks closely into the perfect Law -- the Law of freedom -- and continues looking, he, being not a hearer who forgets, but an obedient doer, will as the result of his obedience be blessed. … So, both speak and act as though you are about to be judged by a law of freedom.” [James 1:25; 2:12 Weymouth Translation]
Both Paul and Peter warned that some within the Church would attempt to offer an unlimited freedom, but this was really another form of slavery: “These men are waterless fountains and mists driven by a violent windstorm, for whom the gloom of darkness is reserved. They speak inflated and worthless things baiting with fleshly desires those with poor habits who have just escaped from those living in error, promising them freedom these false teachers exist as slaves to dissipation; for anyone who is overcome by another becomes the slave of that person.” [2 Peter 2:17-19 NCMM; compare also Galatians 2:4] Thus, no one is free to corrupt the original teachings of Jesus and his inspired disciples: “Therefore, let us keep the Feast, not with old leaven - nor with a leaven of malice and evil - but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth.” [1 Corinthians 5:8 NCMM]
Jesus had warned in several parables that the seed he sowed would be corrupted by a satanic enemy by means of “sons of the Wicked One.” [Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43] These would corrupt the whole of his Realm of believers. [Matthew 13:33] Paul calls this an “apostasy” and it would be marked by a departure from “the Truth.” [2 Thessalonians 2:3-12] Some false teachers would infiltrate the Church with the “teachings of demons.” [1 Timothy 4:1, 2; compare also 2 Timothy 3:5-8; 2 Peter chapter 2] In other cases, certain churches themselves would enlist their own teachers who would be willing to compromise truth so that everyone would be pleased with the results. [2 Timothy 4:3, 4]
An examination of the vast bulk of Christianity today - with its high churches, non-denominational sects, and religious organizations - is completely polluted by such an apostasy. There are only a “few persons” who have determined not to compromise either Nazarene truth or godly moral standards. [Revelation 3:4]
While enjoying that “freedom for which Christ set us free” we are determined to remain his slaves and to closely adhere to his teachings and those inspired disciples. We do not seek freedom from the Lord’s “doctrine” nor from the godly standard of right conduct. We rejoice in our freedom. No longer are we slaves to either Judaic or Greek “teachings of demons.” We desire to “proclaim [true] liberty” throughout the world. [Leviticus 25:10; Isaiah 61:1; Jeremiah 34:15, 17] While doing so, we continue to pray, “Set me free!” [Psalm 144:7]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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