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Freedom without the Fine Print


The following had its origins in a homily I offered at the 8:30 a.m. Liturgical Service at La Sierra University Church in June. One of the Scripture passages for the day was the well-known Galatians 5:1, 13-28, Paul’s declaration of freedom in Christ, followed by his list of fleshly vices and fruits of the Spirit. While at first thought I would opt for one of the other passages that week, as this one is so well worn, some further reading and reflection drew me in. I wondered if it might be worthwhile to take a look again at what Paul means in declaring that Christ has set us free. Given that my previous Spectrum Spirituality posts have been focused on the interaction between spirituality (often linked with freedom) and religion (often linked with legalism), this essay continues the theme with a more exegetical approach.

I remember some years back attending an 8th grade graduation service, at which the class president began his president’s address rather dramatically. He held up his hands and declared, “Freedom!”

The parents, grandparents, teachers and pastors present laughed warmly. But I suspect that many, like me, also thought, “Ha!” Freedom indeed. Yes, you are free from the bondage of two scheduled recesses during a six-hour day. Welcome now to balancing school, work, and relationships. Yes, you are free from a single hour of homework. Welcome now to a new era of research papers and all-nighters. If someone sold you the notion that graduation from the 8th grade is freedom to do whatever you want now, then you may want to read the fine print.

There is a sense in which we may hear Paul’s announcement of freedom in Christ as freedom with fine print. “Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.” (Galatians 5:1 CEB) And then, at the end of this thought: “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.’” (Galatians 5:13-14 CEB)

Verses later Paul goes on to catalog the “works of the flesh,” such as anger, selfishness, sexual immorality, and the like. Those who do these things will not inherit God’s kingdom, he insists. While the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, et cetera. Against these things there is no law. You are free to practice these things.

I can’t help but notice the rhetoric in play here. You are free, Paul proclaims, and then he goes back to talk about good actions and bad actions, and to emphasize that you are “free” to do the good things. It is a nice bit of reframing, I suppose, but isn’t such a reframing reminiscent of the professor who tells students that the final exam is an “opportunity” to show what they have learned? “Oh, an opportunity. Now I feel better,” said no student ever.

Reframe it all you want, professor, but an exam will always be a stress-inducing exercise, for there are real, negative consequences if I fail to take it or even fail to do it well.

This reading of Paul’s vision of Christian freedom is a common one. Paul proclaims freedom, but with an asterisk, with fine print. “You are free, but . . . sort of, not really.”

And I suspect that while we may playfully protest Paul’s bait and switch rhetoric, this reading is actually the one with which we are most comfortable. For in this reading, we can affirm a “righteousness by faith” — we are free from the legalism of law-keeping, and we receive salvation by grace — while also finding a way to provide guidelines and boundaries for the proper Christian life (thanks be to God!). IF you are saved by grace and being transformed by that free gift, THEN your life will reflect this freedom from sin and legalism by aligning with these virtues and not those vices.

We can have our grace cake and eat it, too, declaring the Good News of freedom and grace, while still preserving some semblance of order and clarity about how we are supposed to live.

I suspect the following tendency appears in various forms throughout Christianity, but I can only speak to my Adventist experience. I have observed that you can almost set your watch by the amount of time it takes in a conversation about Pauline Christian Freedom before the questions pop up: But what about the Sabbath? What about lifestyle guidelines? What about being the people who “keep the Commandments of God” — all the Commandments?

And then, wait for it . . . “Well, Paul is talking here about the ceremonial law, but not the moral law — the former was temporary, the latter eternal.” So, freedom with fine print. Which means, actually, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Order is preserved.

But what if Paul really does mean more than freedom-sort-of? What if when we breathe this sigh of relief, it means that we have missed Paul’s point and betrayed the freedom he is after? Maybe we ought to feel unsettled by Paul’s announcement of freedom.

In fact, when freedom feels unsettling, it could be an opportunity to reflect on why. At various times in our marriage, my wife Becky and I have attempted to find some enjoyment in attending dance classes. I say “attempted” because, while a good idea in theory, these have rarely proven as enjoyable as we imagine. And it is probably largely my fault.

We have discovered that dance classes are opportunities to highlight some distinct differences in our personalities. My “tendency” (I prefer that word to “compulsion”) is to do my homework ahead of time, research the type of dance steps online, and learn everything I can about it. ("The basic Salsa dance rhythm consists of taking three steps for every four beats of music. The odd number of steps creates the inherent syncopation to Salsa dancing and ensures that it takes 8 beats of music to loop back to a new sequence of steps.”)

In class, I soak up every word from the instructor, rehearsing the steps in my head and then trying my best to execute them, perfectly. And I don’t do too badly at getting the steps right, performing them the way they are supposed to be.

Becky, while certainly capable of this sort of heady approach, finds her joy differently. She knows the spirit of Salsa — probably believing (and I have no reason to believe otherwise) that it has been absorbed into her DNA, or at least her soul, as a person of Latin descent. And when she hears the music, she just moves. Her commitment, her loyalty, is to the spirit of the music.

This is all well and good; to each his or her own. The problems arise when I — yes I, the very European-American one in the dance partnership — interrupt our dancing to remind her of the way the steps are supposed to go. You don’t need a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy to guess how that goes. Not very well.

And you probably don’t need too extensive of an analysis to recognize what drives me to repeat that same mistake over and over, even though I know well that it is a joy-killing mistake. Isn’t it true that for those of us who are so driven by and committed to the way things are supposed to go, that such uninhibited expressions of pure freedom can be deeply unsettling? Such freedom is threatening to those of us who put so much stock in shoulds and supposed tos and the right way of doing things. Such freedom pushes against our rigid dependence on rules, and we find ourselves pushing back, defensively, almost irrationally.

Too easily, we become like the workers in the vineyard in Jesus’ parable who complain that we’ve been slaving away all day (correctly, perfectly, rightly) — and how could we receive the same payment as the (weaker, less responsible) ones who came much later?

To which the vineyard owner responds, “Am I not free to be generous with what is mine?” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Too quickly we guardians of rules become like the Elder Brother, who protests, “‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction—yet you’ve never thrown me a party.”

To which the father responds, “All I have is yours — haven’t you noticed? Am I not free to throw a party in my own home to celebrate your lost brother’s return?” (Luke 15:29-32, paraphrased.)

Such prodigal generosity, such freedom from quid-pro-quo expectations, is unsettling.

And it is especially unsettling when it pushes up against identities we have formed around shoulds and supposed tos. Recall that what is at issue for Paul in this chapter is circumcision. Though the lectionary reading for the worship service mercifully omits it, verse 12 is the moment where Paul exclaims that he wishes people who advocate a requirement of circumcision would just go all the way and . . . well, read verse 12.

The reason circumcision matters so intensely to Paul is because circumcision is a “work of the flesh” that stands in as a core identity marker; it is the foundational act that brings with it a whole package of shoulds and supposed tos.

To require circumcision to be “Christian” is to say that you must become Jewish to belong. You must join this particular people to belong. You must be like us to belong. You must do it our way to be accepted.

And for Paul, the Gospel freedom means that one’s actions are no longer bound by adherence to a particular in-group’s prescribed ways of acting. Paul is insisting that we are free from the thought patterns that sound like:

I’m a Jew, and Jews are supposed to . . .
I’m an Adventist, and good Adventists are supposed to . . .
I’m a Southern California Adventist, and so I . . .
I’m a Democrat or Republican, and we always believe in . . . or vote for . . . or we’re against . . .
I’m a Nelson, and Nelsons are supposed to . . .
And yes, we are even free from: I’m a multi-competent know-it-all with an internet connection, so let me tell you how one is supposed to dance Salsa.

Paul insists, You are free from all that. Your core identity is being “in Christ,” being a child of God. And so, then, your way of being in the world is free to be determined by none other than the “demands” of neighborly love. “Be slaves to one another in love,” Paul says. “Love your neighbor as yourself” — that sums it up. (Galatians 5:13)

You are a child of God, and as such you are free to respond to the Spirit of Love in whatever creative way this or that particular situation invites or requires.

So, is this freedom with fine print? Perhaps.

But consider again the analogy of the final exam as an “opportunity.” For the student who has prepared by cramming scores of “right answers” into her short-term memory through rote memorization, the final-as-opportunity notion is indeed just a word game, putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

But what about the student who has truly immersed herself in the class throughout the quarter, thoroughly engaging the subject matter and perhaps even pursuing the titles in the “suggested reading” list, so that content has worked its way into her soul?

We could imagine that such a student may genuinely experience the final exam as an “opportunity” — an opportunity to “dance” with the subject matter, to creatively and almost intuitively respond to the exam’s presented problems, perhaps drawing on the material in completely novel, surprising, and delightful ways.

This, I believe, is Paul’s vision of the Christian life of freedom, a life free from the restrictions of shoulds and supposed tos that spring from the various allegiances we hold to entrenched identities; and instead, a life free for responding to the unique particularities of our context with the creativity and resourcefulness of the Spirit of neighborly love.

And yes, Paul might add, when we have gotten so self-absorbed that we cannot even hear the music anymore and we are crashing into people on the dance floor, then we need to stop. Something has indeed gone wrong, and we need to pause and get reconnected with the music.

Then, once we feel its rhythm, its Spirit, in our minds and souls, we begin to dance again — freely. Really, truly freely.

“For you, brothers and sisters, were called to freedom (really!); only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but (instead) serve each other through love.” You are really, truly, genuinely free.


Vaughn Nelson is Pastor for Discipleship and Nurture at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California.

Photo Credit: / Kelsey Johnson


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