Paul tells us we are free, but we don’t believe it
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.—Galatians 5:1
Paul begins his fifth chapter to the Galatians with this powerful invocation. Christ sets us free from the slavery of the world. Our true liberty comes from our sovereign savior. We no longer are burdened to the shackles of the world, but we are free in Christ. It’s a beautiful passage. But I don’t think American Christians really believe it, and I think their notion of freedom comes from the state and not from Christ.
Paul is about to launch into a screed against the requirement for people to get circumcised to enter the church, using some of his harshest language. He is doubling down on the freedom we have in Christ and ending any sort of obligation to justify us. He says one single obligation may as well be obligating our entire selves. That if one person thinks that following a rule is necessary for salvation, then they should go ahead and follow all the rules.
I love Paul’s hyperbole here and his commitment to freedom in Jesus. I find that freedom liberating as we no longer obligate ourselves, but move freely in Christ. Free to do good, free to enact God’s will, free to follow Jesus and move with the Spirit. I think that sort of freedom is what Christianity is about.
When do disciplines become rules: when freedom becomes an obligation
Unfortunately, I think it’s hard to come by. So often, our disciplines, which are also an elemental part of our faith, get watered down to obligations. I understand why, of course. It’s easy to be a creature of habit than one of inspiration. And sadly, we see beautiful traditions of our history reduced to “vain repetitions” or banal ritual. That’s the kind of thing that makes Christianity a sterile remnant of the past, stymied and paralyzed by juridical ritual and authority. All of a sudden, there is a “right way” to do Christianity, when Paul dramatically said that the right way is to be free!
In our tradition, the high church liturgies have fallen victim to this sort of worship, but low church traditions can be also as juridical. The other extreme of having a very rigid way to pray and worship, is by rigidly having an unformed way of worship, to the point where observing Lent, or Advent, or reciting the Lord’s Prayer at all is reduced to legalism. That overcorrection is equally law-bound, condemning us to be obligated again. Obligated to be free. For my part, I would much rather be freely obligated, than obligated to be free, or condemned to be obligated.
I started thinking about this when I was participating in a conversation about the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in liturgy. There are some churches that recite it every week. It is a lovely tradition and in obedience to the Lord’s words in Matthew 6:9 when he instructs his disciples how to pray, especially in contrast to the pagans. Some people take Jesus so seriously, and perhaps it is within their proclivity to do so, that they need to repeat it every week to internalize the prayer. I think that is a valuable discipline.
But I suspect that people who do it out duty or obligation, as a result of imposition or expectation, do the very thing that Jesus instructs against in Matthew 6:7 when he rebukes the pagans for their babbling and vain recitations. It’s funny that some people take verse seven and use it to rebuke Christians who may value or need the practice or comfort of a weekly discipline.
I think, as I mentioned above, judicially imposing either standard is what Jesus is speaking against, but meeting people where they are and understanding what they need is more what Jesus is talking about—freeing people of obligation, and freeing them to follow Jesus as the Spirit leads them. I think this is also exactly the freedom in Christ that Paul speaks of in the above passage.
The state has co-opted Christian freedom through violence
One of the issues, of course, with this notion of freedom is how popular it is. Freedom, itself, has been co-opted by the state. “Freedom” is a part of many nations’ lore, especially in the United States, but unlike the New Testament vision for liberty it has nothing to do with community, and everything to do with individual responsibility and autonomy.
And so the troubling thing is that we often do feel free, and so the message from Galatians isn’t really earth-shattering. But we think we’ve been afforded that freedom through the liberal state. So we are free to participate in the church or not, in prayer or not, in whatever discipline or not, but we aren’t free to do so because Christ afforded us that freedom, but rather because the state gave us that freedom. Usually this mythology from the state revolves around some violent price paid to give us that freedom (bear in mind when God-sanctioned violence is the narrative that precedes our freedom in Christ). They’ll tell us a few times a year about the sacrifice made for our freedom because our enemies are always threatening it. I need to say it louder for the people in the back: the United States’ ruling elite tell you that you are free because of the state and not because of Jesus. Christians need to reject that.
You can see that the American-style of freedom is only for people within the U.S.’s arbitrary barriers, and with impunity we get this message told to us. Outsiders threaten our freedom and the only reason we have it is because we fight them off. And the only way to spread such liberal freedom is through conquest as well. This is the exact philosophy that neoconservatives channel. I laughed out loud when I read a definition of “neocon,” since neoconservatives on Twitter were getting a little precious with being miscategorized. (Side note: it’s hilarious that in the age of Trump, every moniker he gets labeled with, no matter how it’s been received historically [for example, neoconservative] requires distancing. I laugh because there are people saying they are the “good” kind of neoconservative, even though neoconservative has been largely a maligned label.) Nevertheless, neoconservatives definitively see U.S. liberal democracy as the supreme form of government, but they do not use liberal means to spread it, they use force. They force people to be free in their own understanding of freedom. That sounds as legalistic as making sure no one repeats the Lord’s Prayer. Or making sure they do.
Jesus alone sets us free; anything short of that is idolatry
The point I want to make is that we fail to understand that Jesus, alone, sets us free. Jesus alone is the author of our freedom. The freedom that we are often told we have, the one that makes us participate in a church community as one of many consumeristic options in our busy lives and full schedules—is that freedom? That’s just American freedom, one that is often so propagandistically delivered to us, and we’re none the wiser.
This is one of the issues that Christians who are very committed to state-craft encounter. We continually try to make a free and just society, as if the political apparatus’s improvement is a vehicle for the freedom of Christ. I want a freer and more just state, sure. But I am already free because I am free in Christ and no one can obligate me, not the church, nor the state. And when I freely obligate myself to serve, or to practice a discipline, it is through Christ’s freedom that I do it. And if I were to obligate myself to a juridical law like circumcision or a vain repetition like the Lord’s Prayer, I do it in service to another, in order that I might accommodate someone else. The law of Christ is love, and I’m only obligated to love. Which really means I’m free to love, since love is the ultimate tool for freedom.