“Christ set us free, to be free men” (Gal. 5:1, NEB), wrote Paul, and he lived up to his words. So did many in the church of his day. They saw it as a thing to be received with awe and wonder that Christ had paid the price of his life to win their freedom. It mattered accordingly that they live as free men.
Most men’s way of life in their day involved a good deal of bondage. Slaves, of course, were completely at the disposal of their owners. They had no freedom, and sometimes their masters were at pains to make this clear. But even men who were technically free often managed to find some form of bondage for themselves.
The classic example of self-chosen bondage is the case of the Israelites in the wilderness. They had been set free from their bondage in Egypt and theoretically were no man’s slaves. But when difficulties arose, as they always will in life, they reacted like slaves, not free men. They complained. They looked for someone to tell them what to do. They could not view their difficulties as challenges to be met, as victories to be won. Although there were no fetters on their wrists, in spirit they were not free.
So men may be in bondage to the world’s way of thinking and acting. They may prefer the ease of slipping into conventional and orthodox paths to the freedom of striking out in new ways in response to the promptings of the Spirit of God. Living with freedom is demanding. This was as true in the first century as it is today, and just as many avoided it then as now.
But one of the exciting characteristics of, the infant Christian Church was that it refused to be bound. Christ had indeed made its members free, and they entered into their glorious new heritage. I imagine that this could not be said of every one of its members. But it could be said of enough of them for an exciting new page to be written.
Take, for example, their attitude toward circumcision. This was an honorable institution, begun by divine command and hallowed both by the unvarying practice of generations and by its association with the great name of Abraham. Every Jewish boy was circumcised at the age of eight days. There is no reason for doubting that all the original followers of Jesus accepted this rite and saw it as the natural expression of their covenant membership. Some of the early Christians indeed held that it was impossible for men to be saved without it (Acts 15:1).
But to Paul and Barnabas and some others it was crystal clear that in regard to such ceremonial customs the Christian is free. They refused to give way on the principle, and the gathering of apostles and elders at Jerusalem sided with them when the matter had been fully ventilated. James summed up the result by saying, “My judgment therefore is that we impose no irksome restrictions on those of the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19, NEB), a notable pronouncement on Christian freedom.
It was not simply on this one matter that Christians showed their refusal to be bound by the ancient way of doing things. They saw in Christ the end to the law (Rom. 10:4), and that meant the end of a whole way of life. Jews had held that the divinely given law set forth the way of salvation and that there was no salvation apart from the law. It was a revolutionary approach when the Christians proclaimed that salvation was all of grace and that the law did not hold sway.
An interesting feature of their new approach was that they did not simply abandon or renounce the law. They held that it was of divine origin and was to be treated with respect (Rom. 7:12). It remained a useful guide, a tutor to bring men to Christ (Gal. 3:24). But with all their respect for the law they were not in bondage to it. They were free men, liberated by Christ, and they could take up a new and independent stance.
This ability to dispense cheerfully with old and hallowed ways makes a big appeal to people of our day. Indeed it is sometimes thought that our “permissive society” is simply a continuance of this strand of New Testament teaching. There is certainly an emphasis on freedom among our contemporaries, and not infrequently this is joined with another New Testament emphasis, the importance of love. To many today it seems that it is the quintessence of New Testament teaching to insist that men be bound by nothing other than the requirement to love.
But before we recognize the permissive society as the modern embodiment of the New Testament approach, it is well to pause and reflect. It may well be that traditional Christians have been far too ready to clutter up the Christian way with a multitude of petty restrictions, a host of “Thou shalt’s” and even more of “Thou shalt nots.” It is perhaps as well that some of our shibboleths are being called in question and that Christians must think through just what their Gospel is.
But that does not mean we can abandon the traditional Christian emphasis on high moral standards. The early Christians refused to confuse liberty with license, and so should we. Although they were ready enough to abandon anything that was unessential, that did not mean they held that there were no essentials. They were quite sure that the way set before the Christian is a way of self-denial and strenuous morality. They could speak of the Christian way as involving a death to an old way and a rising to a new one (Rom. 6:3ff.).
Indeed, few things are more striking than the way the men and women of the early Church refused to conform to the accepted standards of the day and insisted on living in accordance with the commandments of their God. They succeeded in lifting the moral tone of society.
For with real freedom goes discipline. The man who cannot control himself has entered not into the ultimate in liberty but into the ultimate in slavery. He is in bondage to himself, and to the worst of himself at that. Genuine freedom includes self-control, a virtue that is insisted on throughout the New Testament.
There is a cardinal difference between modern permissiveness and the New Testament freedom. The former spells freedom to do as I please, the latter freedom to serve. It is in the service of God that the Christian realizes his freedom, and that service flows over into the service of man.
Here is one of the great problems facing the Christian Church. We dare not compromise the great New Testament doctrine of freedom. We must be as flexible in our day as the early Christians were in theirs. But at the same time we must preserve the discipline and the high standards that meant so much to them. Finding the right combination is not easy.
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