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Galaian$5:1, 13-14: Free, Yet Enslaved Review and Expositor, 91 (1994)

Galatians 5:1, 13-14: Free Yet Enslaved

Molly T. Marshall
Recent months have witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Instigated in the Baltic with the victorious struggle of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, other countries joined their resistance to Soviet rule and declared their nationalistic freedom. Western observers have cheered these efforts with typical self-interest, declaring that the democratic way of life was destined to triumph. The independence of these nations and the dismantling of the Berlin wall have been accompanied by new forms of oppression, however. Legislation that discriminates against ethnic minorities and widespread fear that the fragile economies of newly formed governments could not support all seeking asylum have contributed to new forms of enslavement in the context of national freedom. Longing for Liberty Freedom is a most elusive concept for human beings. It is the longing of all persons, yet when gained or celebrated at the expense of others, its value is questionable. Like contemporary political movements, the Christian communities in Galatia struggled with the implications of new found freedom. Was it to be an occasion of liberation in which all could share equally, or were there uneven strictures to be borne by certain constituencies in the larger body? Ironically, persons who have known the systemic dehumanization of slavery or the onerous burden of unreachable expectations are often unwilling to extend their liberation to those who have not suffered in the same way. They fear that the severity of their striving might be trivialized by an accommodating inclusion of those who came lately to the fray. The Epistle to the Galatians as a whole, and this brief text in particular, is concerned with the nature of Christian liberty. Well known to be a favorite of Luther's, he called it "my own Epistle, to which I have plighted my troth. It is my Katie von Bora." Its message concerning Christian freedom and responsibility is so essential to the Christian life that Luther returned to it again and again, and so should we.



Calling to Freedom
The beginning of chapter five, a transitional verse summarizing what has gone before and introducing a new section, sounds a call to freedom and warns again of the consequences of depending upon obligations other than faith in Christ. Paul asserts the dangers of an admixture of legalism and liberty in the life of the Christian. By freeing us from the law, Christ has set usfreefrom its curse, its unreachable demand, and its condemnation. Earlier in the letter Paul has reviewed his own experience as a faithful Jew under the law, one who knew both its demand and its temporal provision of grace. Thus he understood some of the reservation of "certain people ... from James" about including Gentiles in the new way of faithapart from the law. Thefreedomof which Paul thinks is circumscribed by a biblical understanding of human beings as God's own creation and therefore accountable to God. Freedom does not mean the right of absolute self-determination, as some Enlightenment thought purported. To be human is to live within certain boundaries set by the creator. Our horizons are not unlimited; our finitude and our creatureliness give a certain provisionality to our lives. And yet, God grants to human beings thefreedomto choose the nature of their response to God and the way they will order their lives with one another. Bonhoeffer wrote of this humanfreedomin his "Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell/' calling for gratitude "that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such immense freedom and power to take the helm of their life's journey. The children of the earth arerightlyproud of being allowed to take a hand in shaping their own destinies ... ,"1 Thisfreedomis God's generous gift.

The Challenge of Christian Freedom

Thus when Paul calls the Galatians to "standfirm,"he acknowledges that Christianfreedomis not grasped, but received, and one must strive against returning to a "yoke of slavery." Remaining steadfast in a new commitment is not easy; the more familiar way of life beckons and seeks our enslavement. Any person who has ever struggled to overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, smoking, over-eating or any other destructive habit knows the threat of returning to that "yoke of slavery." Once we have "forged a chain of habit" (Augustine's vivid depiction), it is difficult to become unshackled. In this context Paul is warning particularly against being entangled with those thingsfromwhich Christ hadfreedthem: the law, the "elemental spirits of the world" (4:8), and the impieties of unredeemed living. These would not only damage their Christian witness but would diminish the essence of the gospel of grace. Another danger accompanies the experience of Christian liberty, i.e., freedom can erode into libertinism or license. It could become "an occasion for the flesh," an attitude which suggests that because one has been setfreefromthe curse of the law he or she could give in to immoral desires without compunction.

Galatians 5: h 13-14: Free, Yet Enslaved Review and Expositor, 91 (1994)

Enthusiasm in the fullness of the Spirit characterized many of the early churches and, at times, the Apostle Paul imposed stern measures to curtail expressions of freedom that compromised the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

Enslaved through Love

Many Sunday morning worship services these days conclude with the fellowship hymn: "We Are One in the Bond of Love," by Otis Skillings.2 This brief chorus celebrates the unity that should characterize the body of Christ and also suggests the ministry that should issuefromthe bonds between Christians. While this points in the right direction, it seems that Paul had even stronger bonds in mind. Christians are rather to experience a new form of subjectionto Christ and to one another. Drawing from his own experiences of being shackled, Paul uses graphic imagery in v. 13 to convey how Christians are to relate. Usually translated "through love serve one another/' it is actually a stronger verb which means "be enslaved" to one another. Paul is "contrasting two kinds of slavery: slavery to the Law (5:1), and slavery to the neighbor in love," according to Matera.3 Pointing to the new and inescapable unity within the body of Christ in which all are one (3:28), Paul is also accentuating the voluntary dimension by which one fulfills the law through loving the neighbor. There is an involuntary dimension as well, an "occupational hazard" that is ingredient to following Jesus, as Paul's imprisonment and persecution could well testify. In being joined to Christ, one is irrevocably joined to other members in Christ's body. This form of "enslavement" may require of us more investment in the lives of our brothers and sisters that we had calculated. Short-term ministry that sees tangible results is much easier to sustain than the demanding and often discouraging saga of bearing one another's burdens longterm, with seemingly little progress. Persons who minister by addressing the cataclysmic social ills which haunt our cities and nation daily face the burn-out which accompanies such an overwhelming enterprise. Family members who manage care-giving for incapacitated relatives (with little respite) know how exhausting fidelity can be. Public school teachers who must not only be educators but moral guides, counselors, disciplinarians, and protectors for disenfranchised youth wonder about their impact on these nearly unmalleable lives. Only love which flows from the inexhaustible compassion of the living God can buoy such efforts. Only God knows fully the voluntary displacement that moves self from the center of concern to creating space for the other in the center of one's being. This displacement isframedin christological terms by the writers of Compassion, a contemporary book on Christian spirituality: "The mystery of the incarnation is that God did not remain in the place that was proper... but moved to the condition of a suffering human being."4 Thus, God in Christ grounds the enslavement of love which is the calling of Christians.




Love, not Law

The understanding of freedom offered by the Apostle hardly occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures, even though the liberation of slaves from Egypt forms the kerygmatic fulcrum of the story of Israel. Indeed, it seems that a robust understanding of freedom is one of Paul's contributions to New Testament theology. His understanding of freedom is more comprehensive than ours, and it is expressly theological. It includes freedom from sin, the law, and death, yet it does not neglect the ethical dimensions of Christian living. Freedom marks our spiritual relationship with God (an inner transformation). His vision recalls us to the kind of humanity demonstrated by the abundant living of Jesus the Christ. Lines of continuity between Jesus and Paul are notoriously difficult to sustain; however, in the Synoptics' treatment of Jesus' attitude to the law we can hear clearly the leitmotiv of freedom that is echoed in Paul's writing. Here in Galatians 5:14 the Apostle declares "the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, 'love your neighbor as yourself," which sounds a great deal like Jesus' summarization of the law (and the prophets) when challenged by the Pharisees (Matthew 22:3640). Paul's understanding of freedom "should ... be seen as a consequence and elaboration of the practice of freedom which was demonstrated in Jesus," according to one contemporary systematic theologian.3 The unique juxtaposition of freedom and love in this chapter illuminates Paul's understanding of Christian discipleship. Love of God preceded human freedom, and human freedom in Christ issues forth in love of neighbor. Freedom must not be employed in such a way that it is no longer a channel of love for the neighbor, but freedom to stand with the sister or brother out of the wellspring of love which has its source in God.

Baptists and Freedom

While the Protestant Reformation can be seen as "the reawakening of Christian freedom over against the ruling powers,"6 the free church tradition prized this aspect of Christian living more than the magisterial Reformers. Luther wrote his great treatise On Christian Liberty in 1520, but when the peasants revolted in 1525, appealing to the logic of his argument, he countered their revolutionary action with the caveat that he meant freedom as primarily a spiritual, not political reality. Calvin, in similar fashion, moves the discussion of Christian freedom toward the concept of sanctification, that further work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian subsequent to justification. The Anabaptists, who occupied the left wing of the Reformation, elevated freedom, but often without the modifying or restraining influence of ecclesial tradition, as Thomas Muntzer's ill-fated leadership demonstrates. Like our forebears, contemporary Baptists are forced to struggle with the meaning of Christian freedom today." The turbulent currents which characterize the confluence of our theological sources still threaten to capsize any measure of unanimity about the direction of our freedom. We face difficult decisions about


Galatians h 13-14 Free, Yet Enslaved Review and Expositor, 91 (1994)

our cooperative ventures in missions; we face our own complicity in enslaving others, as our denomination's historical support of the institution of slavery reveals; we face policy issues in government which challenge our understanding of Christian discipleship; and we face a growing privatization of religious experience where liberty of conscience functions as license to order one's life 8 without ecclesial or community accountability.

The Spirituality of Freedom

Freedom, as outlined by Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, is a costly gift which entails spiritual discernment in its appropriation. Moral imperatives accompany the reception of freedom, lest this freedom be abused and shame be brought upon the body of Christ. In his Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther underscores the importance of linking good works to the precepts of faith "whereby they exhort the faithful to exercise the duties of charity one towards another."9 Christian life thus is not an abstraction, but has to do with the concrete pressures and opportunities which challenge the Christian's use of freedom. It is well that we remember that our freedom issues from God as our Creator and that in Christ we are once again inclined toward the way of God. St. Ignatius reminds us that our exercise of freedom must be framed by the following saying: "I come from God. I belong to God. I am destined for God." The Spirit of God can lead us to fulfill not the desires of the flesh, but the destiny granted by God. This is the purposive goal and joy of the Christian who lives out her or his freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letteis and Papisfiom Puson, The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Collier Books, The Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972), p. 41. 2 This hymn was published in 1971 by Lillenas Publishing Company. It appears in the 1975 and 1991 editions of the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press). Trank J. Matera, Galatians, Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 9, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 193. 4 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Chistian Lije (New York: Doubleday, An Image Book, 1982), p. 65. 'Hendrikus Berkhof, Chistian Faith. An Intwduction to the Study of the Faith, trans. Sierd Woudstra (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 457. Cf. Karl Barth's treatment of this "revolutionary character" of Jesus' ministry in Chinch Dogmatics, IV, 2, pp. 171-179. Ibid. 7 See Walter B. Shurden's The Baptist Identity: Foui Fiagile Fieedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993). These four freedoms are Bible freedom, soul freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom, central aspects of the Baptist expression of what it means to be a Christian. 8 Robert Bellah and his co-authors have chronicled the rise of privatized religion in Habits of the Heai t: Individualism and Commitment in Amei ican Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985). ^Martin Luther, A Commentai y on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, based on the Middleton Edition of 1575 (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd, 1953), p. 481.


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