Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Week Ten: Why does Paul emphasize freedom in the letter to the Galatians?

            In the letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes freedom in order to illustrate the way in which Christ sets us free from sin and death (Van Voorst 321). One of Paul’s main themes is that Christ saves us from “the domination of sin,” which is a reality of the flesh— something all humans experience (321). This theme echoes loud and clear in Galatians with Paul’s emphasis on freedom; Paul boldly says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5.1 NRSV). While this may sound redundant at first, closer examination of this verse brings yields a vision of Christ’s saving, freeing action and its result of freedom. This freedom is not simply a reality yet to come, it is also a reality in which believers can live in the present (Brenneman 3/14/11). Ultimately, this freedom is about freedom from sin and death in Christ, for the sake of living in freedom, in Christ, in the here and now. This concept of freedom has many facets for Paul; first, it is an action— Christ’s action. Second, it is a reality which is the result of Christ’s action, a reality in which believers are invited to live. Third, freedom is active rather than passive— Paul exhorts the Galatians to use their freedom for the purpose of love: “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’” (Gal 5.13-14). Using freedom in this manner, for the purpose of loving one another, leads to the final facet of freedom in Galatians— community. Freedom in Christ, made possible by the action of Christ and used for the purpose of love, builds up the body of Christ and creates community. Freedom is, in a sense, a cycle— freedom is both action and reality, interdependent and always taking place. Christ continues to free us from sin and death so that we might live in the reality of freedom, acting in love and building up the body of Christ. Freedom is always in Christ and by Christ, and true freedom acts in love for the purpose of building up the community.
            In the context of the Galatian church, freedom in Christ was especially important in contrast to the law, which the Galatians were trusting in rather than Christ. Paul asks them, “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal 3.2b-3) Here, Paul compares the law with the flesh, calling the Galatians to leave behind the law and live in Christ, since Christ is the true freedom and salvation from sin and death. I think this discourse about living in freedom in Christ rather than by the letter of the law could be applied to many of the contemporary conflicts in the church, specifically conflicts about strict traditions. Just as the Galatians have been set free from the law for the purpose of freedom and love— so, too, can living in Christ for the purpose of love help us move past arguments about strict church traditions, such as worship styles. The cycle of  freedom in Galatians offers a good framework to think about whether our practices are in line with the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection— does freedom abound? Is this freedom reflective of the reality of Christ’s resurrection? Is love our goal? Is community being built up? If we can genuinely look at our faith practices and answer “yes” to these questions, we are on the right track to living in the kind of freedom Paul is describing in Galatians 5— true freedom in and by and for Christ.

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