Sometimes, it seems that there are few things my generation of evangelicals loves more than their ‘Christian freedom.’

Many of us excitedly spurn the restraints of our parents, enjoying (within moderation!) the pleasures that were taboo in the churches and colleges of our youth.

But such exercising of our newfound freedom is often accompanied by a vocal distaste for anything that smacks of legalism. Critique the evils of unbiblical restrictions in a college group, and you are guaranteed a receptive response.

I have no little sympathy for the position. Legalism, when and where it exists, is a toxin that is antithetical to faith in Jesus Christ and the love of the community of saints.

But as Karl Barth points out near the end of his Commentary on Romans, those who trumpet their Christian freedom are often no stronger than the ‘weaker brothers’ whose legalism they abhor. Commenting on Romans 14:16-18, he writes:

The strength of the strong is confronted by an iron barrier. We now stand before the krisis of what we think to be our freedom, of the freedom in which we rejoice as our good. But it is good only when it is the freedom of the Kingdom of God. Do we understand this? Is our freedom nothing but the freedom which God takes to Himself in our doing or in our not doing? Or is it a freedom which we take to ourselves in His name? Or do we perceive that our freedom is important only when it demonstrates His freedom? Or do we suppose our freedom to be in itself important? In displaying our strength, are we anxious that—righteousness and peace and joy should be made known unto men? Or are we, in fact, in the end concerned with—eating and drinking?

It is a series of questions that, if asked genuinely, would temper many a young person’s defense of Christian freedom over and against legalism (including, I should admit, many of my defenses in the past!). Freedom is not for eating and drinking’s sake, but for demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit—fruit that is able to be expressed even when living within legalistic environments.

Legalism is a threat to the truth and love of the Gospel. But it is no more a threat than Christian freedom. The truly strong will not be moved by those who impose the law upon them, for they will understand that their freedom is for love and peace, rather than for its own sake.

May God give me, and all members of his Church, this blessed contentedness.

Update:  Randy Thomas weighs in with a corporate perspective.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. […] of Christian Freedom in a Corporate Sense Posted by Randy on 19 Nov 2007 at 12:00 pmCategories: Christianity, Church, Current Affairs, Friends, People, Religion, Scriptures, family Please Read Mere Orthodoxy » Critiquing Christian Freedom: Karl Barth on Romans 14:16-18 […]

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  2. The important thing to keep in the front of the discussion, as always, is the Cross of Christ. Am I saved by not drinking this or eating that? Or am I saved because Christ died for me on the Cross? If anyone says that Christians can’t swear or drink, then we ought to oppose them not because we’d like to swear or drink, but because they are suggesting that something other than the Cross is central to Christianity.

    I agree with you that too often our (including mine!) defense is simply an attempt to not have to exercise discipline and go without something we like. We are called to put our concerns after the concerns of our neighbor, which sometimes means (gasp) suspending doing things we enjoy in order to minister to them more effectively. However, as I mentioned earlier, we must not be so gracious that we compromise the Gospel. If they are truly insinuating that abstaining from something somehow wins us the favor of God then we absolutely must stand firm.

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  3. Matthew Lee Anderson November 19, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Brant,

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘stand firm’ and the manner of our opposing. If we are to truly ‘take up our cross,’ then it seems “opposition” to legalism inevitably means submission to its demands at the expense of our own lives.

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  4. Matt,
    Thanks for the reminder to examine our motives for opposing legalism and holding to our liberty. Such an evaluation of our own hearts is especially necessary as we interact with our parents, I believe. It is so easy to reject wholesale the standards of our parents because we believe we have come to Christian liberty. But even Paul, who so strongly defended Christian liberty, showed us a more excellent way. In our defense of the free, unmerited and eminently loving grace of God in Christ’s gospel, let us not forget to show that love to our brothers, sisters and parents. Such love may eventually require us to graciously explain the freedom we believe we possess in Christ, but without the love that endures with patience, speaks with kindness, rejects envy, pride, uncivility and implusive anger we are only a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.

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  5. Matt,
    I had in mind something on the order of Paul’s opposition of Peter in the beginning of Galatians (though we don’t know the exact exchange, just that he opposed him to his face). Peter was going along with the legalism of the Judaizers by eating separate from the Gentiles. Now there’s nothing wrong with eating with people, but when it becomes something you do in order to remain “pure” then it is no longer an issue of Christian liberty but the Gospel itself is at stake. So while there are a lot of times when we should subject ourselves to unnecessary restrictions in order to minister to people who incorrectly view something as essential that isn’t, there are also times in which they insist we abstain in order to acknowledge us as Christians. In the latter case, we should (in Christian love, of course) stand firm and refuse to abstain/participate.

    It is also a question of the maturity of the Christians or non-Christians we are ministering to. If I remember correctly, Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to be able to minister to the Jews without the issue of circumcision coming up, but after the Judaizers began stating that one MUST be circumcised to be a Christian, he refused to have Titus circumcised.

    My basic point was that I agree with you (and Beth’s excellent advice about respecting our parents in particular), but that we can’t forget some instances in which out submitting to someone’s legalism would actually harm them rather than minister to them.

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  6. Matthew Lee Anderson November 26, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    Brant,

    The example of Paul with respect to Peter is interesting in this context. I wonder whether the issue in Galatia was NOT legalism in our modern moralistic sense, but rather adherence to the Jewish law. That is, I wonder whether the example of Paul can be universalized in the way you are trying to make it. I don’t know. My intuition is that it can’t be (and it is only an intuition), because what’s at stake in say, the “swearing debate” is not religious identity, but freedom to behave in a certain way.

    In addition, such situations clearly exist in polemic contexts, i.e. people were proseltyzing others to get circumcised or obey the law. That changes the nature of the refusal, I think, because it the point is to reject their teaching.

    What say you?

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