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.