Paul challenged the Christians he taught to stand firm in their freedom and not allow themselves to be enslaved again by either the law or sin. Paul himself stood firm for the freedom of Gentile believers to become Christians without submitting to circumcision. For Paul the most important thing was that Christians trust Jesus and not themselves or the law they follow to provide salvation and security. But he also insisted that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
It may seem like a paradox that Paul could tell Christians to stand firm in their freedom and then say this amazing statement: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13) He then takes it further and encourages Christians to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Writing in the letter to the Romans Paul speaks of the need to voluntarily limit our freedom in order to help other people grow in faith. Paul learned well the lesson that Jesus taught him that freedom is not the ultimate goal of the life of faith – rather love is! This is difficult to hear and believe in the North American culture that says the highest value is personal freedom. Paul says that we are to voluntarily limit our freedom – to eat what we want, to celebrate certain days as having tremendous significance –in order to love the people around us well.
Paul points out that when people who disagree about “disputable matters” two possible positions – either contempt or judgment. You do not have to look hard to see the truth of this idea: those who think of those who disagree with them as “unenlightened” or “uninformed” are displaying contempt; on the other hand, those who think that their opponent is either “liberal” or “sinning” by their belief and actions are displaying judgment. Neither contempt nor judgment is a loving practice, that is why Paul tells us to avoid them both!
When we disagree with others we naturally want to convince them to come around to our way of thinking. If the disagreement is sharp enough, then we switch to a strong desire to “win” the argument. Paul most certainly felt these strong pulls to prove his own position as superior to his opponents. Yet he tells us that as students of Jesus Christ, we win by loving others well and voluntarily submitting to their needs by limiting our freedom. If we “win” the argument by bullying or writing off our brother or sister (using either contempt or judgment), we have failed to love and have, by definition, failed to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus we can boldly say: “Though I am free, I will use my freedom to benefit others!”
- Kenny Payne