LAW AND FREEDOM
TEXT: Gal. 3:23-28; John 8:31-36
Many of us have been something other than United Methodist at some point in our lives and I encourage everybody to at least attend worship in another Christian tradition at some point. It helps to see that what is deemed "acceptable Christian worship" is as varied as the day is long.
A lot of the questions that I get when someone joins the church have to do with the differences between the United Methodist Church and some of the other Christian denominations. Depending which ones we're talking about there might be many or few, but one of the key issues that often distinguish one from another is whether the church places more emphasis on law or on freedom.
This is a really tricky issue, because the Bible emphasizes both. Law tends to take hold quickly, because it is easy for us to understand. We read the Ten Commandments and say, "Okay, this is what God is about. Do this and don't do that." Some of the laws might be hard to follow, but at least we know what they are. We know when we have sinned, and we know what we need to do to get it right. In that case the Bible becomes a law book, and is used to check to see what the law says and what we should do to the person who breaks it.
When I lived in Maryland, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church for about a year. As a denomination, they are a law-based church, and that is why I left it. On the one hand, it has to be said that they are not wrong in thinking that law is an important part of faith. There are laws in the Bible, and many places in both the Old and New Testaments do say "Do this and don't do that."
But sticking in the back of my head was the Bible verse that I had listed by my name in my High School Yearbook. John 8:32, "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." What I experienced in the Southern Baptist church made me feel bound and judged and condemned. It did not make me free, and that little verse cried out in my head that this could not be the fullness of truth, if it did not set me free. So I went searching again, and plopped myself in a United Methodist pew.
The United Methodist Church is focused more on freedom than law, so I instantly was relieved of the feeling of judgment that had hounded me in the Southern Baptist Church. But the freedom side of the fence is not without its own set of problems. Here on this side, we can be so law-phobic that we set no boundaries at all, setting our people free to simply drift on the sea of life with no compass or direction. In the end, this is not real freedom either. We are not forced in one particular direction, but we also have no means of making informed choices...and in some cases we get condemned for making choices because that is limiting freedom. And, of course, if we can't make a choice, we are not free. Bother.
I stuck with the United Methodist Church for a number of reasons, but one of them is that I am more comfortable on the freedom side than on the law side. I have always been the typical strong-willed child. Tell me I must do X, and I will most assuredly do Y, even if X is what I wanted to do all along! Others are more comfortable with law, because even if you can only choose one direction, at least you get somewhere. More compliant personalities are often quite happy to have someone else lay out the rules.
Whether you begin in a church based on law or in a church based on freedom, however, maturity in faith will require that you leave your comfort zone and seek out a balance between the two. Freedom and law are not opposites. They work together. Back in 1990 I visited Russia...the Soviet Union back then. I didn't drive there, but simply riding with others on the road was a terrifying experience. They drive on the same side of the road that we do, but aside from that, there are few rules...at least there are few enforced rules. On the equivalent of a five-lane highway, there are no lane markers, and what speed limits there might have been are ignored. More than once we passed a person sitting or lying in the street. Nobody stopped, they just drove around...without any indication that they were about to move into your lane...if indeed you had a lane!
In that place there was complete freedom on the road, but I certainly did not feel completely free. I was afraid to get into a vehicle and ride, and I certainly would have been too afraid to drive. Feeling afraid does not make me feel free. Real freedom, to me, implies a freedom from fear. We have many more traffic laws in this country, but as a result of those laws, I feel free on the road. I feel free to drive and free to be a passenger. Because we have laws about stealing and murder, I feel free to leave my home and walk the streets. It may still be murdered or robbed, but the more I have confidence in the law, the more free I feel.
This creative tension between freedom and law is one of the main struggles faced by the early church. The Judaism of Jesus' day was law-based. To be a good Jew in that day and age was to perfectly follow the law. The Pharisees were the lawyers and judges. They were the ones who knew the law inside and out and settled questions for the people. The pagan religions of the surrounding culture were more freedom based. There was a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses to choose from...some more strict than others, but if you didn't like the god of a particular area, you could move and take up with another one.
Then along comes Jesus. To the Pharisees, Jesus...who remember was a Jewish rabbi...says, "You've gone overboard with the law. You're so focused on the details of the law that you've forgotten the spirit of the thing. The law exists so that love and freedom can be supported, and it has gotten so twisted over time that you are stifling the very things the law was created to support." (Matt. 23:23-24) On the other hand, Jesus goes out and talks to the crowds, who had managed to find legal loopholes to do just about anything they wanted to do, and says, "Hey, God does care what you do. Just because you've found a legal way to divert funds from supporting your aged parents, doesn't mean you have kept the law. God does expect you to honor your father and mother." (Mk. 7:11)
Jesus pushes the law in some circles and tosses it out in others, depending on whether the people he's talking to have fallen onto the law or the freedom side of the fence. When it comes to law and freedom, it seems that we are supposed to work at balancing on the fence in the middle. And this is where Paul comes in. Paul was a Pharisee who was out persecuting the followers of Jesus. Paul very literally sees the light...he is blinded by a miraculous light that is none other than Jesus, himself...after his death and resurrection. In response to that experience, Paul becomes a Christian.
At the earliest stages, all Christians were Jews. But as Peter and Paul felt called by God to spread word about Jesus to the Gentiles...which is what any non-Jew was called...they had a big question on their hands. Do Gentile converts need to become Jews in order to be called Christians? In the book of Galatians, which is one of the earliest books of the New Testament, Paul weighs in on this question with a resounding, "No!" Gentile converts (which was most of the church in Galatia), do not need to be burdened with all the do's and don'ts of Jewish law. They put their trust in Jesus, and that is enough.
Since Paul himself, however, is still a Jew, this is getting him in all sorts of trouble. He is, in essence, saying that more than just the Jews can be considered the people of God, and that Abraham has "faith children" as well as those who are his racial descendants. Not a popular stance in Jewish circles. In Paul's letter to the church in Galatia, he is trying to lay out the way that he sees law and freedom as complementing one another instead of being opposed. He will always maintain that Jews and Christians need each other...that law needs freedom and freedom needs law.
What he says in verses 23 and following is, I think, a great description. He describes the law as a disciplinarian...the word refers to the practice of Paul's day of turning over a young child to a tutor for training. When I really absorbed this, it seemed to me exactly right. When we are young, law is meant to rule. We have chores that need to be done, rules of the house that need to be obeyed or else. We have duties at school and are mandated to attend. There are penalties for not doing the work. While there are certainly tragic abuses of this power, in a loving environment, these rules and obligations are meant to prepare us to be responsible adults.
As we grow, we are given more freedom as well as more responsibility, and whether we are truly free as adults depends on how much we absorbed the law as children. If I ignored math classes and homework, for example, I will not be free to manage my own finances as an adult. I will be unable or incompetent or both. If I didn't absorb lessons about food, exercise, and care for my body, I will not be free as an adult to do the things that a healthy person can do. I will be bound by medical conditions and perhaps early death. If I didn't learn about hard work, I won't be free to hold a good job and therefore won't have financial freedom to do other things.
I think you get the point. The discipline at the beginning is the very thing that sets us free later. If the discipline doesn't lead to freedom, however, or if the freedom never begins in discipline, you've got a real mess on your hands. This is exactly what Paul found out. On the law side he was always dodging the Jewish leadership who wanted to arrest and kill him for breaking the law and on the freedom side he was dealing with predominantly Gentile churches like the church in Corinth who had never had the discipline of the law and took his message of freedom to mean that they could become libertines.
All of that is why we say that, as Christians, we are free IN CHRIST. The normal distinctions don't matter there. Our ethnic background, our gender, our economic status...we are set free from the rules and laws of those categories. But we are not left without guidance or without boundaries. Our guide is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, instructing us in the highly disciplined life of love that he led while on earth.
That is why when we are new to faith, our first focus is on the spiritual disciplines. Pray, study the Bible, participate in worship, serve others, give of your money and possessions. All of those things represent the tutor...the disciplinarian...the school...where we absorb the ways of God that will allow us to be truly free. For example, I am now free to receive God's guidance because I have spent enough time in prayer and Bible study to know God's voice.
All of us are in different places along the line, and I can't say one thing that will be true for all of you. But I can encourage each of you to think about where you are on that line between law and freedom, and I can say that my study of Scripture tells me that our goal is to be as close to a balanced center between them as we can be. If you are a strong legalist...your life is full of do's and don'ts, should's and shouldn'ts, study the book of Galatians. Explore freedom. And if you bristle at any boundary at all and find yourself way out on the freedom side, spend some time with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-8. And through it all, remember the Bible promise of John 8:32. When you know the truth, it will set you free.
Sermon (c) 2003, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com