Free, But Not Free
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 9, 2003
Freedom is a difficult concept to fully understand. Sure, we have some notion of what is meant by the word, yet, we must confess that there are different types of freedom.
Today we celebrate our national freedom—freedom that was defended at a cost; freedom that was defended with the lives of brave men and women.
And not entirely unrelated to our national freedom is our personal freedom. We are free to attend a church service, and we are free to sleep in on Sunday morning and watch football on TV all afternoon. We are free to tell a friend that his tie does not match his shirt, and we are free to say nothing. We are free to eat a slice of chocolate cheesecake for breakfast, and we are free to eat some fruit and oatmeal cereal.
There is, yet another, freedom that is critical to our well-being. The Bible reminds us that there is such a thing as spiritual freedom. Jesus tells us “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34). In other words, in our natural state, none of us are spiritually free—we are enslaved by sin. But thankfully, Jesus explains that He is able to make us free; because of the work of Christ at Calvary, it is possible for us to enjoy spiritual freedom (Jn. 8:31-36).
Few would argue with this statement: human beings do not like to have their freedom compromised. Most of us regard freedom as a right, as something we should cling to at all costs.
Yet, inherent in the spiritual freedom provided by Christ is a call to restrict one’s freedom for the sake of another. This is what is intended by our sermon title, ‘Free, But Not Free’. Christians are, in one sense, free in Christ. Christians are free in that sin is no longer our master. Christians are free in that the threat of eternal condemnation has been permanently removed. We are free to do the will of the Lord.
In what sense then, are Christians not free? Christians are not free to behave in any manner they please. Paul explains that our exemption from the penalty of sin must never be turned into a license to sin.
This has been a predominant theme for Paul in writing to the Corinthians. Throughout this letter, we see Paul attempting to restrain and correct those individuals who have inappropriately applied their spiritual freedom to the detriment of the local Christian community. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “you are not your own; you have been bought with a price”; you have been bought with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, “therefore glorify God in your body”(6:20).
Paul emphasized this principle in chapters 5 through 7 as he addressed the matter of sexual ethics. And now, as we turn to chapter 8, we see this same principle applied to another matter. A former professor of mine summarizes this transition well when he writes; “The setting changes from the bedroom to the dining room for the next question from the Corinthians” (Quast, The Corinthian Correspondence, 56).
Paganism prevailed in Corinth to such a degree that it was difficult to purchase meat that had not been sacrificed to idols. For some Christians in Corinth, the question arose as to whether they could eat meat that had been sacrificed to a heathen God.
Paul’s answer to this question—in a nutshell—is that the Christian is free, but not free to eat. The Christian is free in the sense that heathen gods are really no gods at all, and that, in reality, everything we have comes from our Heavenly Father. Whether or not the meat has been sacrificed to pagan gods does not change the reality that the meat belongs to the Lord. For this reason, since all things belong to the Lord, it is not wrong for the Christian to eat meat sacrificed to idols (8:8).
“However”, Paul says, “not everyone has this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (8:7).
Even though heathen gods are nothing, even though, in Christ, we are free to eat whatever we wish, Paul gives a warning, “take care lest this liberty of yours somehow becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (8:9). Paul goes on to say that “if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again” (8:13).
In other words, Paul admits that the Christian is free to eat, but he exhorts the Christians in Corinth to restrain their freedom for the benefit of the weak Christian. Paul reminds us that our freedom in Christ comes with a responsibility to protect the welfare of the Christian community. As a result, there may be occasion for us to restrain our personal freedom.
There is the sense that while our freedom in Christ is genuine, it is not absolute freedom. We are not free to do whatever we please, but we are free to do that which is good and edifying.
The same can be said for our national freedom. Living in a free country does not mean we are a land without laws—it is not absolute freedom that we have in Canada—but we are free to do that which is good, and that which is edifying for our country and for the people of Canada.
Admittedly, the subject of eating meat sacrificed to idols has little relevance for us in 21st Century Canada. Yet, clearly, the principle of ‘free, but not free’ applies readily to us today.
There are all sorts of activities that have been hijacked, and perverted, by our society that it has become confusing for the Christian to know what is acceptable.
Are Christians allowed to dance? Can we play cards? Are we allowed to go to the movies? Are we permitted to drink alcohol?
Admittedly, these questions cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What kind of dancing are we talking about? Is there money involved in playing cards? What kind of movie are we talking about? What quantity of alcohol are we speaking of? And, what is our context for engaging in these things?
Paul is dealing with, at least, two groups of people within the church at Corinth and, it is likely that these two groups have representation here today.
Group one is the ‘libertines’. This is the group that has mistakenly understood their freedom in Christ to mean that “all things are permissible”(6:12). Individuals in group one, have yet to comprehend the connection between the doctrine of salvation and their subsequent moral obligations. ‘Libertines’ are often so enamoured with the notion that Christ will forgive all their sin, that they begin to read the commandments of God as merely ‘suggestions’ for Christian living. Paul reminds the libertines of the need to act in a manner that edifies the Christian community.
Group two, we’ll call the ‘legalists’. The legalists, so disgusted with the perversions of their culture, have radically swung the pendulum in the other direction. You might remember, from chapter 7, those Christians who regarded sexual relations within marriage to now be inappropriate. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of ‘legalists’ who are marked by slogans like “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”(Col. 2:21). To the Colossians, Paul says that these practices have “the appearance of wisdom”, but are nothing more than “self-made religion”, and “are of no value”(Col. 2:21-23).
Paul’s message is for us is that the edification of the Body of Christ is not accomplished by doing whatever we please, nor is it accomplished by unduly restricting behaviour beyond what the Bible requires.
I’d like to share with you a story, which takes place shortly after World War 2. The World Council of Churches sent John Mackie, president of the Church of Scotland, and two ministers from a different denomination to visit some of the villages where money had been disbursed.
One afternoon, Dr. Mackie and the other two ministers went to call on the Orthodox priest in a small Greek village. The priest was overjoyed to see them, and was eager to pay his respects. Immediately, he produced a box of Havana cigars and offered each of his guests one. Dr. Mackie took one, bit the end off, lit it, puffed a few puffs, and said how good it was. The other gentlemen looked horrified and promptly said, “No thank-you, we don’t smoke.”
Realizing he had somehow offended the two who refused, the priest was anxious to make amends. So he excused himself and reappeared in a few minutes with some of his choicest wine. Dr. Mackie took a glassful, sniffed it like a connoisseur, sipped it and praised its quality. His companions, however, drew themselves back even more noticeably than before and said, “No thank-you, we don’t drink!”
After the visit, when the three ministers were traveling in the jeep, the two pious ministers turned upon Dr. Mackie with a vengeance. “Dr. Mackie, do you mean to tell us that you are the president of the Church of Scotland and you smoke and drink?”
By this time, Dr. Mackie had all that he could take, and his Scottish temper got the better of him. “No, darn it, I don’t, but somebody had to act like a Christian!”
Dr. Mackie was not a libertine; Dr. Mackie, by his own admission, was not a drinker or a smoker. But Dr. Mackie was governed by the principle of edification. Dr. Mackie was free to refuse hospitality, but there was a sense in which he was not free. In order to honour his host, in order to edify a member of Christ’s Body, Dr. Mackie set aside his freedom, puffed on a cigar and enjoyed a glass of wine.
Beloved, we are not free to do as we please. We are not permitted to indiscriminately engage in whatever activity pleases us for the moment. Yet, at the same time, we must not fall into the trap of being known by what we do not do. I recall a Christian once boasting, ‘I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t watch movies, and I don’t watch TV on Sundays’, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s nice; you don’t do a bunch of things. But, what do you do?’
It is time for Christians to be known for what we do, rather than for what we don’t do.
We are free in Christ, but we are not absolutely free. We are free to do that which is honouring to Christ. We are free to do that which edifies the Body of Christ. This is a blessed freedom; this is the best kind of freedom—Thanks be to God for our spiritual freedom! Amen.