By John B. Cobb, Jr.
Gal 3:3, 5:1, 13
“For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
Freedom is the heart of liberal Christianity. But Christian freedom is not license. “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Gal 5:13). For liberal Christianity this text is as important as the first.
From what are Christians free? Paul’s emphasis is on the law. The specifics of the Jewish law of his day concerned him most. But we are not freed from that law in order to be placed under another one. Yet again and again in Christian history, being a Christian has been defined as obeying certain moral rules and believing certain doubtful assertions on someone else’s authority. Paul asks, “Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh” (Gal 3:3)?
For what are Christians free? We are free to love one another and in love to serve one another. We are free to be members one of another in the Body of Christ. We are free to witness to others of the freedom we have been given in Christ Jesus and of the love we now experience for the least of those for whom and in whom Christ has suffered. We are free to invite others to join in the fellowship of freedom.
But what about the Bible from which, and from which alone, we learn the good news of Christ Jesus? Must we not take it as the final authority, obeying all the laws we find there and believing all it says? No! Does the rejection of an authoritarian view of the Bible entail that we put our private human reason above it, treating that as absolute authority? No, that would be even worse! The only final or absolute authority is God, present to us in the Holy Spirit. Nothing creaturely, whether writing, human being, or institution, congeals the living, ever-creative and ever-redemptive, work of God.
Christian freedom is expressed in disciplined living and disciplined thinking. The problem does not arise from strong commitments and wholehearted convictions. The problem arises when the commitments, obedience, and convictions that arise as authentic expressions of Christian freedom are imposed on others as bondage. Against this, “liberal Christians” protest in the name of Christian freedom.