Over the last few Sunday evenings at Grace Fellowship Church, my friend Paul McDonald has been opening up Galatians 5.13 for us. The verse reads like this:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Over the flow of the book of Galatians, the apostle has been arguing that we are now free from bondage to the law and from all forms of legalism. This is fantastic news! For Christians of my generation, I often think that we take our Christian liberty for granted. We haven't had to fight the battles for allowing women to wear pants, or for instruments other than piano / organ; we haven't had to deal with the real rabid KJV-only types or the 'don't drink, don't play cards, don't watch movies' mentality of the previous generation.
We have our freedom. We enjoy our freedom. But I often think we take it for granted.
The trouble is that when we take our freedom for granted, it's only a very small step from freedom to licentiousness. Having moved on from legalism, much of our church culture now seems to glory in the fact that there is 'no law over us,' so we can do as we wish.
In Galatians 5.13, Paul seems to be saying, 'Don't give up your freedom (since that's why you were set free), but don't glory in your freedom at the expense of your brothers and sisters.' Just like everywhere else in the NT, the old, written code is replaced by the law of love.
No one in the early church understood and lived this balance better than the apostle Paul. As he would argue in his epistles to the Corinthians, he had every freedom and every right to take a wife, to eat what he wanted, drink what he wanted, accept payment from them for his ministry, etc. He had those freedoms! But, because he knew that he could better serve his brothers and sisters in love if he denied himself those freedoms, he didn't take them.
One really practical area where this works itself out in church life (as Paul McDonald taught), is modesty in women's dress. Just like the apostle Paul, women could rightly declare that they have freedom from outside rules in terms of what they wear. There are no NT regulations on skirt length, sleeve length, how far a blouse should be unbuttoned, etc. But the NT rule that does exist is love and service. Just like the apostle, women who love and seek to serve their brothers (and sisters) in humility, will limit their freedom for the sake of love and wear what is helpful in order to serve.
Of course, once this is understood, this gives opportunity for legalism again, because our flesh hears 'Serve by dressing modestly' and applies that to our hearts as 'Since I (or my wife) dress(es) modestly, we should judge those who don't.' We then create a new set of standards to determine what is 'modest' and what is not, and measure other people against that criteria. And the circle is then completed: we've moved from legalism, to licentiousness, back to legalism again.
So what do we do? Well, first we must work on the log in our own eye. Examining our hearts must take first priority. Do I really believe in Christian freedom? Do I impose standards on people that the Bible doesn't? Am I looking to things like dress to help ensure that I am justified?
Second, we should seek to apply the love of love. Am I grasping and clinging to my freedom at the expense of hurting brothers and sisters? Is my love of my freedom to dress and act how I wanted prohibiting me from serving? Is giving others occasion for sin (Lk 17.1-2)?
Third, we must remain humble and charitable. Just because the Lord is working on my heart and convicting me of sin in a particular area doesn't mean that he has to work on other people in the same way at the same time. We need to remember that we didn't use to know what we're now convinced of, and apart from a work of grace we never would have known it. We must not use our convictions as a throne from which we can cast judgement on other believers.
Fourth, pray for grace to find the balance. I pray that God would give me grace in every area (not just dress) to find the balance between glorying in my freedom and giving up my freedoms for the sake of my church family. I pray that I would never return either to legalism or licentiousness--but that when I do, that God would forgive me again, just like he always has before.