This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: Freedom that demands more than law

In our previous lessons, Lawyer Paul presented his case in a courtroom against the position that male Gentiles must be circumcised in order to join male Jews as full members of the New Community in Christ. Water baptism replaces circumcision, he argued, and accepts all ethnic groups, social classes and genders.
In Gal. 5:1-17, Paul ends his speech by refuting his opponents. He is direct and emphatic, even fierce. As a Jewish man on the opposing side in that courtroom, I would have been furious. He even told us to castrate ourselves! (verse 12). Imagine that — denigrating the most sacred rite of our faith, which sets us apart from all other people on Earth.

Reta Halteman Finger

But today I am a woman in Christ’s New Community, and I wonder if Paul realizes how radical he is. First he takes on the bedrock rite of circumcision, which affirms male privilege within Judaism. No woman or eunuch was ever accorded equal status in this religion. Then Paul challenges the Roman Empire’s rigid class structure and economic dependence on the institution of slavery. The only thing that counts in Jesus’ New Community, says Paul, is “faith working through love.”

All this is easier said than done in an environment that is opposed to any kind of equality. (The Romans hated democracy and thought it produced chaos.) But Paul is adamant. “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” he says. “Yeast” stands for even a small compromise with the opposition.

In our text for Feb. 19, Paul offers only two general rules for treating equally all those within the Jesus Movement. First, your freedom in Christ is only for the purpose of loving each other and becoming slaves to each other. You will actually be obeying the whole law by this one commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). Second, deny your fleshly nature by living by the Spirit.

Believers need more how-to details, so our Feb. 26 lesson continues in Gal. 5:18-6:10. Many of us are familiar with the “fruit of the Spirit” in 5:22-26, as well as the “works of the flesh” in 5:16-21. I would make two major points about the huge ethical shift Paul is asking those “in Christ” to make.

First, in the “works of the flesh,” we recognize our human nature. Paul calls them “passions and desires” (5:24). Greco-Roman philosophers of Paul’s day also considered these passions unethical and unnatural. Today we would call them addictions —attachments or behaviors so strong that we cannot control them without help.

Besides alcoholism and drug dependence, we can add addictions to prescription opioids, to pornography, to screen time on TV and cellphones, cyberbullying and much more. Though we often deny it, without conscious self-control many of us can imperceptibly slip into destructive habits that Paul would call “works of the flesh.”

Second, the only way to kick these habits is through the Spirit. But Paul is not specific about how this works until Gal 6:1-10. We must begin forming new habits as we carry each other’s burdens and weaknesses. He even says that we will thus “fulfill the law of Christ.”

This freedom we have in Christ actually demands a higher ethical standard than does observing Jewish laws. We do not produce patience, kindness, generosity and other spiritual fruits automatically. Habits and disciplines and self-denial must be daily attended to. We cannot do this without each other — hence the absolute necessity of shared life in the New Community.

What addictions of the flesh do you struggle with? What Spirit-driven habits are you forming? How do you support each other in your church community, in your Sunday school class or small group?

Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.

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