Colossians 2 – Liberty

  • Read Colossians 2:16-23 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (31 October), you can listen to it here.

Churches across the globe declare the “Freedom in Christ”.  We point to the very words of Jesus, such as John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  But as many people today view churches, they see only restrictions, not liberty.  When outsiders think of Christianity, they often think of all the issues the church opposes, not freedom.

How the church presents its message to the world raises too many issues to address in one post.  Today I want to look at the question of “how does the church practice liberty within the church.”  If we can’t practice freedom within the church, there’s no way the world will see freedom when they look at us!

In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul seems to address a problem involving teachers (their background and motivation is uncertain) placing restrictions upon the young Christians.  These were not Godly limitations, but man-made regulations.  There were apparently two types of false laws:

  1. Restrictions on celebrations and festivals (2:16 do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day)
  2. False ceremonial laws concerning holiness (2:21-23 Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!… harsh treatment of the body…)

While the first part of chapter 2 contains the simple message Jesus is all you need.  The message of these false teachers is you also need to ….  The “therefore” at the start of v16 connects the logic of v16 with Christ’s victory on the cross.  “Because of Jesus victory on the cross… don’t let anyone judge you in relation to food or festivals”.  In my mind that’s a difficult connection to make.  How is the cross related to whether or not the Colossian christians attended the local olympics or ate particular food?

I believe Paul’s saying that they should focus on the big issues, not the small ones.  If they attend a local festival or eat or avoid particular food as an act of worship to a false deity, obviously there’s a problem.  Or if the festival involves sinful acts such as sexual immorality or drunkenness they should avoid those activities.  But if they participate as a non-sinful, cultural event then they shouldn’t let anyone judge them, as they’re doing nothing wrong.

I’ve seen many Christians struggle with this idea in relation to Western cultural celebrations that have religious origins: eg. Easter, Christmas, and Halloween.  In this passage Paul clearly states that participation in these events should be a matter of liberty, not judgment.

Liberty is also the answer for the second issue.  When people impose spiritual disciplines as necessities they impinge upon the individuals spiritual freedom.  It’s very easy for these expectations to evolve.  When a mature Christian finds that certain practices or habits help his or her spiritual growth they begin to share their experience with others as helpful advice.  Over time, helpful advice becomes an expectation, and finally an essential element of mature faith.

Churches as a whole can fall into this trap.  The church starts a new small group ministry and a significant number of people find it beneficial to their spiritual growth.  They begin recommending the groups to others.  Over time they look down their noses at those who don’t attend as insincere about their faith.  Eventually, small group membership becomes an expectation for all members and finally, only the “lukewarm” members don’t attend.  Perhaps there’s some truth in this, but it’s terribly unfair to the couple who use the “small group time” to visit their elderly aunt in the nursing home each week!  In any case, the church needs to remind itself that it’s an issue of freedom, not of judgment.

Liberty can scare people.  “If we let people know they don’t have to do something or act in a particular way, maybe they won’t do it!!”  Liberty means letting people behave like immature Christians.  Liberty means we can’t control the actions of others based upon the way we like things done.  Liberty means others don’t have to do what I think is the right thing for me to do.  Liberty means people might fall away from the church because they have the freedom not to participate.  Liberty seems to remove expectations from people.

For some of these thoughts the answer is “Yes”, for others it’s “Yes, but…”.  Liberty means that church leaders shouldn’t motivate the church by making edicts.  Rather, we have to motivate members by building up their relationship with Christ.  We can’t demand that members attend small groups, or participate in congregational fasting.  In Colossians Paul seeks to motivate these young Christians by reminding them who Christ is and what he’s done for them.  Likewise church leaders motivate by highlighting the big picture and pointing the body toward the head.  We motivate people by sharing how these activities will help them reach the goal of oneness with God, and yes, some of them might still say “no thanks” to particular events.  They have that liberty.

The final point to make is just to say that liberty works both ways.  While some people may use liberty to opt out of certain events, we all have the liberty to practice our faith in a way that is meaningful to us.  If one chooses to fast, or raise hands in worship or… then others shouldn’t judge those practices.  They have that liberty.

Okay, there’s a lot to think about there.  Please share your thoughts on this important issue.  Maybe these questions will prompt your response…

  • How do you feel about Paul elevating the importance of Christ’s victory on the cross above the cultural practices and spiritual disciplines practiced by the church?
  • How do you decide whether something is an issue of liberty?
  • Do you find the idea of freedom in the church to be scary or exciting?
  • Have you witnessed a church that facilitates freedom or eliminates it?  What did it look like?


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5 comments

  1. eirenetheou

    To the Corinthians, who constantly struggle with one another about many things, our brother Paul writes, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Paul has already told them that the new covenant he serves is “not writing but Spirit; for the writing kills, but the Spirit makes life” (2 Cor 3:6).

    To the Galatians, beset by people who seek to impose male circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws on Gentile Christians, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand therefore, and do not again submit to a yoke of slavery.”

    On the other hand, Paul counsels the Christians in Rome not to allow what is “good” for them to become “evil” by making it a “scandal” that will “cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.” Indeed, Paul writes, “the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Rather than demanding “rights,” according to Paul, “We who are ‘strong’ ought to bear the failings of the ‘weak,’ and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, in order to build him up” (Rom 14:13-15:2).

    i believe that these texts speak to your reflections on Colossians 2 in a “both/and” way. We have glorious liberty in our Lord Jesus, and we also have responsibility to and for every member of his Body.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

  2. ozziepete

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think my next post will address the other side of the coin.

    I shudder every time someone quotes Romans 15:1-2. I tend to think the application of this entire passage is complex and particular to the individual issue and circumstances. The reason I shudder is that I have seen it used by “weaker” members to blackmail the rest of the church into do doing things their way. In this way the effectively remove the freedom Christ died to give us and place the church back under law, only not God’s law, but human law… which is worse!!

    Meanwhile those we recognise God’s liberty shouldn’t adopt the attitude that “because we can, we must”. That’s an attitude fueled by selfishness, not Godliness.

  3. eirenetheou

    In Romans 14-15 Paul is addressing comprehensively the kinds of “issues” that divide members of the the Body of Christ between “liberty” and “scruples.” Although the specific causes of division may have changed, human nature has not changed since the first century, and the principles that Paul enunciates in Romans 12-15 are rooted in the teaching of Jesus.

    We are to “welcome” the one who is “weak in faith,” but “not for disputes over opinions.” We ought, then, “to bear the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Sadly, those who “dispute over opinions” almost always “please themselves.” They demand to have their way, or else. This is, as you point out, selfishness, but it is the way of the world. Paul tells the Romans “not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind.” That “mind” that they are to share is, as he tells the Philippians, the mind of “Christ Jesus, who did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Kenosis (“emptying”) is, i like to say, the prerequisite to koinonia (“common life”).

    We are called by Jesus (Matt 5-7) and Paul (Rom 12-15) to abandon anger, resentment, self-indulgence, and the pride that fuels them. These are hard things to learn, but that is why we are “disciples.” We are learning to be truly “righteous,” just, merciful, and faithful. “The kingdom of God is not food and drink,” writes Paul, “but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” We shall not enter the kingdom of God by “pleasing ourselves,” demanding our “freedom” and our “rights.” Rather, “the one who is first in the kingdom of God will be the slave of all” and “will live at peace with all.” Paul shows us some of what it means to do that. He doesn’t say that it’s easy. It is not easy, but it is necessary.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

  4. ozziepete

    d, thankyou. You laid out the quandry very well. The difficulty from a pastoral perspective is determining when to concede to the “weaker brother” and when to push him/her to “grow up”. This is obviously a situational decision to be determined on an issue by issue, personality by personality basis. However, at a minimum, church leaders need to be aware of both sides of the coin and seek God’s guidance in leading the church through these “issues”.

  5. eirenetheou

    When our sibling in the Body of Christ makes demands that would restrict our freedom in the Body of Christ, we need to hear her out carefully, and, as God enables us, to understand the reason for the demand she is making and what the consequences of a contrary decision would be. Our purpose is not to begin or to perpetuate “a dispute over opinions” but to learn as nearly as we can “what the problem is” and to find what common ground we can.

    When we “please our neighbor for his good,” we are not merely accommodating ourselves to his desire, but our goal is “to build him up” — in your terms, to help him (i should not say “push him”) “to grow up.” This is the work of those who are shepherds (“pastors”) among the members of the Body. It is time-consuming and often painful.

    When an individual or a group within a congregation demand to impose their will on everyone else in the congregation, and their demand is intransigent, then the shepherds of the congregation must decide how to respond, and they must weigh the costs of their decision. They should make their decision on the basis of Scripture, and not on anyone’s personal opinions or desires. In Paul’s time, when other followers of Jesus sought to impose male circumcision and Jewish dietary laws on Gentile disciples as conditions of salvation and common life, Paul was ready to declare them “anathema.” Shepherds of our own time may have to say, “God be with you, as you seek to work out your own salvation. We love you, but we cannot accommodate your demand. We are free in Christ, and in this matter we shall continue on the course we have set.”

    In such matters we are forced to confront what our “freedom” is worth, and whether the cost of yielding our freedom or asserting our freedom is a price that we should pay. “Pastorally” and personally, we should always begin with prayer, and continue with prayer through the ordeal and its aftermath. Not for nothing does Jesus direct us to pray for our enemies and for those who sin against us.

    As you well know, the cost of asserting freedom in Christ that others would vehemently deny is a burden of grief for many women and men in Christ today. It is not an abstraction. Jesus and Paul deal with it in concrete and graphic terms, and we do well to heed their instructions. We do well to act rather than to react, and to remember that “love is patient” and “love does not demand its own way.”

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

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