- 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:
- 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)
- 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?