I Will Not Put Those Shackles Back On
Christianity has a message of freedom. So why do a lot of people experience Christianity as bondage?
The early church was tempted to turn Christianity into following Christ plus following numerous nonessential rules. Some early Christians communicated that new believers needed Christ plus circumcision and other cultural add-ons from the Law of Moses.
This “Christ plus” attitude isn’t unique to ancient times.
Churches today can communicate a similar message to new believers. Church leaders can become so established in the way they do church that they come to assume their way is the Bible’s way, even if it can’t be found anywhere in scripture. Church people can come to foist their own cultural rules on new believers as if they were God’s own expectations.
Churches can impose unwritten rules which have no ability to actually change hearts. Listen to the Apostle Paul describe the external regulations the Colossian church was tempted to bind themselves to:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23).
How does the church express the distinctiveness of Christianity without unnecessarily binding believers to rules which aren’t even in the Bible? How do we preserve our distinctiveness without losing our relevance? How do we make sure our expectations for new believers match the freedom we preach? How do we live Christianity in such a way that we’re not putting our shackles back on?
There are two steps we must take in order to safeguard and not misuse our freedom in Christ.
First, we’ve got to be clear on the difference between essentials and nonessentials.
I believe Christianity has a message of freedom—not freedom from God’s will, but freedom within God’s will. When we enforce regulations where God gives freedom, then we become overbearing and irrelevant. Rather than encourage freedom in Christ, we end up protecting our own preferences and trying to foist those expectations on new believers.
Some of our nonessential traditions can hinder forward movement. If there is a tradition based on church culture but not on God’s word, and that tradition is blocking the church from being relevant, then it needs to change.
Rather than allow the Colossian church to tie itself to manmade traditions, the Apostle Paul was insistent on pointing the church to the preeminence of Christ. Christ is the head of the church. We aren’t. Our own cultural regulations must never eclipse the Word of God or hinder the access of people to Christ. Therefore Paul made his point clear:
“Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:16-19).
Do you want to be both faithful to God and relevant to the culture? Be clear on the difference between what’s essential to Christianity, and what is merely tradition.
Second, we’ve got to be clear on the difference between who is struggling and who is just being smug.
As mentioned before, Christianity has a message of freedom—not freedom from God’s will, but freedom within God’s will. However, there is a time and place for voluntarily limiting one’s freedom even within God’s will.
The Christian prioritizes whatever will help others come to Christ unhindered, and sometimes this means that one’s freedom takes backseat.
Consider this example: many early Christians had come out of idol-worshiping backgrounds. Now it was permissible for Christians to eat whatever food was available, even food that had been used in idolatrous rituals (“food offered to idols,” cf. 1 Corinthians 8). However, these former idol worshipers might not be able to eat such food in good conscience because it would remind them of their former struggles with idolatry.
Paul’s response to these strugglers wasn’t, “Get over it. I’m free to do what I want.”
Rather, he determined to live in the way which would best help his audience come to Christ unhindered, even if this meant voluntarily limiting his own freedom. In Paul’s words, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
Here’s a modern day example: You are free to dress as you want. But if you find that you are dressing in such a way that other people are genuinely struggling to keep their thoughts pure, then the biblical response would not be, “Get over it. I’m free to do what I want.”
Rather, the Christian prioritizes whatever will help others come to Christ unhindered, and sometimes this means that one’s freedom takes backseat.
However, sometimes Christians who complain about what bothers them aren’t genuinely struggling with temptation; rather, they are just easily offended. Sometimes, they are the ones who need to change in order to accommodate fellow believers’ freedom.
This is why it is important to be clear on the difference between who is genuinely struggling, and who is merely being smug. For the genuine struggler, how might you help the person out, even if it means voluntarily limiting your freedom?
Again, how do we live Christianity in such a way that we’re not putting our shackles back on?
Be clear on what’s essential.
Be gentle toward who’s struggling.