By Brendan Low Shern Leong
13 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. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)
The interesting thing about “freedom” is that almost everyone seeks it whether or not they have encountered this verse. However, the definition of “freedom” that they seek is the ability to do as one pleases. For example, to be free of external influence that inhibits their time, or to pursue their goals toward self-actualisation or for financial freedom. A friend of mine has even told me he desires freedom to do nothing!
Many have credited the West for the rise of this new conception of freedom. In a podcast by Moore Theological College, the speaker noted:
…if there was ever a topic that defined our age, it is freedom. Freedom is what it means to be Western. Those of us who grown up in the West, it is innate in us.1
He goes on to note that this innate demand for freedom has a historical basis.
I could fire up the French… with the cry of the revolution Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). I could fire up those who are watching with the cry of Patrick Henry “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
The historical basis is commonly thought to have carried forward into contemporary mind sets, but this is not quite the case.
Western and Eastern conceptions of freedom and the fallacy of neutrality
In the West today, freedom is treated as the end goal of individualism. Merriam-Webster defines individualism as “a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount”. This stands individualism in stark contrast to the revolutionaries or independence-fighters of the past simply because for them the interests of the nation were ethically paramount. Freedom is understood to be the removal of restraints that prevent the individual from being fully realised. One may disagree with my definition of freedom, and cite a more ‘tolerant’ definition such as that by Philosophy Terms2:
Individualism is believing in individuality, diversity, and freedom over authority and conformity.
But even so, dissenters cannot deny that individuality understood today originates from the self. Here the source is the most important. As a result, those acting consistently with this philosophy of individualism are unable to do certain things today, such as lay down their life for their country. This is because in doing so the source of freedom, the self, is destroyed, and with it their philosophical worldview. There is no freedom in this regard.
We must not only blame Western individualism for this inconsistent freedom framework. To those of us in Asia, freedom may be meeting a familial or societal expectation of independence, a transition into the “adult” phase of life. Those with this viewpoint would aim to move out from our parents’ homes as soon as we can so as not to “live under their rules”. Ironically, in the process doing so, we are actually measuring ourselves against a standard set by familial or societal expectation. Every dollar earned adds to the progress bar, where a 100% is that standard. But when our progress is encumbered, for example by inflated property prices, we are disappointed! Every day that we cannot move out of our parents’ home, or that we have not repaid our debt, we are disappointed because we are bound to these goals. Again, we are not free.
Those who grew up in the West would recognise this Asian mentality as traditional and overly restrictive. To some extent, they are spot on. Traditional values may be binding in an unhealthy way. But individualism in its form today may be equally as binding. In both Western and Asian conceptions of freedom, there is a standard to which both must conform for them to be ‘free’. It is only a matter of whether it is financial independence, geographical independence (moving out from parents’ homes) or perhaps even emotional independence (not relying on parental approval). Even if they are successful, that does not place them in a ‘neutral’ position where they are not bound to anything. The chains that bind them may now take the form of earning a certain amount of money to survive or relying on oneself for emotional support. This is on top of the need (or burden) to define the identity of their individual selves. Even if one is able to provide for oneself comfortably and is emotionally secure (assuming there is even such a thing), the burden of self-definition remains in individualism. One remains bonded to it.
This is the fallacy of neutrality. For in reality, one is always devoted to some kind of standard.
As an aside, please do not hear me saying that one should not be responsible and move out of one’s parents’ place or have a certain emotional quotient that signals maturity. These may be good things if understood rightly according to the Bible. It is a biblical mandate to avoid being “dependent” on the congregation but instead to “work with [our] own hands” to be exemplary as the body of Christ to others (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Also, a high emotional quotient may be given to us by God to be put to use in comforting others (2 Corinthians 1:4). Rather, the point I am simply making is that even in the secular sense of freedom, none of us are in a neutral, unencumbered, position.
So why not consider Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 5:13 to “through love serve one another?” I will argue why this brings true freedom. But first, it will be explained why the inevitable alternative to this is to make “opportunities for the flesh”.
Fleshing out the meaning of this
What does the Bible mean by the word “flesh”? Flesh is a word often used in a negative sense. Later in the letter, in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists a series of wrongs such as sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and “things like these”, warning that those who commit such wrongs will not “inherit the kingdom of God”. Elsewhere, Paul laments that there is “nothing good” in the flesh as he struggles with temptations of sin (Romans 7:18). Indeed, there are occasions where the word “flesh” describes something good in the Bible3, but it is very likely that Paul, when using the word “flesh” in the context (Galatians 5:13-15), had in mind one of the “things like these” he mentioned later.
Independence and freedom defined by standards outside the Bible may become idols, whether one intends them to or not. Society, family and the unbound singular self can be an idol. Consider how the call for independence in the eyes of the world seems to lock us into pursuing a particular paradigm. Then consider the resonating voice of Paul’s outcry in Romans 7:18 and Galatians 5:17. Paul laments that he is made “a prisoner of the law of sin4 at work within me” (Romans 7:23).
Up until this point I have shown that neutrality in the sense of ‘unbound freedom’ is a fallacy. I have also demonstrated the dangers of the flesh by showing how the Bible describes the flesh as imprisoning and enslaving. Now, I seek to show that living out the biblical mandate to “serve one another” is the means to true freedom.
Freedom to serve and follow
In Galatians 5:13, Paul goes as far as to tell Christians to be doulai of one another. Doulai literally means bondservant, and Paul is telling Christians to serve one another as though there were a binding duty like that of a servant to a master. Timothy Keller notes that to follow this would mean putting the needs of the other ahead of ours. This may be shocking especially in light of the friends, acquaintances or associates who may not be appreciative of the time you grant them. They may even take advantage of your willingness to serve by demanding more of your time! Regardless, Paul makes no such exception to our duty. We are accountable as bondservants regardless of the way we are treated by our ‘masters’. Likewise, those who play the role of “masters” will be accountable to their “Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1).
If being a bondservant to another remains unpalatable, consider the fact that Christ humbled like a servant to die on the cross as atonement for our sins (Philippians 2:7-8). Christ who by nature possessed “equality with God” was willing to lay down his life so that we may be set free from sin and be righteous in God’s eyes. Christians are called to imitate Christ (Philippians 2:3-8). Even those who do not profess to be Christian consider the character and deeds of Jesus to be worth following. If Christ has granted us freedom, and is an example worth following, shouldn’t we use that freedom to follow him? This is the first reason why we should serve one another, because the one who saved us by serving us did so.
The second deals with the antecedent qualification in Galatians 5:13, that is “through love serve one another”. John Piper notes that serving in love is “synonymous” with freedom. In answering why this is the case, he states:
Because love is motivated by the joy of sharing our fullness, but the works of the flesh are motivated by the desire to fill our emptiness… works of the flesh are motivated by a desire to fill our emptiness. But love is very different—it is motivated by the joy of sharing out fullness. “Love does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5)…. When God frees us from guilt and fear and greed and fills us with his all-satisfying presence, the only motive left is the joy of sharing our fullness.5
Piper is apt in quoting Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:5. In that beautiful passage on love which a multitude of God-fearing couples have referenced in their marriage vows, Paul states that love “does not insist on its own way”. This captures the dynamic of doulai-hood, not prioritising our own needs and plans ahead of others, but granting the other their requests as a sign of love to them. In doing so genuinely and willingly, our love should overflow. Don’t get me wrong, it is easier said than done. There might be some people which we find difficult to love either out of animosity, past unpleasant experience with them or simply not “clicking”. But as we pursue these actions of love, imitating Christ and being gradually moulded into Christ-likeness, we find that it gets remarkably easier.
Actions of love
I am encouraged by this story that Timothy Keller shared when he was a young minister. He noted that when he moved to Virginia to pastor a church, he found “plenty of people” whom he “shared no affinities” with. Nevertheless, a pastor, he served the church. As he puts it:
If they went to the hospital, I was there. If a family’s son ran away from home, I got in my car and went to find him. I sat in their homes, went to their children’s graduations, went to their family picnics. I shared my heart with them as they shared theirs with me…I was called upon to do all the actions of love with a lot of people to whom I was not emotionally drawn.6
On one particular day, he had a mid-week day off. Then, he thought of a “particular couple in the church” who had “many personal problems” and therefore “few or no friends”. He then suggested to Kathy, his wife to have them over. Kathy replied with an astonished “Why on earth?”. Reflecting on this, Keller noted:
For a moment I was surprised by her surprise, and then I laughed when I saw what had happened. For months I had been investing much time, thought and emotion into helping this couple move forward in life. In short, I had been doing various actions of love – listening, serving, sympathizing, confronting, forgiving, affirming, sharing. And after all that, I realized, I’d actually come to like them.7
Over time, it did become easier, and Keller did not even notice until it did! Keller concluded: “actions of love can lead consistently to feelings of love”. Here is practical advice from one whose everyday work involves being a doulai to his neighbours. He does it so often that over time what counted as ministry “work” – a service to his congregation – became synonymous with love.
Knowing why we should love, we now can make sense of the law that fulfils the “whole law” (that is the Law and the Prophets), “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. This means that we should – as Piper put it – make the “existing love of self” the “measuring rod of [our] love for others”. This means that the things we do for ourselves to grant ourselves happiness, joy and freedom – yes, definitely freedom – should be what we do for our neighbours. Our neighbours would include those outside the church community (see the cross-ethnic and cross-cultural message in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37). In contrast, Paul was technically only addressing his “brothers”8, i.e. those with him in a spiritual brotherhood or church community. But surely this does not mean that there is anything wrong with serving our neighbour with a heart of servanthood. If we serve them as though they were our brothers, maybe one day they will be.
Tying love back to the freedom found in Christ, to “brothers” i.e. fellow believers, love may take the form of constantly reminding them of the freedom found in service, following after Christ. Meanwhile, to those who have yet to accept Christ into their hearts, we should share the freedom that we have in Christ-like service to them!
But what if we don’t?
In Galatians 5:15, Paul – this time addressing those in the church community alone – give a stern warning as to what would happen if they don’t “through love serve one another” but instead “bite and devour” one another. They will be consumed. At first this may appear to be an unnecessary tautology. Obviously something that is bitten and devoured will be consumed (in the ordinary sense of the words). Think of eating a burger whole with one bite! To understand what Paul is going for, we need to go deeper into the meaning of the words used.
Theologian Albert Barnes in his commentary9 on Galatians 5:15 notes that biting and devouring evokes the image of wild beasts contending with one another. Additionally, the Pulpit Commentary10 notes that the Greek word “consumed” means to be “utterly destroyed”. The use of this metaphor was probably to deal with the partisan spirit of Jewish and Gentile converts dividing the church, but is relevant in dealing with divisions that take place today. This is a powerful exhortation. Paul does not only call them to settle their differences. Remember, he calls them to go further to be servants to one another in love. Take a couple of minutes to imagine how Christian life would look like if this approach is used to settle the inter-congregational differences that we have.
Barnes expounds on the “wild beast” metaphor noting that beasts sometimes “contend…until both are slain”. Imagine a vast group of “wild beasts” who have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Then remember that this same group is the church of Christ. If we continue contending, the church will be utterly destroyed. This may not necessarily mean physically disbanding, but could manifest itself in animosity, distrust and unhappiness with being together. Counterproductively, it may chain up our freedom.
Called to freedom
This may appear daunting at first. Surely we might think that we cannot control when divisions may arise, nor does anyone intend to cause division. Sometimes it is just inevitable that a community of sinners, though redeemed, would suffer division due to the fact that our sanctification is not complete yet. But we should not have such a bleak outlook, because we are called to freedom.
The Christian journey does not end after being called to freedom. In Romans 8:30, Paul states that those who are called are also “justified”, and those who are justified are also “glorified”. In both Galatians 5:13 and Romans 8:30, the word for “called” shares the same Greek root word kaleó, only the transliteration differs. We can therefore put our hope in the fact that Christ has acquitted us of our sins and made us righteous (“justified”) and the ‘real substance’ of who God intended us to be will be recognized (“glorified”)11. Antecedent to this is that God has predestined us for this i.e. planned this out for us beforehand, so we can find assurance in knowing that this was no afterthought but has always been God’s will for us.12 Linking Galatians 5:13 and Romans 8:30, being called to freedom to serve one another as Christ served us leads to justification and glorification.
Tying this back to freedom, we are always bound to something. Therefore, we should bind ourselves to something that is freeing. According to the Bible, this is loving servanthood to one another. Love in this manner fulfils the Law and the Prophets, made possible only in Christ. This is a mysterious paradox but realisation of it is liberating. I end with the conclusion well-articulated by the podcast speaker:
Our freedom finds its expression in deep relationship with one another… in being bound together in love.13
- “True freedom – Galatians 5:13-15”, Podcast by Moore Theological College
- Flesh is used to describe the union of a husband and wife into one “flesh” in Ephesians 5:31. More importantly, it was also used to describe Jesus when dwelling bodily (John 1:14, 1 John 4:2-3).
- The word sin is undoubtedly evocative to the secular reader but I kindly ask that you allow me to explain in brief what sin is. The Greek word for sin is hamartia which is to fall short. What do we fall short of? God’s standard. By definition, if we are living by a standard of the world, we fall short of God’s standard. Therefore, instead of being put off by sin, I urge you to consider the standard at which you want to live life by.
- Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/freed-to-love
- Keller, The Meaning of Marriage. Although Keller’s comments were made with the goal to uphold actions of love in spousal relationships, he equally intends that they apply in platonic friendships.
- While the Greek term for brothers adelphoi is a masculine term, there is no controversy in reading from context that Paul intends to address the whole congregation, which includes the feminine “sisters” as well.
- The words “justified” and “glorified” are of deep theological significance and deserve countless articles of their own. For now, I hope the simple definitions I provide are helpful.
- This is another very big topic beyond the scope of this article. I hope by referencing it I do not raise a cause for division. But if unintendedly I do, I hope that will be an opportunity to practice what we have learned in Galatians 5:15.
- “True freedom – Galatians 5:13-15”, Podcast by Moore Theological College.