The Freest People Are Servants of All
Why I Love the Apostle Paul
The word simplistic exists because there are kinds of guidance and kinds of explanations that are too simple to account for the real complexities of life. They are simplistic. We don’t admire such counselors or preachers or teachers. They just don’t seem to be living in the real world where things are often very messy. In all my reading of Paul over the years, he has never struck me as simplistic.
A good example is the way he deals with our submission to authority in this world, and the way he treats Christian freedom.
Citizens of Heaven
It is a fundamental Christian reality that “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Or another way to say it is that, because Christians are united to Christ, there is a real sense in which we have already died with him and been raised with him and are already secure in heaven with him.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1–3)
Paul draws out the radical implication:
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21)
A simplistic inference from this reality would be that Christians have no responsibilities to this world or her institutions. That is not Paul’s view. Instead, it seems that, in this freedom from the world, we are sent by God back into the world to be subject to its institutions “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13) — or as Paul says, “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
For example, though your citizenship is in heaven, nevertheless assume the role of a responsible citizen in your own country: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). See the hand of your heavenly Father behind the hand of human government, and submit for his sake.
Similarly, in the socioeconomic sphere, submit to human authorities in a way that turns your service of them into the service of Christ:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man. (Ephesians 6:5–7)
Is it not amazing how interwoven allegiance to Christ is with allegiance to the earthly authority? This is not simplistic. It is complex and will sooner or later result in tensions, even to the breaking point.
Similarly in the home: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). And “children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1).
For the Lord’s Sake
To be sure, the new reality in the world, since Christ has come and died and risen to reign, is that our absolute allegiance to him relativizes all other allegiances. That is, we serve in all other relationships at his bidding, not because of their intrinsic authority over us. Which means that wherever those relationships contradict what he calls us to do, his authority takes precedence.
In a real sense, we are free from these institutions, even while submitting to them. Here’s how Paul expressed this to the Corinthians:
Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:21–23)
And again in an earlier chapter of the same book: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Christ purchased us by his own blood (Acts 20:28). Therefore, he owns us. Therefore, all other claims on our lives are secondary. We stay in them at Christ’s bidding, and for his sake, not because there is any intrinsic right that they have over us.
Slaves No More
This Christian freedom goes right to the heart of who we are as Christ’s people. It goes deeper than freedom from institutions. It is also freedom from the law of God as a way of getting right with God. When Christ died for us, he paid the penalty that the law of God demands for our guilt (Romans 5:8–9; 8:3). And he fulfilled all the obedience that the law demands for our righteousness (Romans 5:19). Therefore, we are free. And we dare not return to law-keeping as a way of getting right with God. When we do what God commands, it is because we are already right with God through faith in Christ, not because we need to get right. So Paul says,
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision [i.e., law-keeping], Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:1–3)
So we are free from God’s law and free from God’s institutions (e.g., state, business, home). Christ owns us, and we are his. He is our absolute commander and protector. If he calls us to submit to any law or any institution, we do it. Not because the institution is absolute. And not because law-keeping makes us right with God. We do it because we believe Christ knows the way of love better than we do. This is what’s behind Paul’s amazing word: “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
Freest Life of All
Perhaps this gives you a taste for what I mean when I say that Paul is not simplistic. Christians are free in Christ. Gloriously free. To the world our lives may look very much like the lives of mere servants — constantly subordinating our own comforts to the needs of others. But in God’s eyes, this life of love is the freest of all.
Which is not a simplistic reality. But it is beautiful, flowing directly from the cross of Christ. And I love Paul for helping me taste the beauty.