Freed for a Purpose

September 01, 2016

Freed for a Purpose

Freedom, as Richard Bauckham argues, can be understood as ‘the defining feature of Western civilization’ and ‘for the typical individual of Western culture, the most essential and the most alluring of individual needs and aspirations’.[1]

The definition offered by the 19th Century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, would surely resonate with many. ‘[T]he only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.’[2]

Without dismissing the contribution of Mill to our understanding of freedom, some might question the sufficiency of the definition. When we look at this conception of freedom that is popular and widespread, at least in the West, are we just seeing a reflection of Western individualism? There seems to be no purpose for freedom beyond the individual in Mill’s account. How might this definition look different if God was part of the worldview? 

The world does not readily associate the Christian life with freedom. Consider these statements of the Apostle Paul: ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price’ (1 Cor 6:19-20) and ‘No one should seek their own good, but the good of others’ (1 Cor 10:24).

Concepts such as being someone’s possession, and considering the needs of others can look more like restriction than freedom. Christians themselves may well know Jesus’s promise: ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (Jn 8:36), but inwardly question what this freedom looks like in the day to day, wary of another mirage.

What should Christian freedom look like? And what is our Christian freedom ultimately for?


The Scriptures confront us with the message that we humans are not as free as we might think. Jesus said ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin’ (Jn 8:34). More than the individual acts, Jesus describes sin as a condition. Sin is choosing to be autonomous from the Creator, and whether this is expressed in open hostility, sleepy apathy, or even secular philanthropy, matters little. Each is just a different manifestation of choosing to live apart from the reality and will of God. Having turned our devotion to other things, ‘[s]inning is hence inevitable because all our desires suffer disorder when disconnected from active relation to God’.[3]

Autonomy sounds like something that enhances freedom. Why then, is it viewed as a captivity? Christian theology presents God’s commands as leading to life and flourishing. The choice to be autonomous from God is, therefore, rebellion against the life humans were created for. In this state of autonomy people are incapable of restoring themselves with God. The Apostle Paul describes it as the state of being ‘in the flesh’—a state that is ‘hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.’ (Rom 8:7-9) God gives people over to the desires of their hearts, but will not allow defiance to continue indefinitely. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), and after that judgment must be faced (Heb 9:27). Each of us are accountable to the God who will judge even our secrets (Rom 2:16). To gain freedom from this condition of sin and its consequences—namely, judgment and death—we require a liberator from outside ourselves. We would need God himself to initiate by breaking our chains and offering freedom.


This is indeed the good news of the Christian gospel. In Christ, God has offered such freedom: ‘Therefore if the Son sets you free you are free indeed’ (Jn 8:36). This offer of freedom is more than the feeling of being free. God works to accomplish freedom in the believer by sending His Son and the Spirit. Christ crucified is the ransom price that redeems believers from slavery to sin and death, and the Spirit unites believers by faith to Jesus’s death, where the old, enslaved self is crucified so that we might no longer be slaves to sin (Rom 6:1-7). But, far from Mill’s vision of freedom where we pursue our own good in our own way, the Spirit captivates our minds to a better vision. Instead of being slaves to sin leading to death we are now free to be slaves to God, leading to righteousness and eternal life (Rom 6:19-23). The Christian life requires more than the knowledge that we are free from sin and its consequences. We find a repeated charge within the New Testament to live out that freedom by neither gratifying sinful desires, nor becoming enslaved again to the standards and traditions of people (Gal 5:1, 1 Pet 2:16, 1 Cor 7:23).

Turning to the positive side, what might it look like for this freedom to be expressed not only in rejecting sin, but also in making better choices?

It is to this question that we now turn by observing how the Apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to apply their freedom in light of the larger story of freedom accomplished in the gospel (1 Cor 8-10). Here we can see Christians encouraged to apply their freedom to a real life setting. This is not freedom discussed abstractly and disconnected from real life; these chapters provide us with a case study of freedom applied to the day-to-day issues of a real church. Before moving to consider some contemporary parallels, it’s worth considering what light this part of Scripture sheds on our conception of freedom.

The Corinthians

The Corinthian church was infamous. Whether it was their factionalism, or their self-justifying maxims: ‘All things are permitted (for me)’ (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23), there are numerous times when we sense, as David Starling observes, Paul’s ‘bewilderment at the extent to which they have come to exhibit what he would expect of “people of the flesh”, rather than “spiritual people”.’ (1 Cor 3:1)[4] This undermined the Corinthians’ understanding and practice of Christian freedom. Larry Hurtado describes this Corinthian maxim as ‘a selfist notion of freedom’.[5] It seems as if this church’s ethic was driven by appetite and entitlement. The problem was not simply that maxims, like ‘All things are permitted’, displayed a lack of wisdom within the church; more problematic was that they revealed that another ‘wisdom’ was still at work within them. Gordon Fee diagnoses the problem well: ‘[a]lthough they were the Christian church in Corinth, an inordinate amount of Corinth was yet in them’.[6]

At first glance, it may seem that the presenting issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10—food associated with idols—is a long way from the topic of freedom. Yet, as Paul uncovers the underlying issues and attitudes behind this issue, the concepts critical to our discussion, such as rights (8:9), being free (9:1), and freedom (10:29), rise to the surface.

In the ancient world, there was no way of avoiding idols because they were commonly associated with food. Their presence would have been felt at public celebrations and private dinners, as well as when purchasing meat from the market (meat was routinely sacrificed to idols before being offered for sale).[7] How would people who had turned away from idols to be devoted to Christ, now interact with a world such as this, saturated with idolatry? From the outset, Paul’s response to this issue reveals that there was more at stake than simply being informed over the significance, or lack thereof, of idols.

The Corinthians wanted to know whether it was right or wrong for a Christian to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to other gods. One group within the church knew their doctrine well enough: ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and ‘There is no God but one’ (v4). This would indicate that an idol is powerless to taint food. But, if the bare facts were sufficient, 1 Corinthians 8 would end at verse 6. Instead, Paul spends three chapters addressing the issue and the prevailing attitudes underneath the surface.

Paul’s first principles reveal that knowledge alone will not suffice because ‘knowledge puffs up while love builds up’ (v1). This is an important consideration for our discussion because ‘Paul will insist that true freedom is not rooted in ‘knowledge’ but is both rooted and actualized in love’.[8] Thus, being informed is necessary, but insufficient for expressing one’s freedoms. As Paul will show in the following verses, it is possible to know your rights, and yet get it all wrong.

Alongside those in-the-know was another group in the Corinthian church. By describing their conscience as weak (v7), Paul had in mind those within the church who remained concerned that the food associated with idols was tainted, or worse still, would somehow taint them.

While Paul can agree with the doctrinal position of the strong[9]—there is ‘but one God’, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 8:4-6)—it doesn’t follow that Paul will support their actions. The very fact that some are not aware that idols are nothing means that those in-the-know should proceed with caution in the practice of their convictions and freedoms. Paul’s warning: ‘Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak’ (8:9) cautions against unhindered self-expression. While the ‘strong’ need not be concerned about food being tainted by association with idols, they still need to be concerned about their ‘weaker’ brother or sister, lest they ‘encourage such a person back into genuine idolatry’. [10] Paul is concerned that a weaker Christian may see another (stronger) Christian eating in an idol’s temple and interpret that participation as approving syncretism. In this scenario, Christian freedom exercised without consideration for fellow believers equates to sinning against them and against Christ (8:12). In order to avoid such pit-falls, Paul declares ‘if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall’ (8:13).

It is worth noting, with David Garland, that the application of this concern does not apply universally to all situations in which ‘someone might be offended by some behavior or belief’;[11] the situations Paul has in mind concern causing a brother or sister to sin. Be that as it may, we can see that freedom, for Paul, is not simply unhindered self-expression, but something far more captivating.

This certainly would have clashed with Corinthian wisdom. ‘One can easily imagine them complaining that to prohibit them from knowingly eating food offered to idols would constitute an infringement on the freedom purchased for them by Christ (including the right to eat such food)’.[12] As Bruce Winter notes, Paul ‘never challenges that it is their right, but he does argue in the first instance that a right is not the sole criterion, or even the criterion, to be used by Christians in determining their conduct’.[13]

One of the reasons this continues to clash with our wisdom is because of our conception of freedom. In Western democracies we expect there to be definitive rights to our freedoms and are often urged: ‘Know your rights’. Being free is generally associated with being in a position to express one’s rights. There is evidence of this kind of thinking in the ancient world.[14] Larry Hurtado, in his exploration of freedom in the Roman period, cites the example of Epictetus, ‘He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end’.[15] Hurtado concludes that of conceptions of freedom in the ancient world contemporaneous with the New Testament, ‘the dominant emphasis is on autarchy, the ability of people or an individual to be master of choices and actions, not dictated to by, or bound to regard anyone else’.[16]

All of this highlights an important consideration for Christian freedom. For Paul, to have the right to do something does not imply that it is the right thing to do. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. On the contrary, voluntarily regulating one’s freedoms for the good of others is a sign of being free from sin’s captivity.  When I can say ‘no’ to my own desires—even things that I am entitled to—for the sake of others or a greater ideal, then I reveal that I am truly free.

In order to develop this point, Paul moves on from his hypothetical willingness to never eat meat again, to discuss what he has literally forgone. While being ‘free’ and an apostle (9:1), Paul has expressed his freedom by going without: he has not claimed his right to financial support from the church even though he was clearly entitled to it (9:4-14). As Wright correctly perceives, ‘Paul’s whole point is that he is modeling behavior in which one gives up one’s rights for the sake of others’.[17] This personal example is used to bolster his entreaty that the Corinthians to carefully consider how the exercise of their freedoms may impact their brothers and sisters. Paul then transitions the discussion to how Christians might use their freedom for the sake of the gospel.

Paul sacrificed his right to remuneration so that he could offer his ministry ‘free of charge’ (9:18). He was also willing to forsake other rights and freedoms if, by so doing, people might be saved (9:22). Paul closes his discussion of this complex social issue by stirring the Corinthians with these words:

whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (10:31-33)

 The freedom from sin and its consequences won by Christ for Christians is to be used for the glory of God. Living for the glory of God, which is the purpose of Christian freedom, may involve real sacrifices of real freedoms for people. Hurtado’s research leads him to comment that this conception of freedom in the New Testament ‘is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in the Roman world’.[18]

The freedom that Paul is advocating, then, involves making considered judgments about others. It can take tangible expression in sacrificing rights in order to not cause a fellow believer to stumble, nor create stumbling blocks for others’ comprehension of the gospel.[19] That the telos of Christian freedom is the glory of God helps us see the bigger picture. Freedom is not our ultimate goal. The glory of God is our ultimate goal, expressed realistically as we consider the needs of others greater than our own rights and freedoms.

Contemporary Application

Finding contemporary examples of food associated with religious convictions is not difficult. Often in restaurants there is a shrine signaling the beliefs of another religion. New age spirituality cafés also exist, often with resources available to promote interest. Accepting and/or offering hospitality to friends of any of these convictions may involve accepting or providing anything from a vegan diet to Halal meat. The veneration of ancestors in a number of cultures raises significant questions for Christians. Navigating through these issues as a Christian has clearly not gone away. A little further afield might be to ask the question ‘can Christians practice yoga’? Craig Blomberg, in his commentary, lists further contemporary applications of, what he terms ‘morally neutral practices’ as far-ranging as drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and Sabbath regulations.[20] How might the discussion in Corinth help us with this?

Firstly, we need to remember the purpose of our freedom. Christians have been released from slavery to sin in order to glorify God. For Paul, the underlying principle through 1 Corinthians 8-10 is not what I am entitled to but how I might glorify God. Clearly, a Christian can never glorify God by ignoring God’s revealed will in Scripture, so there will be limits on our freedoms. Paul himself draws a line in the sand over the issue of food sacrificed to idols when ‘someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice” ’ (10.28), out of concern for the conscience of the person who offers the food (vv28-29). The Christian in such a situation would need to be wary of what their attendance was saying, lest the host think that the Christian was participating in the sacrifice. 

We also need a robust doctrine of creation. Regardless of the religious history of the meat available in the Corinthian market, Paul could endorse wholeheartedly ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (1 Cor 10:26). A true knowledge of God resists ascribing too much power to the presence of idols and idolatry in the world. Food will not be tainted by their presence. But another factor to consider is the existence of spiritual powers behind these mute idols. Paul can concede the emptiness of the threat of a statue, but there is still an awareness of the demons that lie behind such idols (v20-21), reminding Christians that their struggle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Equally, we should recall a robust doctrine of sin. Jesus insisted that it was not outside influences that made a person unclean, for ‘it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come’ (Mk 7:21-22). This reminds Christians of the ongoing struggle with sin that undergirds Paul’s warning to Corinthian in regard to their maxims. While they could say confidently ‘All things are permitted’ (6:12, 10:23), Paul put no confidence in the flesh, responding ‘but not everything is helpful’ and ‘I will not be mastered by anything’ (6:12, 10:23).  One’s own struggles with sin should temper how a Christian navigates, and, indeed, negotiates which freedoms to enjoy and which to regulate.

Finally, we need to be aware of how other people might perceive our actions. A ‘weaker’ brother or sister may be confused or distressed about our participation in any one of the above situations, and we should also consider what our actions and participation might communicate to unbelievers. Paul took care not to cause anyone to stumble, be they Law-conscious Jews, pagan Greeks or the church of God (1 Cor 10:32). There is an added challenge here of how we will respond in these situations. Will we go without cheerfully, or begrudgingly? Lest considering the needs of other Christians leads us to despise our brothers and sisters, we need to remember Paul’s first principles, that knowledge has the potential to puff us up with pride, but love builds up (8:1). Being rightly informed is important, but doesn’t safeguard anyone from being harsh, judgmental, even arrogant.  Better is the way of informed love, which seeks to build others up. Surely this is a word for our Christian circles today.

*          *          *

This brief exploration of Christian freedom must end seeing that freedom is not our ultimate value. Love is. We shouldn’t restrain expressing love for our brothers and sisters in the name of personal freedoms. When our freedoms and rights are more important to us than practically loving God’s people, or living in such a way that the gospel is advanced, then we might not be as free as we think. When our grasp of freedoms and rights will not loosen but instead tightens due to feelings of entitlement, there is every possibility that we are actually enslaved. Herein lies the dark side of rights weakened by the flesh; like so many other good things, there remains the temptation of ‘falling prey to the danger of using liberty as an opportunity or pretext for evil and the danger of becoming liberty's slave’.[21]

While freedom is not our ultimate value, it has a dynamic relationship with love. Freedom from sin and its consequences is necessary for love. Only because of the indwelling Spirit poured out by our risen Lord can we now freely choose to restrain our rights in order to love. Herein lies the side of rights renewed by the Spirit. ‘Only the person whose life is guided by the needs of others, who does not seek privilege for himself, is truly free.’[22]

Christian freedom is captivated by the gospel that has accomplished our freedom from sin and its consequences. This is not the pursuit of our own good in our own way but instead the pursuit of reflecting, however dimly, something of the gospel itself. The same gospel that liberates us from sin and death now captivates our lives as we consider the needs of others greater than our own and then regulate our rights accordingly. Christian freedom has been accomplished so that we might be captivated to living for the glory of God.[23]

[1] Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Westminster John Knox, 2002), p2.

[2] John Stuart Mill as cited in Richard Bauckham, Ibid., p20.

[3] Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p189.

[4] David I. Starling, UnCorinthian Leadership: Thematic Reflections on 1 Corinthians (Wipf and Stock, 2014), p12.

[5] Accessed 22nd July 2016.

[6] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Baker Academic, 1987), p4.

[7] Note the discussion of these scenarios in David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), pp347-50, 494.

[8] Victor P. Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Abingdon, 1972), p113.

[9] There are, of course, limitations to what Christians can be involved in, as Paul goes on to argue (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

[10] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 4 (Fortress Press, 2013), p667.

[11] Garland, op.cit., p393.

[12] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2010), p396.

[13] Bruce W. Winter, After Paul left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans, 2001), p93.

[14] Winter, Ibid., p81 draws attention to an interlocutor of Dio Chrysostom who taught: ‘whoever is permitted to do whatever he wishes is a free man, and that whoever is not is a slave’.

[15] Larry W. Hurtado, ‘Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament’, pp209-227 in Michael Welker (Ed.) Quests for Freedom: Biblical-Historical-Contemporary (Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft, 2015), p212.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wright, Op.cit., p1438.

[18] Hurtado, Op.cit., p225.

[19]It might fit under what Starling terms a ‘holiness-in-mission’, in describing the kind of missional engagement Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to live out, UnCorinthian Leadership, p64.

[20] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1994), pp167-171.

[21] Murray J. Harris, Slaves to Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ New Studies in Biblical Theology 8 (InterVarsity Press, 1999), p86.

[22] Wendel Lee Will, Idol Meat in Corinth: The Pauline Argument in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, 68 (Wipf and Stock, 1985), p294

[23] Thanks are due to Kenny Nguyen who offered helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.

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