Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Teaching Freedom in Seminary

My post last week on thinking about going to seminary unleashed a bag full of suggestions and, in particular, the questions about “to go or not to go” to seminary (its necessity) and “what do you really get out of it” (its affects and effects). I don’t want to address those questions today, but leave them for another day. For now, I’d like to reflect on my Galatians course at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA.
My question today is about Galatians: What is the moral or ethical impact of Galatians on you and on your family and on your church? If the focus of the letter is freedom, how serious are you about “grace-empowered” freedom? Is freedom one of those moral markers of your church?
For all the joking I’ve done about my teaching at “semitery,” I have to admit this: the experience was intensely rewarding for me in three primary ways. And the reason why is this school is fully committed to a missional theology for missional leadership in missional communities of faith. Just read the clearly-written and pastorally-useful Missional Journal studies of Dave Dunbar, the President at Biblical. (By the way, the students all talked as if they know the President.)
First, because our class on Galatians met once a month on a Thurs evening and then all day on Friday over three months, it took awhile to build a sense of community, but by the time we were all done the class had formed into a supportive, interactive, and bustling community. We went out for pizza on Friday at noon and then, on the last Thursday night, we went out to Applebee’s after class — getting me to my B&B well beyond my bedtime.
Second, because most of these students are involved in ministries already and because the focus of Galatians is on what I called “grace-creating” freedom, one of our assignments and lengthy discussion times was on how to let grace work itself out into freedom in local church settings. The concerns were serious, the practical efforts obviously difficult, and the desire for wisdom palpable. Some frustrations were expressed, but there was also a sense of hope that God’s Spirit can genuinely make things happen. Each of the students also engaged his or her pastor in a discussion about freedom in the local church setting.
Another assignment, which comes from my belief that we need to cross over into other contexts to make ourselves think more seriously about freedom, was to read a memoir (not necessarily a Christian memoir) and to examine the memoirist’s theory of freedom in light of what Paul means by freedom. I will say this — a number of students were quite enthused about the memoir they read so they were swapping memoirs. Really good papers. Lots of fun to read.
Third, class interaction was outstanding. There are many pressing issues to discuss when one studies Paul today — many Reformed thinkers today collide with the New Perspective and the pastoral implications of what Paul says about freedom are enormous. Does anyone really tell anyone, when they ask about moral direction, to do what the Spirit leads? (I think Paul would say that.) But, back to the New Perspective. We’ve learned from the need to figure what Judaism really did believe, so one of our assignments was: “Imagine Reuben is a leader of the Judaizing wing. How would you describe his theology? What would he say back to Paul’s central ideas in the letter?” I can’t tell you how invigorating our discussion was. It was at this point that I said to myself, “They get it. These folks can think their way into Galatians and they can apply Paul’s central ideas to our world. Job done.”

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Michael Patton

posted June 18, 2007 at 2:34 am

Very creative. Thanks for sharing.

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John W Frye

posted June 18, 2007 at 6:10 am

“Does anyone really tell anyone, when they ask about moral direction, to do what the Spirit leads? (I think Paul would say that.)” This question divides the church at large into the moralists who think we need to turn the “leading of the Spirit” into a check-list code of conduct and those who risk living in the adventure of existential trust.

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Mark Perry

posted June 18, 2007 at 7:33 am

The difficult balance within the context of a local church, it seems to me, is to encourage freedom in Christ while holding members accountable. In other words, how do we communicate that being a part of the Body of Christ means a different lifestyle without becoming legalistic (freedom in Christ). Any thoughts?

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Beyond Words

posted June 18, 2007 at 7:33 am

I have a new habit of reading Scripture/praying, going to “divine hours” website before I check my favorite blogs. Today, when I woke up, the Spirit led me to read Galatians. Coincidence? I think not!
Start to finish–it took less than a half hour, including notetaking. Here’s what struck me: the gospel of Jesus wasn’t the only gospel circulating in those days. The Jewish sense of gospel and even the gospel of Caesar, for instance, competed with Jesus’ gospel. Paul wanted to help the Galatians understand the real gospel marked by faith in Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s task–which led to his death and he didn’t die for nothing!! and brought extraordinary freedom compared to the external restrains of the “guardian” of the law. (But don’t forget the poor!) In closing remarks, Paul gives application of what this freedom looks like on a practical level, but in the letter, he explains that the external things that once marked the Jews as set apart, no longer apply in Christ, who fulfilled them.
The special mark on male flesh–circumcision–no longer applies–so that females and slaves and Gentiles are now heirs in the kingdom of God-with full privileges and equal responsibilities.
The theme of being sons, adopted sons, and heirs, is overlooked in the church–mainly because we don’t appreciate the cultural significance to the original audience of Paul’s letters. If we really understood this, there would be no question about what women can or can’t do in the kingdom of the beloved Son, to borrow a phrase from Colossians.
Finally, allegorizing the women Hagar and Sarah to explain freedom in Christ and new creation (New Jerusalem!) Paul exhorts the Galatians to use their freedom as an opportunity to love and serve each other.
Love/mutual submission is always the point of freedom in Christ.

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Ted Gossard

posted June 18, 2007 at 7:55 am

I’ve been hungry to really get into Galatians again. That class sure sounds exciting. Wish we all could have been there and have been a part of it in some way, even if only to observe what took place.
But the end is to really get what Paul is getting at and apply it in our lives in this present existence. so I look forward to what more you have to offer on this.
As to the question, I think it is all-important to emphasize being led by the Spirit. So that finding the will of God and living in that will is a daily, dynamic pursuit. Without at all leaving behind the clear directives of Scripture such as Paul has in the letter itself. There are there to help us see whether we’re really being led by the Spirit or not.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 8:24 am

I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a church that preached freedom very often, if at all. It seems that to preach that to the immature would be disastrous.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 9:56 am

Yeah, I’ve been in similar kinds of churches….and yet, to take away freedom that is theirs in Christ seems disastrous too. Going too far into “avoid the appearance of evil” will ruin lives in the opposite direction.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 10:14 am

My big aha moment in Galatians was in chapter 3:1-5 ( They know they were saved because they visibly saw the Holy Spirit come upon them. Paul asks if they received the HS through some deeds they accomplished (as in, Law, or Flesh). No, they received the HS through faith. Here’s the kicker: how can you finish this Christian walk in the flesh, if you couldn’t start it in the flesh? If your Christian walk required faith to start it, then how can your works of the law finish it? It started with faith and it continues in faith.
The practical application is that the outward righteous works you do are the fruit or result of your faith but they aren’t what earns God’s favor. Therefore, jamming out with a worship band vs. singing hymns is not an issue of godliness. That is just the form. If you force everyone to sing hymns, you have only affected the works of the flesh. Encourage everyone to worship from the heart, regardless of form.
This also means that one who abstains from drink is not made more righteous by their works than someone who enjoys wine with dinner. One who wears a tie is not more righteous than one who wears a polo. One who makes more money is not more or less righteous than one who makes less money. The issue is faith, hope, love, and the fruit of the Spirit listed in Gal. 5. These are all heart attitudes. And they all require faith. The focus of my life ought to be my faith relationship with God, not the “righteous” deeds of my flesh.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 1:29 pm

As a commentary from a student in this class…we had a great time discussing the implications of grace-creating freedom! The assignments were very applicable to current ministry and stretching.
I think this past Friday’s class when you shared about the Jesus Creed and its centrality to our daily walk is what is ringing most in my mind. It all comes down to, the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” (5.6)
Thanks for a great class!

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posted June 18, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Jennifer, you’re so right! What a fine line we walk. I can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to online and irl who are stuck in either the “I’m free to do whatever I want” side or the “I can’t even step out of my house in case it looks like I’m sinning to someone” side. I put a lot of energy into teaching my Sunday School class about that most perfect of words: balance.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 3:12 pm

Glad to hear you are teaching this. I just finished a 6-week sermon series on Galatians. Yours was one of the commentaries I used quite a bit. It’s not an easy thing to preach, perhaps because we don’t hear it often and also because for many it is scary. Perhaps also because I am still trying to sort some of it out in my own head. Thanks for your commentary.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 3:15 pm

Yes, I think balance is important.
It can still be easy to limit God-given freedom in the name of balance.
An easy example for me is friendship between men and women who are married, but not to each other. One person might say they should not be close friends because it’s the appearance of evil. Another says they can be close because there is no sin involved in that, and they have freedom in Christ to do so. Sometimes the “balance’ opinion tends to be something like: you can be friends, but not close or intimate friends…you can spend time together, but not alone, etc. It still ends up limiting freedom because other people are nervous about sin.
Maybe more important than balance is the ability to not be nervous over other’s freedom and see how the Lord might be working in the midst of the freedom, instead of putting all the focus on sin. That’s just how I approach it. I understand that other people need to look at it differently, and that’s okay too.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 5:25 pm

There used to be something that bugged me, and, well, it still does bug me but before, I couldn’t put my finger on what is was for why it bugged me. I’d come across and I come across people who use the Bible as if it were a present day judicial book, as in state laws or city laws, as in “you have violated section 8 number 9 of the something something code.” Something in me knew there waa more to the purpose of the Bible and use of the Bible that to use it as a law book. You know, those people who can throw a verse at you to back up you have done some action wrong per what we are to do as christians. And then one day I got it, and it came 2 fold – to look at the Bible and take the Bible as principles, that takes away the law book, and it allows freedom for how we as individuals live out the principle. The second part of it, because the 1st part on it’s own didn’t seem complete, is to “throw myself on Jesus,” as a friend said it time after time after time. That was another way of mimicing Mary’s “here I am, do as you will.” Or, living in the Spirit.
Ok, so a long way to say I think it needn’t be a split between being open to the Spirit and wanting to live as being led by the Spirit vs. using the Bible as a guidebook. For sure, that’s how we measure if what one says is of the Spirit. And maybe I am more sensitive to this because my brother has schizophrenia and it would be so easy for those with mental illness to say “the Lord told me xyz,” and the way we determine if they are on the right road must be the way we determine if we are on the right road too. And the way is to look at the Bible as a book of principles, and in those principles, some things fit and some things don’t.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 6:20 pm

A privilege to be in the class. Thanks for the extremely engaging semester.
One question that really stook out to me throughout the class: “If Paul had a son would he had him circumcised?” Great question – and I can’t get it out of my head!
Ironic that you used the phrase “grace-empowered” freedom, noting that you never used that phrase in the course – just grace-creating freedom.
Thanks again, Scot.
But I’m still ticked at you… 😉

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Scot McKnight

posted June 18, 2007 at 6:58 pm

Thanks JR. I wondered if my readers would get confused on the point if I said “grace creating freedom” — is it about grace or freedom? So, I thought “empowered” might make it unmistakable.

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posted June 18, 2007 at 9:13 pm

Good timing. The revised common lectionary epistle reading has been in Galatians and continues the next few weeks. Last week we talked about how legalism can creep into the church unnoticed, adding demands to the grace of the gospel and rebuilding walls that Christ tore down. Rather than talking about the “world’s” problems, we’re talking about our own, and it’s very challenging.

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John Jurries

posted June 18, 2007 at 9:59 pm

Sounds like a good discussion. If anyone is ever looking for a great read of Christian Freedom, check out “A Scandalous Freedom” by Steve Brown. Great read, and funny to boot.

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