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Freedom of the Spirit

March 26, 2013

Daniele B. – february 2013

Preface: In this writing I am processing some thoughts on a topic that has been in my mind for some time. I came to dwell on this because  of some discussions on the idea of freedom of the spirit, particularly the way in which we, in The Family, understood it. Some dear friends, for various reasons, have taken a different stance from what was their original view and, by observing the process of change in their lives, I also came to question the validity of my own assumptions. This writing is the record of my exploration on the argument of Freedom of the spirit, it is my present understanding of it, in comparison with the biblical record, Christian history and my own experience. If you do decide to read it I ask you to bear patiently with the analysis of the book of Galatians and some of the facts concerning early Christianity. In a way, I realize that when talking Bible, there is a certain amount of familiarity and thus we quickly grow weary with what seems so obvious. Certainly I am repetitive and sometimes needlessly redundant, but please bear with me, I do so to build up to something which I feel is pertinent, deserves attention and might shed some new light on things. My problem is that I lack sufficient writing skills to make my case with fewer words. I could have omitted references to early Christianity, but without it I couldn’t have explained as effectively the dynamics of progressive revelation, and liberation, which I feel is at the heart of our Christian experience. On the other hand, though I employ many words, I feel it is still insufficient to make as clear an argument as I would have liked. In any case I did write, I made some corrections, then I prayed some more and, what came to me was: “better do it, with mistakes and all, than remain silent for fear of failure”. So here it is, flawed as can be, but perhaps it will help someone to think about it and make a better case of it. Of course you may simply disagree with it’s basic assumption, and that’s alright. I am perfectly aware that my theological views and stance on progressive revelation are debatable, but these are my views nonetheless. It’s nothing set on stone, of course, but it’s part of an ongoing discourse within myself and a number of friends who, like me, also seek to understand if these things be so.

Note: Not to be fancy, but I have chosen a couple of technical terms fit for the subject. This is how they are used:

Paradigm – In this article I am using it to refer to a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them.

Orthopraxy – Just as orthoxy is concerned about right belief, orthopraxy is concerned about right practice.

Freedom of the Spirit

In the Spirit, by the Spirit,

You can live a life that’s free!

What we usually referred to as “freedom of the spirit” has always been considered one of our movement’s most desirable characteristic. Time passes, however, and as it does it normally asks us to re-evaluate past assumptions. From a number of recent events and discussions, as I explained in the preface, a number of pertinent questions did in fact come up, such as: What is exactly “freedom of spirit”? Is it really freedom? Is it still with us? How did we get it? How can we lose it?

A lot has been written about it, some of it is perhaps dated, while some has to do more with some specific aspects of freedom, but before I go any further we must define our terms; What do we mean when we speak of “freedom of the spirit”, what does it exactly mean in our particular paradigm? Being that in our earlier years we were a bunch of young radicals who had just discovered Jesus, had a lot of liberal ideas and uninhibited mindsets, such a combination of radical, counterculture, youthfulness and gospel message, would appear to account for our liberal Christianity. This could partly explain our particular brand of “freedom of the spirit”, but it certainly isn’t a complete picture. For us “freedom of the spirit” never really meant radical libertinism, independent hedonism, do whatever you like type things, typical of the sixties and seventies; on the contrary we had accepted communal living, full time missionary service, and the (in)famous “Revolutionary Rules”. Freedom of the spirit seemed to be a much more spiritual phenomenon, than merely cultural.

In my view “freedom of the spirit” was also freedom from traditionally binding mindsets, from outward religiosity, with its particular ideas of morality and spirituality. It was a joyful manifestation of genuine spirituality, without that heavy, somber, restrictive, fear- based, controlled environment of traditional religion. I would not liken it to an excessive amount of outward physical freedom, as a good deal of personal liberty was surrendered for the sake of communal living and a common cause, but our spiritual freedom did also have practical aspects. Like Paul said in Romans 14, “if you think something is wrong then to you it is wrong and you better not do it, whatsoever is not of faith is sin, but there is nothing unclean of itself and all things are pure unto the pure, so blessed is the man that condemns not himself in that which he allows” (not a direct quotation but the gist of it). There is therefore a connection between what we think inwardly and what we allow outwardly, so that spiritual freedom does also results in practical freedom. Conversely, even if our practical freedom is denied by restrictive and extenuating circumstances, our freedom of the spirit may still be intact, though only inwardly. “Hast though faith? Have to thyself…”

Speaking of Paul, I think he most clearly depicted what freedom of the spirit is when speaking to the Galatians. These were mostly Gentiles to whom Paul had announced the gospel and who, upon hearing it, had marvelously converted, with miracles, spiritual gifts and all kinds of wonders. The Galatians, as new converts, were enjoying freedom of the spirit, that is to say Jesus and His Holy Spirit, without the binding elements of the Mosaic religion. All was fine until the mother church in Jerusalem heard about it. Who was this mother church? They were the original Christians, those who heard Jesus directly: those who supposedly knew best. In spite of their chronological advantage, being the first church did not confer them with final and ultimate truths. All human understanding of the divine is in fact always and only partial, therefore it is never static, but must continually advance in its journey of discovery. In theological terms this principle is called “progressive revelation” or “prophetic tradition”.

The problem of the Jerusalem church was that they were stuck in the past, in a paradigm where past revelations, scriptural exegesis and traditions had been made so absolute as to become unchangeable. Peter had gotten a glimpse of changes to come when, after a rooftop vision, he visited a roman household, and while he was yet speaking, the Holy Spirit descended on them all. There he realized that God would not look upon other people and races the same as the Hebrews, Christian included, had always done. In spite of this remarkable experience he wasn’t really able to affect any significant changes of attitude within the Jerusalem church.

Completely disconnected from the rest, Paul had a different revelation in which he met the risen Savior, who began to reveal to him a completely different plan. Paul was the last to come into the scene and, for obvious reasons; he was not particularly liked by anyone in Jerusalem. Neither church nor state trusted him, so he had no other choice but to stay as far from Jerusalem as he could. Out there and in his freedom and independence from central control, he had the opportunity to preach to people who had never heard about the old religion. With these he discovered the same as Peter had discovered, but in his independence from Jerusalem, he felt no need to compromise with the old system, instead he came to realize its obsoleteness.

Having had a similar experience, Peter could certainly understand Paul, as is evidenced by his mediating role in the first council of Jerusalem. Peter, however, was not in a position, and perhaps neither the type, to take things as far as Paul did. He seemed more concerned with bringing disagreeing parties together and maintaining unity, rather than rocking the boat with new radical ideas. These same concerns might have had a part in his decision to go see Paul and his new converts in Galatia. What he saw there must have confirmed his previous experience with the Roman household, and we are told that he also joined in the freedom of the Galatians by sitting and eating with them, thus breaking all traditional taboos and fully approving them.

Then something awful happened, a horrible and divisive scandal. Because the Jerusalem Church did not approve at all such radical departures from orthodoxy; because they actually saw the Galatian church as a deviant sect headed by a false preacher, an apostle without proper credentials; and because they perceived their liberty just as immoral libertinism and a compromise with paganism, they decided to sent representatives to straighten things out. It is not clear why they did so while Peter was there, if perhaps they did not fully trust him, or if Peter had gone there because he knew they would come and he was therefore trying to avoid further schism. In any case, when the emissaries got there they threw the book at the Galatians, saying that it was simply not enough to have Jesus and the Spirit, but that they must first adhere to the fundamental doctrines of the law, have the right rituals, the proper diet and a proper initiation into the community, a little surgical removal of an excess bit of skin. Only this, they said, constituted the valid foundation that would give anyone the right of passage into Christianity, and without it they could have no part in it.

Bearing the weight and authority of the “Original Church”, the one founded by Christ and His “qualified apostles”, adding to that the authority of the only existing scriptures, and these emissaries from Jerusalem were virtually beyond challenge. The poor Galatians sure couldn’t stand up to them! They were made to chose between the original, time tested, approved religion, with headquarter in the holy city of Jerusalem (in those days a religion’s validity was measure by virtue of its ancient roots), and the words of a highly criticized and unauthorized itinerary preacher. It is no wonder that they caved in, especially when not even Peter had the guts to buck them, but quickly made an about face, which caused also Barnabas to do the same, along with other Christians of Jewish descent. All the elders practically sided with traditional orthodoxy, leaving Paul all alone. Why none had the guts to stand up? Because given all previous understandings of Christianity, the Jerusalem Church was doubly right on everything, and they knew it. Only Paul remained unimpressed by these well qualified representatives and, for the sake of those poor Galatians, who knew no better and must have felt very confused, wrote the most incensed rebuttal. What did he say to them?

Paul wrote “Oh, foolish Galatians, you were doing well, who has bewitched you?” thus accusing the respected representatives from Jerusalem of exerting an evil influence, similar to witches and sorcerers. Continued by asking “Having begun in the Spirit are you now being made perfect in the flesh?” in other words if Jesus and His Spirit have already come to you, how can you now buy the same with religious practices, or think that the fleshly removal of some skin will earn you holiness? Then, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?” which translates to “What do you think it was that brought the Spirit to you? When you obediently followed all the commandments, which you didn’t even know until now, or was it simply when you heard the testimony of Jesus and believed it?” A rhetorical question, of course, asked only to remind them of an obvious answer.

At the root of it all there was a profound question of authority. For Paul authority was within the experiential, as he had found in his conversion, in the demonstration of Spirit and power, in the life of the resurrected Christ now living in them, and in the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of its charismas. Even in his first teachings about church organization, the gifts of the spirit were the deciding factor on authority, ministries, and who did what for the overall good. The Spirit was authority in itself and whatever it did, it needed no further approval from earthly authorities. It was not subject to conditions from religious bureaucrats, and it wasn’t required for people to work through an elaborate system in order to be eligible for it, but the simple receptivity of faith was sufficient. For Jerusalem it wasn’t so. For them Paul was tottering dangerously on the edge of moral and religious relativism. They feared for what would happen to their faith if the ancient landmarks were removed from it, if it became so disconnected from the orthopraxy of those stable, ancient traditions that had so bravely stood the test of time. How could there be any authority without scripture (no New Testament yet), therefore without Moses, the father of it, and how can anyone say that his laws are no longer valid? It was absolutely unconceivable and an outright heresy!

Even for Paul it wasn’t easy to substitute the authority of the Mosaic Law with that of the Spirit and its charismas. Moses had given a moral code of conduct which covered practically every aspect of life, and only something equally pervasive could adequately substitute it. The charismatic experience of the divine might have been enough to assert the validity of their newfound faith and freedom, but a moral compass was still needed. Paul found it in the prophetic tradition promising a new day in which God would write his law in people’s hearts. Paul saw the old law written on stone as a mere tutor, needed only until maturity, when God would bring about his new plan, a law working from within and changing the way people would relate to God and eachother. The new law of the heart would be love, the fulfillment of the law, and in his letter to the Galatians Paul tells how this new moral code substituted the old: “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which works by love… brethren, you have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another… the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; You shall love… the fruit of the Spirit is love…” (Gal 5)

Henceforth sin was no longer determined by the infraction of a legal code, but by the unloving nature of an action. Christ had ushered in a new standard of love, love can only be such in freedom and freedom required loving maturity to be sustained. Christ had given his life freely, none had taken it from him but he had given it out of love. Response to Christ’s invitation would therefore need to be equally free, which would results in a new relationship based on love. It was the next step in the progressive revelation of God and the emancipation from an old law-based religion, which used external means to prevent transgression, but couldn’t generate love from within. The transition from old to new was somewhat problematic, as it is with all changes, as not everyone used their newfound freedom responsibly. There were excesses and abuses for which Paul poured much ink, trying to keep his new believers on track. Sometimes it seems almost as if Paul had second thoughts about it all, when problems were so serious that he would swing back to his old rabbinical roots and training.

Poor Paul, it wasn’t easy for him, it must have felt quite lonely and sometimes you can almost detect in his writings a note of nostalgia for the good old traditions. He had gone out on a limb and now, even in his own turf of Galatia, amongst his own flock, he was being pushed out. Although we have since benefited from his letter to the Galatians, at the time it didn’t seem to do him any good. Paul had openly rebuked Peter in it, had called him a hypocrite, a coward and a false shepherd leading others astray, and about the representatives from Jerusalem, he even wished that the knife would slip on them and that they would evirate themselves. This did not win him favor, plus his doctrine was still theologically, traditionally and politically unacceptable and so it appears that Paul had to make a strategic retreat. According to some accounts the Jerusalem church, with Peter, took over the work in Galatia and Paul had to leave in disgrace. History tells us, however, that in the end Paul’s new vision was vindicated, while Jerusalem was forgotten.

Though Paul’s vision became universally accepted, his road to freedom of the Spirit was soon to be lost. As Christianity grew, new challenges came about and with it the need for stability and uniformity, words that are never synonyms of freedom but of conformity. A new holy book was devised and Paul’s own writings became the new “scripture” so that his denunciations of the old law became instead the new law, absolutizing his process of passing into a final statement of being. The road, in which Paul had traveled, became the final destination, therefore a dead end street. Everything was tied down, put on standby, and the old road to freedom was henceforth to be found only by careful seekers, brave pioneers of the spirit, oddballs, mystics, fringe groups, heretical movements, and the odd convert who found it far from Rome and Constantinople, the new Jerusalems.

But let us now return to how this relates to our subject. Having seen what freedom of the spirit is and isn’t, as well as its early history, let us now turn to the remaining questions: “Is it still with us? How did we get it? How can we lose it?”

Is it still with us? Yes and no! As with Christianity in general, the seeds of freedom are always there, they are embedded in the Gospels, in Paul’s epistles, and for us in our history, but they are never the only seeds. Each Christian church is like that field in the parable where an enemy in the night planted weeds so that one could gather both, the good and the bad, freedom as well as bondage. That same process, which happened to Christianity at large, happened to us as well and, although the freedom is still available, today it’s much harder to find. Sometimes the very idea of it is misunderstood, misrepresented, and can even come under a very negative light due to past misuse and abuse. The question as to whether freedom of the spirit is still here has thus become a very subjective matter. As a group, you may say, it is no longer a defining feature, but we may still rate better than most.

How did we get it? Well I think we got it the same way as the Galatians did: A certain Paul, unwanted and mistrusted by the Jerusalem church, came to our neighborhood and told us about Jesus, we connected with His spirit and freely rejoiced in it. That started us into a new life without even knowing that there was an old book of rules and an ancient religious system claiming religious rights over such an experience. We didn’t know it couldn’t be done and so we happily did it, without proper initiation, procedures, temples, ceremonies, rituals and, most of all, without the strict moral code of does and don’ts of religious legalism, the old Pauline laws and observances. So how could we not be happy and free, with Jesus, His wild and free spirit and a purpose for living? We were the happiest Christians on hearth!

So what happened? How can we lose it? Or how did we lose it? Perhaps through the same emissaries from Jerusalem, and dear old Peter and his concern for preserving harmony, maintaining unity and stability, and history repeated itself? As usual you cannot have stability and uniformity and keep freedom as well; it’s either one or the other. David had said in Mountain Men: “The greatest danger is safety & security in the valley, because then you lose that freedom & liberty of the mountain”. As a group we have often swung from leaning towards one and then the other, but in group dynamics, as history shows, it isn’t freedom that usually wins, and the reasons are too many to number here.

At a personal level freedom of the spirit is a choice and a state of being. You may ask how anyone could ever choose against freedom, whether consciously or unconsciously and the answer is “very easily, it happens all over”. Usually there is a crisis of some kind, confidence is shaken, personal esteem is low and God seems far away. Perhaps there were mistakes, hurts, sins of various kinds and the person, troubled by guilt and ill feelings is desperately seeking for a way out. The traditional law-based concept of religion, offers a clear cut, systematized solution, a procedure for correcting the problem. The formulas vary but common elements are confession, communion, or Eucharist, ritual prayer, reconciliation and restoration, though in some cases there is even penance. The individual undergoing the process usually commits to righting the cause of the problem by adhering to higher moral standards and stricter rules, will deny himself in greater ways, thus thinking he is evening the scores somehow, becoming more deserving, regaining his innocence and may even end up feeling that he has attained to purity and sanctity. The procedure allows the offender to practically, visibly, emotionally and psychologically gauge his own good standing with God, or at least that’s what he thinks.

But the law-based procedure, though similar in some parts, such as confession and reconciliation, is otherwise contrary to the model of love and “freedom of the Spirit”. The person who has chosen the latter, if he/she has become guilty of unloving and hurtful actions, he/she feels the same guilt and ill feelings, but the procedure for absolution isn’t the same, it isn’t based on rituals and works, but on grace and love, the same as salvation. What has begun in the spirit, cannot be perfected in the flesh later on. In the paradigm of love there is no such option as righting a debt, but only that of learning better love, and the absolution is only that of grace, which has already been freely given by Christ. Only legalistic religion offers the concept of a personal settling of scores, not the grace and love of God, where it is only faith that overcomes, through love. Faith has nothing of the self to hang on to, but only God’s grace, and that is why a legalistic system of repentance is so much more tempting to a guilt ridden person. In the natural desire for personal redemption and self-salvation, the guilty person easily chooses that which gives the practical means and illusion of buying a way out. I have in fact personally known some folks who were fairly guilty of abusing their freedoms and who finally went out and had a complete reversal, joining some of the strictest and most legalistic churches. They were almost programmed for it and I guess there is a measure of justification, if they lacked the maturity for grace and freedom, then the legal tutor of the law might still be needed.

In such cases where unloving actions have been done under the pretext of freedom, perhaps using others as an excuse for emulating questionable actions, or one might have even thought that what he did was harmless, but realized later the damage done; In all such cases there is the temptation to blame freedom itself as the cause of the problem. Instead of taking personal responsibility and learning from failure, there comes instead the proverbial passing of the buck. It’s a bit like saying “God, why did you give me freedom if you knew this was going to happen? Give me a religion of rules instead, something that will keep me and others safe, remove that snake from the garden, and evil from the world… this isn’t working, if I were you I would do things better”. The “Did God Make a Mistake?” principle is easily forgotten and God is blamed for allowing free will and freedom, or people are blamed for thinking it up.

Sins and mistakes are part and parcel of this life’s journey and though our aim should always be towards “love God and love your neighbor”, the goal is seldom reached but serves mainly as a compass. The compass is now written in the heart of the person who has the Spirit of Christ and guides him. When he strays, which he often does, it simply calls him back to loving God and others, nothing more. His debts have already been paid and the only useful purpose of repentance is a metanoya, which is achieved by recognizing the wrong pattern of thoughts and actions, assimilating the lessons, do what’s possible to right things with others, and then get up and be more loving than before, with God’s help. This is the cycle of growing in love, learning through failure, seeing how it feels, godly sorrow which brings the loving results of a more loving person. This reminds me of the life reviews of those having near death experiences, the wrong they see from their lives is never to condemn or settle scores, but to show the pain, the hurt and cause a desire for change, for being more loving and caring. It is not about retribution and some self-salvation process, but about love and growing in love.

To resume, sins and mistakes lessen our sense of self-worth, and can bring us to conclude that an environment with less freedom and more safeguards is better. Freedom can be seen as part of the problem and a law-based religion as the safer option. It is like the Galatians feeling insecure in their freedom and looking upon Jerusalem as a better option, even if it will cost them their liberty, and a bit of skin. To avoid the responsibility of liberty, possible abuses of it, as well as the ill repute it had caused them, it was better to become orthodox and forget all that talk about freedom, nice in theory, but too messy in practical application.

The person who through neglect or abuse of his freedom has fallen in a weakened state is more easily bewitched by the condescending pretense of the religious legalist, who insists that if he wishes to come clean, he must convert to the orthodoxy of the Jerusalem Church, he must be restored by the correct procedure, the established orthopraxy. Thus legalism, traditionalism, biblical literalism and all such become a serious temptation to the Galatian who, when free, inevitably came face to face with his own weakness and sinfulness. Instead of abiding in his God given freedom and resting in the power of the Resurrected to restore him and make him righteous, by faith, he takes the medicine of religion for a quick fix, not realizing that he has taken poison, he has been bewitched by the religious sorcerers of legalism. As he takes the pill of religion his life’s revision begins and he will reinterpret all past events in a new light. Grace has been replaced by law and he rejoices in it, not only, but he might even begin to actively oppose those who offer “freedom of the spirit”, as Jerusalem did with Paul. It is the upside down diminishing world of reverse progress, of regressive instead of progressive revelation, of reading the compass backwards, and looking at the Christian story from the inside-out.

Remember how Jesus presented his message, his love, his invitation, how he brought you along gently, step by step, and how all those life review describe the loving light of God. That is His nature, so let none take advantage of you in a weaken state, let none exert emotional or spiritual pressure on you, to bring you into subjection to their better way by playing in your guilt and fears. Do not let anyone mess with your heart and mind! I have seen some abandon their God-given freedom through such strategies and, oddly enough, they were folks who indeed had taken their liberties to an extreme and used them for personal ends, selfishly and without love. Obviously that was the chink in their armor and the reason they so easily caved in. Indeed God can speak through others and use a friendly voice in time of distress, but beware of the astute, of those who claim to speak for god above, or some other authority. Only trust those whom you know truly love you, for it is love and love alone that He aims for in your life. Watch out for fear, it is the enemy’s power and love casts off all fear. You have been liberated to enjoy God and others forever, “Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again” (Gal 5,1).

BURN FREE, BELOVED, BURN FREE! LET NOTHING QUENCH HIS FIRE! And nothing shall! For whom the Son hath made free is free indeed! Don’t let them rob you of the Flame of His Freedom. Don’t let Satan blow it out! This little light of mine: I’m going to let it shine!–No matter what they say or do, the Revolution for Jesus is Forever. (Burn Free)

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