The Third Way, The Way to Freedom
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20).
The apostle gives us a glimpse into the radical nature of Christian freedom. In Christ, he is “free from all.” Or, as the NIV ’84 renders it, the apostle says I “belong to no man.” No human being has any controlling or constraining authority over his life. This is the apostle’s declaration in response to the question of verse 1, “Am I not free?” He thunders, “I am free from all, bound to no man.” No one reduces me to slavery with their opinions, their requirements, their rights, or anything else. I am free.
Can we declare this with the apostle? We should. For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1). We’re free from the Law, free from sin, free from guilt, free from the judgment of men, and free to worship God. But here’s the question: Do we feel free? Do we experience this freedom? Do we delight to be free? Or do we give our freedom away, sell it for something else, or just plain forget it? Let us remind ourselves: We are free.
Now, two remarkable things follow Paul’s declaration of freedom. First, being free from all men and bound by none, he voluntarily puts himself in slavery to others. When most men would declare, “I’m free therefore I can do whatever I want.” Paul says, “I’m free, but I make myself a slave.” He tells us why: “that I might win more of them.” Paul’s freedom counts very little in light of man’s need for salvation. Paul’s freedom becomes the instrument for pursuing man’s redemption. The freest man in all the world is the only one who can truly give himself in service to others. One wonders how much evangelism and mission goes undone because God’s people, having been set free, jealously cling to the freedom above all things.
But there is a second radical and remarkable aspect of Paul’s freedom. He is free even from himself. He’s free from his own desires to live for others. And he’s also free from his own ethnic background for the same purpose. ”To the Jews I became as a Jew,” he says. Notice the preposition “as.”
What’s Paul talking about? He is, in fact, a Jew “according to the flesh.” If he boasts in his flesh, he has to say, “I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” In other words, “I’m a Jew’s Jew.” If there were magazines in Paul’s day, he would appear on the cover of Jewish Home Journal and Jewish Times as ‘man of the year.’ But such a boast the apostle regards as foolish (2 Cor. 11:16-23) and so he no longer boasts in the flesh (Gal. 6:13).
Yet, the insertion of the two-letter word “as” tips us off to something amazing. The freedom Paul finds in Christ frees him from bondage to ethnic identity. He could not only say, “I belong to no man,” but also “I belong to no ethnicity.” He may appear “as a Jew,” but he remains something else. He may participate in Jewish culture, custom, and identity, but he remains fundamentally a man from another country. His freedom in Christ is so radical–so down to the root of his being–that he becomes a member of a third “race.” He’s no longer Jew. He’s not a Gentile. He’s a Christian, a member of a new spiritual ethnicity. He no longer puts confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3-6) or regards himself or any man according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16). Rather, he’s a new creation and the old of ethnic loyalty and ethnic self-reference has gone. The new man has come.
What gives Paul this remarkable freedom to pick up and lay aside his Jewishness as it fits the gospel occasion? Jesus. Jesus is Paul’s identity. Christ is His all. Because that’s true, Paul lives as a free man.
Here’s my suspicion: People who feel themselves a part of the ethnic majority rarely feel any need to abandon their ethnic selves the way Paul did; and people who feel themselves a part of the ethnic minority almost always feel that abandoning the ethnic self to be suicidal betrayal. Or, to state things more plainly: White majorities in the U.S., for example, have the privilege of rarely having to think of what it means to be ethnically “White” and so run the risk of never questioning or abandoning their ethnic selves for the sake of effective gospel mission to Whites and non-whites, while Black minorities are so constantly aware of and negotiating what it means to be “Black” that they never actively reject “blackness” as an identity for the sake of effective gospel mission to Blacks and non-Blacks. One group never thinks about it and so never rejects it; another group always thinks about it and never rejects it. One assumes the normalcy of their ethnic identity; another defends the normalcy of their ethnic identity. One group pays insufficient attention to ethnicity; another group pays inordinate attention to ethnicity.
But there is a third way. We may live more fully in the freedom we have in Christ. Paul remains free from both traps and therefore nimble enough to move in and out of these categories as it suits the gospel.
Are we this free? Are we enjoying our freedom in Christ? If not, fight for it. Celebrate it. Use it for the gospel!