“….if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Freedom is always a good idea. You don’t have to persuade Americans of that, especially around the fourth of July each year, and most every other place in this world either celebrates freedom or mourns its absence at any given time.
But freedom comes with a price, of course. It is always bought with a struggle, and in this country we can look back on the War of Independence and the abolition of slavery as only two examples of the value of freedom and the struggles necessary to obtain it.
The apostle Paul recognized the same truth applies in a spiritual sense. Writing to the Corinthians, he said “….if you can gain your freedom, do so,” and the context is interesting. Notice the whole sentence from which this quote is taken: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Paul tells us several things here. First, we must remember that slavery in the biblical world was not the evil of the racial slavery conducted at various times in history. It was more like indentured service from which people could often work their way to independence, and it was certainly nothing like the totally demeaning and dehumanizing types of slavery with which the world is sadly more familiar. So Paul tells his readers, “don’t worry about it if you were called without freedom.” Under the circumstances of his time, although it was not the best situation, slavery in that culture did not restrict many aspects of personal freedom and usually didn’t interfere with a person’s choice of religion or other things we would regard as essential rights.
Nevertheless, Paul still wrote to people in that situation: “… if you can gain your freedom, do so,” and the words are not given as advice to be considered, but a principle to be followed. It’s easy to read over them today as being antiquated and not applying to us in our modern age, but they do.
Many biblical verses show that when we are called we are all actually spiritually enslaved – enslaved to sin and our own human nature (John 8:34, etc.). But many other verses show that through the struggle fought on our behalf by the Son of God, we are given freedom from these things (2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 5:1, etc.).
Yet, just like physical freedom, spiritual freedom has to be recognized, appreciated, guarded and preserved. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). How can we lose our spiritual freedom? The New Testament shows that we can sink back into slavery through accepting false beliefs (Galatians 2:4), by not controlling our physical natures (Galatians 5:13), or through anything that takes control of our lives (2 Peter 2:19).
But it needn’t be that way. Just as celebrations of freedom, such as the Fourth of July, each time we observe them remind us of the need to protect our physical freedoms, every time we study the word of God it should be a reminder that we need to preserve our spiritual freedom, too. Look how the apostle James – the brother of Jesus – reminds us of this truth: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:25). A little later in his letter, James also tells us: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom” (James 2:12), and it’s really the same principle.
Freedom is always a good idea, but whether it’s this Fourth of July or the next time we open our Bibles, it’s something we must remember: freedom must be chosen, and choosing freedom is always the right idea.