“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” insisted the apostle Paul (Galatians 5,1). It’s not a message that Christians have always been keen to hear. We’ve rushed to impose rules, set up structures, fit people into categories. Too often we’ve turned the good news of freedom into bad news of legalism.
How do we make ethical decisions as Christians? The New Testament does not, on the whole, encourage us to obey rules. While it is positive about the value of the Hebrew law, it makes clear that Christ has fulfilled the law and that we have been given God’s Holy Spirit to move in our hearts and guide us.
“If you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature,” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5,16 NEB). In John Henson’s translation, this verse declares that if the Spirit’s in charge “you don’t need rules”.
Such freedom has been too great for Christians to bear – either as individuals or as a community. Throughout Christian history, there have been people who have looked back at these verses and spoken of what they mean for human dignity and equality. The Digger leader Gerard Winstanley was one. He wrote in 1649 that “the same spirit that made the globe dwells in man” to be “his teacher and ruler within himself”.
This sounds impossible. Is God really inviting us to live freely, guided by the Holy Spirit? It sounds like a licence for chaos and selfishness.
Of course, it can very easily be used in this way. Anyone can claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to do something which is simply what they want to do anyway. But let’s not forget that rules can work the same way. Rules often benefit those who came up with them, and this has been as true in the Church as elsewhere.
Seeking the Spirit’s guidance is a challenging, time-consuming, exhausting, sometimes painful process. The Spirit may guide someone in a particular way quite suddenly. But more often than not it takes considerable effort to get used to the Spirit’s voice. Or so I believe – for I am still not used to that voice. My communications with God are often painful and frustrating, as well as liberating and comforting. Sometimes I feel my effort gets no result. But all too often, I have not really made the effort. I suspect I will be more likely to find guidance in a particular moment of need if I build up my prayerful, careful awaiting for the Spirit’s voice. I need to put in a lot more time and effort.
This is the paradox. For me, freedom from rules becomes possible – or at least more likely – when I develop the discipline of listening for the Holy Spirit.
This will mean different things for different people – otherwise it would just be a new set of rules! But the Bible gives us plenty of clues about what we can expect from decisions made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – whether or not we use that sort of language.
In contrasting the Spirit with the law, Paul wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. He adds, “There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5,22-23).
The law of the Spirit is the law of love. It stands in contrast both to living by rules and to the culture of “anything goes”.
I’ve been reflecting on this lately as I’ve been discussing Christian attitudes towards polyamory.
The word “polyamory” describes honest and faithful relationships involving more than two people. This may be a group of, say, three or four people who are committed to each other in a sexually exclusive way in the same way as a monogamous couple. Or it may involve honestly and openly having more than one partner, approaching all relationships with sensitivity and love to ensure that all involved are fulfilled and not harmed.
Of course, polyamory can be abused. So can marriage. Of course, people get hurt. This also happens in monogamous relationships. But can polyamorous relationships be rooted in the law of love as much as monogamous ones?
I don’t see why not. Polyamory is very different to adultery. In adultery, the love that is shown to one person is undermined by the harm and deceit demonstrated towards another.
Jesus upheld the value of marriage. But he challenged common attitudes in his society, insisting that a man should not divorce his wife on a whim. Remember, this was in a culture in which only a man could initiate a divorce, throwing his wife into social disgrace and often poverty.
Marriage in our society is very different to marriage as it existed in Jesus’ time. For example, in terms of the age of the participants and the economic considerations involved.
How do we apply Jesus’ same values of love, respect and equality in our own context? Of course, we can – and should – uphold monogamous marriages that display those values. But let us also pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we seek to apply those values just as firmly in other sorts of relationships.
We shall know the reality of those relationships by the fruits they produce. I have seen several polyamorous relationships that produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. I thank God for them