For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Gal. 5:13)
How do we live as believers in Jesus Christ? If the Christian life begins when we put our faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, how do we express this faith in our daily lives, including our work?
For many of us, the answer to these questions lies in ordering our behavior according to certain basic rules. Thus, for example, when it comes to the workplace, we might adopt the following to-do list: (1) Show respect to colleagues; (2) don’t use inappropriate language; (3) don’t gossip; (4) be guided by biblical values when making decisions; and (5) speak of faith in Christ if possible. Although this list could easily be much longer, it contains valuable guidance that reflects biblical priorities.
But there is a danger for Christians in such a list, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. It’s the danger of legalism, of turning the Christian life into a set of rules rather than our free response to God’s grace in Christ and a network of relationships centered in Christ. Moreover, those who approach the Christian life legalistically often tend to put on their to-do list items that are inessential or perhaps even incorrect.
Paul and the Galatians
This is exactly what happened with the believers in Galatia in the mid-first century. In response to the preaching of the Apostle Paul, they had put their faith in Christ and began living as Christians. But, before long, they started shaping their lives according to a list of do’s and don’ts. In this effort, the Galatians were influenced by outsiders who claimed to be Christians and who insisted that the Christian life required keeping the Law of Moses as understood by certain contemporary schools of thought. In particular, these “Judaizers” were persuading the Galatians to live like Jews in matters of circumcision (Gal. 5:2–12) and the ceremonial law (Gal. 4:10).
Paul wrote the letter we call “Galatians” in order to get the Christians in Galatia back on the right track. Though he did not address workplace issues directly, his basic instructions on the nature of the Christian life speak incisively to our interests in faith and work. Moreover, Galatians contains work-related imagery, especially drawn from the first-century practice of slavery. Christians, according to Paul, are to live in freedom, not in slavery to the Law of Moses and other earthly powers (Gal. 4:1–11). Yet, ironically, those who exercise their freedom in Christ should choose to “become slaves to one another” through love (Gal. 5:13).
Biblical scholars almost unanimously agree that Galatians was written by the Apostle Paul to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now central Turkey, sometime between AD 49 and 58. Paul was writing to churches he had founded through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. These churches existed in a culturally and religiously diverse environment and had recently been influenced by Judaizers (Jewish Christians who argued that all Christians must keep the whole law if they want to experience the full Christian life).
Paul underscores the freedom we have in Christ in his response to the Galatians and the Judaizers who were corrupting them. Applied to the workplace, Galatians helps us understand and engage in our work with a freedom that is essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
After introducing himself, Paul greets the Galatians, referring to Christ as one “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:3). Thus he introduces the theme of freedom, which is central to the letter to the Galatians and to living as a believer in Jesus.
See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, vol. 41 of the Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1990), lxxiii–lxxxvii.
Paul begins by identifying the problem among the Galatians. They “are turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). This “gospel” requires Gentiles “to live like Jews” (Gal. 2:14). In order to show that this “gospel” is really not a gospel—that is, good news—at all, Paul presents a variety of arguments, including his autobiography (Gal. 1:10–2:21), the receiving of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:1–5), the offspring of Abraham through faith (Gal. 3:6–29), the analogy of slaves and children (Gal. 4:1–11), a personal, emotional appeal (Gal. 4:12–20), and the allegory of the slave woman and the free woman (Gal. 4:21–31).
At several points in chapters 1–4 in his explication of the Christian life, Paul uses the language and imagery of slavery to fortify his understanding of life in Christ. Slavery, which in Galatians signifies primarily the absence of freedom, is that from which the Galatians had been delivered by their faith in Christ. “You are no longer a slave but a child” (Gal. 4:7). Their desire to follow the Law of Moses rather than to rely on their faith is, in effect, a senseless return to the bondage of slavery (Gal. 4:8–10). Even the Law of Moses, when understood properly, commends freedom rather than slavery to the law itself (Gal. 4:21–31).
So we see that Paul uses workplace imagery (slavery) to illustrate a spiritual point about religious legalism. Yet the point does apply directly to the workplace itself. A legalistic workplace—in which bosses try to control every motion, every word, every thought that employees have—is contrary to freedom in Christ. Workers of all types owe obedience to their legitimate superiors. And organizations of all types owe freedom to their workers to the full extent compatible with the true needs of the work.
Galatians 5:1 completes the crescendo of the first four chapters with a roaring call to freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Yet this does not mean that Christians should do whatever they please, gratifying their own sinful desires and neglecting those around them. On the contrary, Paul explains, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal. 5:13). Christians are free in Christ from slavery to this world and its power, including the Law of Moses. Yet in this freedom, they should choose out of love to serve one another with humility. Such “slavery” is not bondage, but an ironic exercise of true freedom in Christ.
The Spirit of God, given to Christians when they believe the good news of Christ (Gal. 3:2–5), helps us to live out our faith each day (Gal. 5:16). Those who “live by the Spirit” will reject and be safe from the “works of the flesh,” which include “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). Parts of this list sound all too similar to life in many workplaces—strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy. Even seemingly religious practices such as idolatry and sorcery have real manifestations in the workplace. If we are called to live in the Spirit at all, then we are called to live in the Spirit at work.
Paul specifically warns us against “self-indulgence” in the name of freedom (Gal. 5:13). Instead, we should choose to “become slaves [or servants] to one another.” At work, this means we are to assist our coworkers even when we are in competition or at odds with them. We are to confront fairly and resolve our jealousies, angers, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy (see Matt. 18:15–17), rather than nurture resentment. We are to create products and services that exceed our customers’ legitimate expectations, because a true servant seeks what is best for the person served, not merely what is adequate.
Work and the Fruit of the Spirit
We often think of the fruit of the Spirit, described in Galatians 5, in the context of church life. But when we apply it to our work, it can give us a fresh perspective, and have a transformative effect on our workplaces.
Love can transform our view of other workers (colleagues, customers, managers, etc.) as image bearers of God rather than objects of utility in the course of our work. Love can transform our view of work, recognizing the value it brings to others and the world. The book Theory R Management illustrates the transformation that comes to the workplace when people are treated with love, dignity, and respect....
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The Spirit of God is not, however, simply a divine naysayer who keeps us out of trouble. Rather, the Spirit at work in believers produces new attitudes and actions. In agriculture, fruit is a delicious result of long-term growth and cultivation. The metaphor “fruit of the Spirit” signals that God cares about the kind of people we are becoming, rather than only what we are doing today. We are to cultivate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23) over the course of a lifetime. We have no reason to believe that this fruit is meant only for relationships among Christians in our churches and families. On the contrary, just as we are to be guided by the Spirit in every facet of life, so we are to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit wherever we are, including the places in which we work. Patience in the workplace, for example, does not refer to indecisiveness or failure to act urgently in business matters. Instead, it means a freedom from the anxiety that would tempt us to act before the time is ripe, such as firing a subordinate in a fit of anger, berating a colleague before hearing an explanation, demanding a response before a student has time to consider, or cutting a customer’s hair before being completely sure what kind of style the customer wants. If the fruit of the Spirit seems to have little to do with work, perhaps we have narrowed our imagination of what spiritual fruit really is.
The first part of Galatians 6 employs a variety of work-related words to instruct Christians in how to care for others in tangible ways. Christians are to be generous to others as we “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Yet, lest we be overtaken by pride and imagine that our work on behalf of others excuses poor work of our own, believers must “test their own work” and “carry their own loads” (Gal. 6:4–5).
The analogy of sowing and reaping allows Paul to encourage the Galatians to focus on the life of the Spirit rather than the flesh (Gal. 6:7–8). Sowing in the Spirit involves purposeful effort: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Christians are to labor for the common good, in addition to caring for their fellow believers. Surely, if we are to work for the good of others, one place we should do it is in the workplace.
In his closing remarks, Paul reminds the Galatians of the center of the gospel, which is the cross of Christ: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
In his concluding use of crucifixion language (Gal. 6:14), Paul echoes what he had said earlier in the letter: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20). Faith in Christ is not only believing certain facts about his life, death, and resurrection, but also dying with Christ so that he might live in us. This “Christ in us” reality does not disappear when we enter our offices, warehouses, shops, and boardrooms. Rather, it urges and empowers us to live for Christ, in the power of the Spirit, every moment, in every place.
The Christian life is based upon faith. But faith is not passive assent to the truth of the gospel. Rather, in the daily experience of the Christian, faith becomes alive and active. According to Paul, faith can even be said to be “working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Thus faith at work in our lives energizes loving actions, even as the Spirit of God helps us to be more loving both in heart and in action (Gal. 5:22). We reject the slavery of trying to justify ourselves by our work. However, when we embrace our freedom in Christ through faith, our work leads to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We see our work as a primary context in which to exercise our freedom in Christ so as to love others and “work for the good of all” (Gal. 6:10). If we do not see the fruit of faith in our places of work, then we are cutting off a major part of our life from Christ’s mastery.