I’ve been reading lately through 1 Peter in my quiet times, just a small passage at a time. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of those treasures that you find in a book you’ve read countless times but all the sudden it seems like the first time you’ve ever read it. The verses were 1 Peter 2:16-17: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Maybe you’re like me, and you read over that and nothing sticks out to you. But that morning, these verses leapt off the page because of the apparent contradiction that they contained. Did you catch it? “Live as people who are free..living as servants of God.” How can we live as people who are free if we’re living as servants? That makes no sense. As Christians we are free in Christ, we have Christian liberty and all that stuff of blogs and debates galore. Live as people who are free? That makes complete sense. That’s what we want to hear. We are free to watch Harry Potter or not watch it. We are free to drink a little wine or be a tee-totaller. We are free to worship to drums and electric guitars or piano and organ. We’re free. So where does the servant part fit in?
Obviously, no genuine Christian would say that we are free to sin. So maybe that’s what it means. “Not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” So is that the extent of what the “living as servants of God” part means? Just be His servant in that you don’t use your freedom to justify your sin? Well, if that’s the case, then we’re good to go. We just won’t say that we’re free to sin. But is that really all it means?
I may really be stretching here, but I don’t think that’s all verse 16 means. This verse falls right in the middle of a passage talking about submitting to others. Why would a verse on freedom be in a passage on submission? Maybe we need to look more closely at verse 17. “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Honor who? The emperor, yes, but don’t miss the first one: Honor everyone. If you’re going to honor someone, doesn’t that mean restricting your own freedom a bit? What does honor mean? It could mean to give of yourself to make much of someone else. It could mean to hold yourself back to allow someone else to go first or have the spotlight or have a position of…well, honor. So how does restricting your freedom to honor someone not contradict the exhortation to live as people who are free? Could it be that true freedom can only be found when you’re willing to, out of love, restrict your freedom for the good of someone else? Yes, I am free to ____________ but if my exercising that freedom is going to cause a brother or sister, or a nonbeliever for that matter, to stumble or be hurt or led astray, then isn’t it even more freeing for me to choose not to do that?
Yes, we have freedom in Christ. But we are also called to be like Christ, and Christ came as a servant. He not only restricted some of His freedoms out of love for others, but He restricted His own deity. Surely it is not surprising that for me to be truly free in Him, I will be called to choose, in my freedom, to not exercise it fully at times. Only in serving Him am I free. And many times, serving Him means serving others, which could at first glance look like the opposite of freedom. Many of us are happy to serve others in the “work in a soup kitchen, donate clothes to the clothes closet, help in VBS” kind of way, but when we are asked to restrict our personal freedom in some way in order to love or serve or submit to another, we bristle. But that is what submission is all about, and from the look of the context of this verse, submission is what true freedom is all about. I’ve written elsewhere on this same issue, but it’s one that God continually brings to my thinking and contemplating as I watch Christians around me and in our culture exercise their “freedom” in an almost in-your-face kind of way, simply because they are free to do so. But I think that this verse clearly shows that true freedom is being a servant of God, that serving God means honoring others, and maybe this practice of doing whatever you feel free to do with no thought to how your actions may affect others is in fact “using your freedom as a cover-up for evil.”
So live as people who are free. Do this by exercising restraint in your freedom, by living as a servant of God, and by honoring everyone. There is no contradiction. This is true freedom.