Galatians 5:13-26 is a well known text featuring the oft-memorized the “fruit of the Spirit.” But for Paul, this section of his letter answers the question of what a Christian community “looks like.” The Gentile converts to Christ have left their traditional religious and social practices in the temples and want to know what sorts of things define “being in Christ.” The agitators suggested that they keep the Jewish Law, implying that they have only partially converted when they accepted Paul’s gospel. But Paul makes it clear in the central chapters of this letter that Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, but they have become part of something new and different, where there is no Jew nor Gentile, but rather and equality in Christ that comes from the Spirit rather than from ethnicity. This means, Paul insists, that the one who is “in Christ” is no longer under the law, they are free to serve others in love.
This freedom is not a freedom to sin and do whatever one pleases. In fact, this freedom is not at all to be taken in a modern sense of freedom from all restraints of law and morality! The believer in Christ is set free from the Law, but this allows him to serve God, to re-enslave himself to a new master.
Does Paul contradict himself in Gal 5:13-16? He says that the believer is free from slavery to the Law, but now he says that the believer ought to re-submit to slavery, this time to his neighbor, in love. Freedom from Law is not a freedom from everything – total freedom is completely impossible anyway. One always has some sort of obligation to fulfill (to the state, to a spouse, etc.) Since the one who is in Christ is free from the obligations of the Law, they now must re-enslave themselves to the Spirit. For Paul, there are only two possibilities, either one is enslaved to the flesh, or one is enslaved to the Spirit.
Paul will unpack what he means by flesh and Spirit in the next paragraph, but for now it is important to understand that these are the only two options for the one who is in Christ. Based on the rest of the letter to the Galatians, the Law is not an option for living out a life “in Christ.” Nor would be a blending of “in Christ” and some sort of Greek philosophy. I suspect Paul would be just as critical of a Galatian church which chose to live out its new life in Christ through Stoic or Epicurean ethical thinking! (Perhaps this is a problem in Corinth more than Galatia.)
This leads me to wonder a bit about how Paul would address the modern church, especially the American church. Do we really create a community which is “in Christ,” or are we playing around with combining our faith with social status (health and wealth gospel) or political agenda? I think that Paul would have some stern words for the way the modern church easily sets aside the fruit of the spirit in order to advance a social or political agenda.