William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part V

The final chapter in Free in Obedience is a reflection on the freedom of God, which the opening paragraph describes thus:

‘The freedom of God in his ruling love for this world in this world is not at all coincident with, contingent upon, nor captive of the Church, much less so of the churches or of individual Christians. If the Church or those within the churches do not see and honor the freedom of God, if they will not thus acknowledge and worship God, if they persist in vain commendations of themselves instead of in gladness in the Word of God, if they indulge in boasting witness to themselves rather than bragging of their weakness to explain and attest God’s grace and strength, if they conceive of salvation as in part attributable to themselves and not wholly the gift of God’s initiative in this world, then God, as has been the case before, in his terrible and magnificent generosity with himself in the world, will simply find his own way of working his will and do without the churchly institutions and those who profess to be Christians and, so to speak, take over wholly himself the ministry of the Church’ (pp. 107–8).

This is a chapter written with Bonhoeffer-like boldness, where the demarcation often made (by pietists and moralists) between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is erased, as is the case in love. So what then is the believer’s task in the world? It is, Stringfellow contends, ‘to so enjoy the Word in the world as to attest the veracity of the Word of God for all men in any and every event’ (p. 117), it is to witness to the one Word of God in the gospel, an action which is always an ‘inherently sacramental event’ (p. 117) and as such is a ‘festival of the event of reconciliation already taking place in the midst of history’ (p. 118). He warns that where the sacraments fail to represent the unity of being and doing in the Church then they become idols, ‘no different from the other principalities of tradition and institution in the world’ (p. 119) and their use then becomes idolatrous. He also warns that ‘when the forms of the sacraments become idols and the sacraments become radically secularized, the world is misled about the meaning and grandeur of God’s work and bewildered about the scope and substance of the Christian faith’ (p. 119). He writes about church offerings, about the daily work and witness of God’s people in the world, and about how Christian freedom consists of the acceptance of the fact of one’s own justification as the work of divine freedom which relieves believers of the anxieties over how God judges us. The believer can therefore live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of, or bondage to, either their own death or the works of death in the world. The believer is both enabled and authorised by the gift of the Spirit in baptism to ‘expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all men, all principalities, all things from bondage to death’ (p. 128). He continues:

‘That being so, the Christian is free to give his own life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. He does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his own death’. (p. 128)

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7 thoughts on “William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part V

  1. thanks for this series, Jason.
    Its been good for me to revisit Free in obedience and observe what someone else notices, that I missed. Do you have a rough plan in mind?
    I’ve read about 60-70% of Stringfellow, but would prefer to read any myself for the firs time before reading your (excellent) summaries, thats all

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  2. Hi Geoff. Thanks for your kind comments about a series that, sadly, few seem to be too interested in. You asked about whether I had in mind a ‘rough plan’ regarding books I’m planning to post on. The answer is ‘Yes’, and it is ‘rough’. I’m planning to post next on Imposters of God and Instead of Death. Then I’m hoping to turn to Stringfellow’s first book, A Private and Public Faith, and after that to Count It All Joy, A Simplicity of Faith, Conscience and Obedience and The Politics of Spirituality. There’s also a host of articles by or about Stringfellow that I’ve managed to hunt down, but am yet to read. If I (and the readers of this blog) have any energy left, I may even post on a few of those.

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  3. Great, thanks Jason – a couple of these I need to read. It will provide good motivation. I also have a few of his earlier essays as well. Some I’ve read and some I’ve not got to either – ones which are mostly law related (I’m happy to send you any / all of these if you are interested)

    Stringfellow, William. “Law, Polity, and the Reunion of the Church: The Emerging Conflict between Law and Theology in America.” Ohio St. L.J. 20, (1959): 412-36.

    Stringfellow, William. “Violence of Despair.” Notre Dame L. 40, (1964): 527-33.

    Stringfellow, William. “The Representation of the Poor in American Society: A Subjective Estimate of the Prospects of Democracy.” Law and Contemporary Problems 31, no. 1 (1966): 142-51.

    Stringfellow, William. “The Representation of the Poor in American Society: A Subjective Estimate of the Prospects of Democracy.” Law and Contemporary Problems 31, no. 1 (1966): 142-51.

    Stringfellow, William. “Christianity, Poverty and the Practice of the Law.” Cap. U. L. Rev. 8, (1978): 451-58.

    Stringfellow, William. “Crisis of Confidence and Ethics in the Legal Profession, The.” Cap. U. L. Rev. 9, no. 1 (1979): 1-6.

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  4. Hello Jason. I would be interested to know in what ways, if any, you would think that Stringfellow’s homosexual lifestyle, influenced his theology.

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  5. Further… thinking about this question I raise, in conjunction with… one of his own statements:

    “When a principality claims moral pre-eminence in history or over a man’s life, it represents an aspiration for salvation from death and a hope that service to the idol will give existence a meaning somehow transcending death”.

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  6. @nwcc — These sorts of sweeping, suggestive dismissals are starting to get tired. I’m assuming your question is well intentioned, but do you seriously believe there is a *single* “homosexual lifestyle”? If I may be so bold as to ask in return: how does your *particular* “heterosexual (I presume) lifestyle” influence your theology, or your question? Does your *particular* “heterosexual lifestyle” happen to involve prostitutes, or marriage, or celibacy? Oops, is there really more than *one* “heterosexual lifestyle”? I forgot! Sorry.

    Perhaps Jason’s later post will answer your question. For Stringfellow, the real significance of sexual orientation cannot simply be parsed as if checking a “lifestyle” poll for the police.

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  7. having shared a home with Bill during the last years of his life I am amused, and think he would be too, and perhaps perturbed, that some people would now be calling his “lifestyle” “homosexual” He definitely had style but would fiercely denounce any suggestion that he had a “lifestyle” of any sort. Mostly he wrote, and cooked.

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