Brief Reviews

Mark D. Baker – Freedom From Religiosity and Judgmentalism [Review]

Freedom From ReligiosityA Fresh Look at a Fundamental Text

A Review of

Freedom From Religiosity and Judgmentalism: Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Mark D. Baker

Paperback: Kindred Productions, 2023
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Reviewed by Roberto Solis

In this book, Mark Baker explores the letter to the Galatians, focusing on Paul’s message of freedom from religious legalism and judgmentalism. Baker argues that Paul’s letter is a call for the church to be a community of grace and acceptance rather than a place where people are made to feel guilty or ashamed. 

The concept of religion portrayed by Baker refers to a tool used by the powers of this world to enslave people. It’s disheartening to see how structures that were meant to benefit people can instead become oppressive forces that hold individuals and families captive in our society.  Paul’s call for freedom to the Galatians is a call we must hear today in our congregations. There is a new creation happening because of the work of Jesus Christ.

Baker explores the honor-shame dynamic of society in Paul’s time, and his commentary on Galatians sheds light on practical applications. The author describes three different ways to categorize the particular culture of a group: bounded, fuzzy, and centered. A bounded group has a clear boundary line to determine whether a person belongs to that group or not, while a fuzzy group has a vague boundary line, and a centered group uses a directional and relational basis of evaluation. The author applies these approaches to group membership in churches. Bounded churches draw a line to distinguish insiders from outsiders based on correct beliefs and certain visible behaviors. Fuzzy churches have a more flexible approach to the boundary line, allowing more diversity of beliefs and behaviors. Centered churches focus on the relationship with the center, Jesus Christ, rather than specific beliefs or behaviors.

The book starts by introducing the reader to the tone of the letter and the reason for its writing. It then highlights the importance of understanding the letter’s context to interpret its message correctly. The author describes two different ways of looking at the problem in Galatia, the first of which is the most common interpretation among modern readers; individuals sought peace with God through good works but could not find it. Baker argues that this interpretation is based on Martin Luther’s experience rather than the letter itself. If we understand this as the main problem that Paul is addressing, we are at risk of missing the main point and seeing ourselves as outside of the issue. “To picture the other missionaries as teaching that salvation is by works too easily leads those of us who preach salvation is by grace to view ourselves as “right,” and to see Galatians as a corrective for others” (42).

The second way of looking at the problem in Galatia– which he expands on in his book– is that religious-cultural dividing lines split the church. Paul focuses on this division as the central problem and recounts a specific incident that occurred during a dinner in Antioch. 

What is a dinner table for? Depending on our customs and culture, the dinner table can be a place to do schoolwork or perhaps the perfect place to have a cup of coffee. For some, it is primarily decorative, and it is almost forbidden to use it (perhaps only on special occasions). Furthermore, there are even families who still use the table for sitting down to eat with the family, share food and talk about the adventures and worries of the day.

Mark Baker takes us to a scenario almost two thousand years ago, in which the table was the place where the new creation in Christ was manifested. For our modern minds, it would be difficult to think that our dinner table is the ideal place to receive neighbors or strangers; it is an intimate place in our house, reserved only for family and those closest to us. However, in the early days of the church, people of all backgrounds, social and economic statuses gathered around a table to share life and food. This concept of church is surprising; people with different backgrounds, cultures, and customs, who would otherwise be incompatible and possibly not related to each other, are now, for some reason, as close as sisters and brothers.

What happened around a table in the Antioch church has implications for the church today. Picture this: you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table with your beloved family. There are grandparents, distant uncles, university students, and little ones running around. Of course, not everyone shares the same opinions – some might adamantly argue for one political candidate while others fervently support a certain sports team. While this can be uncomfortable, would it be okay to send some of your relatives to another part of the house? Would it be prudent to divide the family table according to what you think is important and what is not?

Mark Baker reflects on the experience of Paul and the divided table in Antioch, where a group of brothers and sisters, Gentiles and Jews, united as a family because of Jesus, shared the table. And then (if we have eyes to see it), spiritual powers acting through a group of Christians divided the fellowship table based on who best complied with certain rules and customs which they considered as essential in order to be part of the family. Mark Baker invites us to reflect on Paul’s letter and ask ourselves if dividing the fellowship table is something in accordance with the gospel of the Messiah.

Paul wrote the letter to the churches in Galatia because something similar was happening in their midst. A group of Christian Jews was putting pressure on the members of the churches so that they would follow certain rules and customs, and, according to them, their status as true Christians depended on their adherence to these rules.

Throughout the book Mark Baker guides us through the different sections of the letter to the Galatians, providing us a pair of lenses through which we can appreciate central concepts that will help us see in a fresh way what Paul was communicating to the church. Baker also delves deeper into concepts and words that are too familiar in our Christian environments that we could overlook, such as grace and justice. He explores other concepts that we rarely consider as fundamental, such as a holistic understanding of the gospel and the meaning of the new creation brought into existence through Christ Jesus.

One of the standout features of Baker’s work is his ability to make complex theological concepts accessible to readers. He writes clearly and concisely, avoiding unnecessary jargon and ensuring that the Galatians’ message remains relatable to scholars and laypeople. I highly recommend Mark D. Baker’s commentary on Galatians, Freedom From Religiosity and Judgmentalism. This book offers a wealth of research and insightful perspectives on the timeless themes of Galatians, presented in an accessible and engaging writing style. It’s a valuable resource for theologians, pastors, and anyone interested in exploring the relevance of Galatians to the Christian faith today.

Roberto Solis

Roberto Solis is co-pastor of the Iglesia de Cristo in El Salvador neighborhood of Saltillo, Mexico.
He is married to Danea and is the father of 4 daughters. He collaborates from Mexico with the Englewood Community Development Corporation, and is a member of Nurturing Communities, a network of Christ-centered intentional communities.

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