I write these re-examined articles because context matters. It always matters. If we are going to apply Scripture to our lives in a way that if faithful to the text, and faithful to the Lord who inspired the text, then we have to understand it in its context. Galatians 3:28 is often quoted in Christian conversations about race or gender. It says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” But when we quote Galatians 3:28, are we being faithful to the context?
How it is Used
There are those who quote this verse with an emphasis on, “neither Jew nor Greek…” while others focus on, “no male and female.” The former, in conversations about race; the latter, in conversations about gender and gender roles. Let’s consider the way these arguments tend to be framed.
Some Christians believe the best way to deal with racism is simply to ignore all ethnic differences. So, when conversations about race and racism come up, these words are often quoted, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” According to this particular reading, Christians should ignore their own ethnic identity, and the ethnic identity of others, because ethnic distinctions are removed in Christ.
Others believe that distinct gender roles should not exist in the church. The most obvious example is believing women should be allowed to preach and teach in the worship assembly; and in support of that idea, they quote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” According to this particular reading, men and women are not called to serve God in different ways, because gender distinctions are removed in Christ.
Ironically, even though both arguments are very similar, many of those who make one argument would be adamantly opposed to the other argument. Of course, we can’t have it both ways. If this verse removes all ethnic distinctions, it also removes all gender distinctions as well. But I believe it can be shown this verse does neither.
Consider the Context
The book of Galatians is targeted at one primary issue: the heresy of the “circumcision party.” The circumcision party believed non-Jewish people had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be accepted as part of God’s family. It was about the preservation of Jewish traditions and culture. For them, circumcision was the primary way of differentiating between who was in and who was out.
It was important to Jewish people to know who was in and who was out, because those who were “in” were fellow “heirs” of the promises God made to Abraham. They knew Abraham and his descendants would inherit the world (Romans 4:13) and the idea of sharing their inheritance with uncircumcised Greeks had to be a repulsive idea to them. They were adamant that, even if Jesus was the Messiah, it didn’t change the fact that only the descendants of Abraham would inherit the promises.
Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 is that it is faith in Jesus, not circumcision, that makes someone a descendant of Abraham. Listen to Galatians 3:26-29:
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Paul’s statement, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” is the key to this entire passage. He is making the point that we are all “one” family (the family of Abraham), because we are in Christ. In fact, we are more than simply family, we are all “sons” (vs. 26) in Christ. This doesn’t mean we all become males, but we become “sons” in the sense of our inheritance. Even women, slaves, and Gentiles are all considered “sons” of Abraham in Christ.
When Paul said there is “neither” this “nor” that, he is not saying those distinctions no longer exist, but rather those divisions no longer exist. There is no division between these people in Christ. All the people who used to be divided, are now “one in Christ Jesus.” And all are equal heirs of the promises.
Practically speaking, Paul is telling Jewish-Christian men to see Christian women, slaves, and Greeks as being equal heirs in the promises God made to Abraham. But perhaps even more important, he is telling Christian women, slaves, and Greeks they did not need to make any changes to become heirs, because they were already heirs “in Christ.” He even told Greek men if they were to accept circumcision in order to try to obtain family membership, they would not only be cutting off a piece of themselves, they would be cutting themselves off from Christ (Galatians 5:2-4).
Applying the Verse
The point of this passage is pretty simple: regardless of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, everyone who is baptized into Christ is an heir of the promises God made to Abraham.
Unfortunately, many of the modern applications of this verse tend to not only disregard the immediate context, but actually violate the greater context of Paul’s writings. For instance, Paul was not blind to people’s ethnicity. He knew people were shaped by their family and culture of origin. He wisely interacted differently with Greeks than he did with Jews (see 1 Corinthians 9:20-23). He loved, respected, and honored them all; he considered everyone an equal heir in Christ. But he also recognized that a person’s ethnicity is an important part of their identity, culture, and perspective.
The same thing is true for those who use this verse to dismiss gender distinctions. Paul considered his sisters in Christ to be fellow heirs, worthy of equal honor and respect, but he also believed they had a unique role in the kingdom. On multiple occasions, Paul gave instructions for distinct and complementary gender roles in the home and the church (see Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 14:26-35).
That said, I don’t want to end this study by discussing how Galatians 3:28 doesn’t apply today, but rather how it does apply today. Here are a few practical applications of Galatians 3:28:
- In Christ, we should all be “one” (unified).
- In Christ, our differences should never be divisions.
- In Christ, there are no second-class citizens of God’s kingdom.
- In Christ, everyone should be honored, respected, and loved.
- In Christ, no one should be forced to accept another culture’s traditions in order to find equal acceptance.
The message of Galatians remains incredibly relevant and it certainly has a lot of bearing on conversations about race and gender, but we must not take any verse out-of-context to prove a point.
I love you and God loves you,