As part of his daily prayers, a typical first-century Jewish man began by thanking God for not making him a Gentile, a slave—and finally—for not making him a woman. In a fallen world, we are socially conditioned by messages about who’s important and who’s not, who’s precious and who’s expendable, who should be in and who should be out. Race, class, and gender are the fault lines of sinful disparity and division that pass from the world right into the church.
When the Judaizers infiltrated the churches of Galatia, they brought these attitudes with them. Looking to their Jewish ethnicity, cultural, and ceremonial trappings to guarantee their acceptance with God, they treated Gentile Christians as culturally inferior and pressured them to assimilate in order to really belong among God’s people. It was against this backdrop that Paul penned Galatians 3:27–29:
For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor 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.
At this point, I need to address a common misconception about Galatians 3:28.
1. People often mistakenly assume Galatians 3:28 is about erasing distinctions.
They think Paul is calling us to be colorblind. But Paul is not talking about erasing distinctions; rather he is talking about erasing disparities. The context of the passage centers on access and standing as adopted heirs in God’s house: Who’s in? Who’s out? On what basis are they in or out? Paul affirms that we have distinctions, but he insists that our distinctions don’t define our access to God’s inheritance. That is much more biblical, liberating, and practical than pretending that in some spiritual way we don’t have distinctions at all or that our distinctions don’t matter.
The Lord intentionally included ethnic distinctions in the gospel when he promised Abraham that in his seed (the coming Christ) all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). In Revelation 7:9, John saw the redeemed people of God in their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness: “A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” From this we see that Galatians 3:28 cannot be suggesting that the gospel erases ethnic distinctions, even in a spiritual sense. The problem is not our distinctions; it’s our use of those distinctions to establish sinful disparities.
Sin perverts our distinctions to create disparities that demean and divide the saints. Colorblind theology essentially says, “If we don’t acknowledge the distinctions, then we can avoid the disparities and divisions. Let’s not talk about race in the church.” But that loses something key about what the Lord is doing to bring the divided nations together at his one table under the lordship of Christ (see Isa. 49:6). It also suggests that racialized sin is too entrenched and powerful for the gospel to heal.
2. Because colorblind theology refuses to acknowledge racial distinctions, it also refuses to address sinful disparities.
Much like the theology engineered by the seventeenth-century Virginia planters, colorblind theology leaves racial disparities and biases essentially untouched by the gospel. Without any acknowledgment of the particularity of historic and contemporary racialized sin in America, the church remains unable to “repent of particular sins particularly” (Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 15.5). Additionally, it strips the church of its ability to fulfill the requirements of the sixth commandment, including “resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any… comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q 745). Under sins forbidden, the catechism specifically includes the sin of “oppression.” Its source text for this sin is Exodus 1:14 and the race-based discrimination and enslavement of the Hebrews under Egyptian bondage.
There are confessional as well as biblical-theological resources within the Reformed tradition to specifically counteract the racial disparities that find their way into the church. We must acknowledge our ethnic distinctions and intentionally hold those distinctions in a way that makes our full equality in Christ clear. We can talk about cultural, class, and gender distinctions, but we must hold them in a way that shows equal status in the household of God. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Book of Church Order puts it this way:
The unity and catholicity of the covenant people are to be manifest in public worship. Accordingly, the service is to be conducted in a manner that enables and expects all the members of the covenant community—male and female, old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and infirm, people from every race and nation—to worship together.
That’s not just a social program; it’s a principle that reflects something about our adoption into the family of God and about the gospel itself.
3. Divisions and disparities in race, class, and gender can only be truly and lastingly overcome in Christ.
Consider the words of Galatians 3:28 again: “You are all one in Christ Jesus.” You cannot imagine a closer scenario than multiple people from a wide array of racial, economic, and social backgrounds who are joined together in one person. When we were joined to Jesus by faith and marked by him in baptism, we were also joined to everyone else Jesus is joined to—a diverse people from every tribe, nation, and tongue.
As we were united in Christ, the practical concerns of others—their burdens, joys, and sorrows—became our practical concerns; our burdens, joys, and sorrows. Their well-being matters deeply to us, and we should carry those interests and concerns into our civic life, because our union broadens our moral perspective beyond the boundaries of our own ethnic, class, and gender group. Wealthy business-owning American citizens baptized in Christ, for example, must deeply consider the practical well-being of the undocumented migrant worker and refugee who are also baptized in Christ. Christian civil engagement is not fundamentally self-interested.
At every step Christians should think: How can I serve the diverse brothers and sisters who sit on the pews across the tracks or all around me every single Sunday? How can I engage in a way that I can look them in the eye and say I also care about their interests and not just my own?
When we consider the interests of the saints across the racial, class, and gender divide, we bear witness to the catholicity and unity of the kingdom of our Lord. If we knew what our baptism really meant, then we wouldn’t ignore one another’s pain. That’s a powerful principle that should make a real difference in how we respond and relate to one another around a host of practical and social issues. Because our union with Christ is the basis of our unity with one another, we have hope for true reconciliation, and as we lean on Christ, he will give us the grace to share one another’s concerns, burdens, joys, and sorrows and grace to overcome our racial disparities and divisions.
In 1908, guided by the words of Galatians 3:28, the English journalist, novelist, and poet William Dunkerley wrote the great hymn “In Christ, There Is No East or West.” Think about what was going on in the United States in 1908—segregation and Jim Crow ruled the land. Blacks and whites couldn’t swim in the same pools, drink from the same water fountains, or eat at the same lunch counters. You could be killed if you were seen consorting with people of a different race. Even the churches reflected this sinful division. Yet the Scriptures gave Dunkerley eyes to see what the world around him couldn’t see—that there was a reality and a power made available in Christ that would scandalize the world.
In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
whate’er your race may be.
All children of the living God
are surely kin to me.