Editor’s note: The following article is the third of four excerpts from Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.”
Life in the new covenant community was expressed publicly through Christian baptism. In the old covenant, circumcision was the outer expression of one’s covenantal relationship with God, and only men were circumcised. In the new covenant, baptism replaced circumcision. Baptism was open to any person: males, females, Jews, Greeks, enslaved persons and free persons. The inclusivity of Christian baptism, which Paul rehearsed in Galatians 3:28, was inscribed on early Christian baptismal fonts – making Paul’s emphasis clear. To be united with Christ not only realigns our identity and status with respect to God, but also redefines our status with respect to one another. In the same way that Christ establishes peace and justice between sinners and God, so Christ also establishes peace and harmony between the members of his body – the church. Theologians such as John E. Phelan Jr. put it this way: our soteriology (what we understand about the work of Christ on the cross) directs our ecclesiology (what we understand about the work of the church in the world). To be in Christ is never simply a statement about one’s redemptive status. Our redemption directly influences our relationships with one another as members of Christ’s body.
Paul states boldly in Galatians 3:28 that Jew and Greek, enslaved and free, male and female are all one in Christ. He wrote these words to individuals who had already come to faith in Christ! Therefore, we must assume that this passage addresses social relations within the church. Moreover, Paul offered these words to a world in which enslaved persons and women were more than half of the population. In a profound way, Galatians 3:28 is one of the most radical statements ever made, certainly in the first century. Why? Because in Paul’s culture, a person’s identity, dignity and sphere of influence were determined by ethnicity, gender and class. To such a world, Paul courageously declared that a person’s significance and influence were no longer established by his or her earthly parents. Believers are ultimately heirs of their heavenly Parent because of Calvary. And they are also given God’s Spirit to oppose and resist sins that divide and oppress people because of gender, ethnicity or class.
Paul did not overturn slavery or release women from cultural bondage during his lifetime. Yet through his writings, in his dealings with the enslaved Onesimus, and because of the women beside whom he labored, Paul revealed that the power of Christ’s kingdom triumphed over culture. This is what makes Paul so extraordinary! The power of the cross overcomes what philosophers call ascriptivism – ascribing value and influence according to ethnicity, gender or class. Christ’s completed work on Calvary was the basis of the new covenant and established Christian unity and mutuality. This is acknowledged in Christian baptism (a practice that was open to all women and men) and celebrated in the sharing of the bread and the cup (or the agape meals). These events were open to all people. The first-century followers of Jesus Christ lived out this unity each day in the Spirit in mutual deference to one another, regardless of gender, class or ethnicity.
The transforming power of the cross so renewed Paul’s life that it enabled him to place the realities of Christ’s kingdom above the ethnic, class and gender prejudices of his day. Paul was certain that God was building a new people, with Jesus as head and with all the redeemed serving beside each other equally as joint members of Christ’s body. Paul’s unshakable confidence in the power of the cross compelled him to live out the ideals he expressed in Galatians 3:28. Thus we find enslaved persons, Gentiles and women spreading the gospel and serving beside Paul. Paul did not hesitate to ask slave owners to live as brothers and sisters with persons who were held as slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1). Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was better than a slave because he was Philemon’s brother in Christ (Philemon 16). By asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, Paul’s Christian faith took precedence over cultural expectations (1 Corinthians 2:6; 7:31). According to tradition, Philemon released Onesimus, who went on to become bishop of Ephesus. Galatians 3:28 became the cornerstone or the heartbeat of Paul’s teachings, both theologically and in terms of practice. Unless we understand the full impact of Galatians 3:28, we cannot grasp the rest of what Paul wrote.
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality in Minneapolis and co-editor of Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church. Excerpted from Mimi Haddad, “Reading the Apostle Paul through Galatians 3:28” in Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2009), 80-82. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.