A First Century Text For A Twenty First Century Church

by Marvin McMickle

In Galatians 3:26–28 the Apostle Paul addresses what were the three major social divisions within all of the cultures of the Mediterranean in the 1st

century AD. Those divisions were gender (male and female), class (slave and free), and ethnicity (Jew and Gentile). These three divisions were

especially true for Israel and for all the towns and regions of the Mediterranean region where Paul conducted his three missionary journeys.

In all those contexts there was a clear, almost impenetrable divide between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and slaves and free folk. There was

a prayer in the Jewish prayer book called the Siddur that was invoked every morning by every Jewish male that said, “I thank You, O God, that you

did not make me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” In uttering those words, those men were self-identifying as a person who occupied a preferred social

status within their society. That position of privilege was even reinforced by both law and custom. In terms of influence, economic opportunities, the

chance to exercise leadership in the community, the right to own property, and the right to speak and participate in synagogue services, the advantage

clearly belonged to men in general and to Jewish men in particular. Given this reality, gender, class, and ethnicity were matters of paramount importance.

Male identity mattered in every aspect of daily life. What is startling about this passage in Galatians is that Paul directly attacks the premise that neither

gender, ethnicity, nor social status should matter at all when it comes to membership in the Christian community. Paul’s triumphant declaration resounds

to this day: For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There

is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).

Paul’s proclamation about a community unrestricted by gender, class, or ethnicity was not just an assault on the sensibilities of Jewish males in the first

century AD. This notion was equally disturbing to the Roman Empire where the vast majority of inhabitants in that far-flung realm of influence were either

slaves or other free people who did not enjoy Roman citizenship.

 

To suggest that there was no difference between slaves and free people or both of those groups and a full-fledged Roman citizen was a politically

destabilizing notion that Rome went to great lengths to resist and suppress. It must be remembered that one of the things that Paul used to his great

advantage was the fact that he was a Roman citizen who had to be treated with all the preferential status that came with that designation. This was on

display when the magistrates in Philippi realized that Paul and Silas had been beaten by their jailers without a trial, which was a violation of Roman law (Acts

16:37–39). It was on display again when Paul avoids being flogged by Roman soldiers when they discover that he is a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25–29).

In both instances, the attitude and behavior of the magistrate in Philippi and the centurion in Jerusalem changed dramatically when they discovered that Paul

was a Roman citizen. Paul fit into all three categories of preferential status as a male, a Jew, and a free person—with the added bonus of enjoying Roman

citizenship.

 

All of this must be kept in mind when Paul says that none of that mattered once he came to Christ where “all are one.” He goes even further in this direction of

abandoning his own privileged position when he says: But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but

loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may

win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of

God by faith. (Philippians 3:7–9)

 

What makes these three social divisions so startling is that they continue to be a reality in so many places within the twenty-first century society, including within

the very church that Paul was so instrumental in helping establish. There are cultures in the twenty-first century world where the rights of women are severely restricted.

That is not just true in nations like Saudi Arabia and other extremely conservative Muslim nations where women cannot drive cars, own property, pursue higher education,

or  participate in the political process. It is true in the United States where the quality of life is abysmal for Native Americans living on reservations and migrant workers

who move from crop to crop throughout this country. Women still earn seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by a man. In recent days, two Muslim girls were verbally

assaulted on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon. When three men came to their defense they were stabbed by a man who told those girls to “get out of my country.”

With more than 80% of our nation’s wealth is controlled by 10% of America’s families, poverty and the wage gap only grow. It has been reported that it would take the

average worker at a McDonald’s restaurant one million hours to earn what that company’s CEO takes home in one year. The rise of human trafficking, both for purposes

of sexual and labor exploitation, means that human slavery is alive and well in the United States and around the world.

 

While these things may be true in the secular order, Paul says that none of these things should be true in the church. Here again this powerful word of liberation, equality, and

justice: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).Whatever

social and cultural biases and bigotries we may have held prior to coming to Christ should be the first things we abandon once we are in Christ. It is not just individual sin

that is forgiven when we become followers of Christ, but we are also forgiven of how we look at and interact with other people, especially people who are different from

us in terms of gender, class, or religious affiliation. That is what is meant by the hymn that says, “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my

heart.”

The question is, does the twenty-first century church reflect the values of this first century text? While much progress has been made in society as a whole,

there are some areas where the church is lagging far behind. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary acknowledged only in 2018 that many of its founders

and early funders were involved in the slave trade that was built on the assumption of class and color distinctions. There are many congregations, indeed entire

denominations, where women cannot be ordained to the ministry, cannot speak from a pulpit, or cannot even hold lay leadership positions. What is particularly

galling about this is that this is true even in African American churches that have spent the last 200 years battling against racism, but seem content with sexism.

It is as if they only want two-thirds of what is promised in Galatians3:28. They would fight with all they have against issues of racism and class division.

They would work for the alleviation of poverty and oppression. But when it comes to women in ministry they seem entrenched in their opposition. Such churches

and church leaders would do well to read An End to This Strife by Demetrius Williams.

 

Think about four New Testament texts, each of which challenges us to think  differently about racism, sexism, and class divisions. Think about the slave named

Onesimus found in Philemon for whose freedom Paul makes a compelling appeal when he tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother beloved and to receive

him as he would have welcomed Paul himself (Philemon 17). Think about the Roman  centurion named Cornelius, a representative of the oppressive Roman regime

and a member of the Gentile elite. Yet he was converted and later baptized by the  Apostle Peter (Acts 10:34–48). Think about Phoebe, a female member of the

church in Cenchreae whom Paul refers to as “a deacon,” who likely was charged with delivering Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 16:1). Think about Simeon of Niger

and Lucius of Cyrene, two men described by their dark-skinned appearance  or country of origin as of obvious North African background, who were among those who

laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and commissioned them for their first missionary journey (Acts 13: 1–3). Each of these four texts points to what can and should happen

when the church embraces the idea that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, for all is one in Christ Jesus. There is a well-known hymn

sung to a melody popularized by the African American singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh that points to the promise of Galatians 3:28:

 

In Christ, there is no east nor west,

In Him no south or north;

But one great fellowship of love,

Throughout the whole wide earth.

 

May this become true in our churches and in our own lives today.

____________________

Marvin A. McMickle, PhD, is the President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

There he is also the director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and Professor of African

American Religious Studies. He has authored seventeen books.

 

Sources:

Griffen, Wendell. “White Baptists and racial reconciliation: There’s a difference between lament and repentance.” Baptist News Global. https://baptistnews.com/article/white-baptists-andracial-reconciliation-theres-a-difference-between-lament-andrepentance/#.XD9wac9TmV5 (published January 3, 2019).

Mirsky, Yehudah. Three Blessings. Jewish Ideas Daily. http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/848/features/three-blessings/(published March 23, 2011).

Rolf, David. The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working American. New York: The New Press, 2016.

Williams, Demetrius. An End to This Strife: The Politics of Gender in African American Churches. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.