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. (Gal. 3:28)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:11)
I’ve become more and more baffled how passages like Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 have been used to oppose advocates of racial justice and reconciliation in the Church. The idea seems to be that since all believers are one in Christ and our identity and unity is to be found in Him alone, then even bringing up race in the Church is itself a source of division, such distinctions having been wiped away by the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. For example, we read the following popular expression of the claim:
I have walked through Colossians 3 and argued that within the fellowship of faith the singular lens by which we are to view each other is found in our common redemption, our common faith, our common indwelling Spirit, and the common renewal that is being worked out in us whereby we are being conformed to the image of Christ. I argue that the Apostle specifically and clearly denies that there are any distinctions in this renewal based upon one’s history, one’s ethnicity, or social standing. The unity of the body is found not in the noting and prioritizing of such things, but in recognizing that in light of the redemptive work of Christ, those distinctions are no more. “In this renewing work there is no Greek and no Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (v. 11). The phrase “but Christ is all” should not be overlooked. There is something utterly unique in the Christian faith found in the uniqueness of the God-man, in the Incarnate One, Jesus. The reason “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” can be one is that they are focused not upon themselves but upon another, Jesus. I assert that this means that my relationship with each and every true believer in Christ must, by nature of who Jesus is and what He did, transcend and eclipse any other human relationship, and that includes ethnicity, history or skin color. […]
That new man looks forward to the consummation of all things, not backwards to sources of hurt and animus between ethnic groups. This is why, again, the Christian church can bring peace in the most horrific of human conflicts. But that all ends when we import the lens of “race” into the body.
[…]This is why I have stood against this “woke” movement and its unbiblical attempt to insert a lens the Apostles nowhere demanded. (“The Racialist Lens Disrupts True Christian Unity: A Response to Thabiti Anyabwile”)
The first thing that comes to mind upon reading such claims is that these very same passages were used to defend “Christian” slavery and segregation in America.
For example, in 1706, as it became increasingly clear that the “Negro” was to be the exclusive American chattel slave class, Cotton Mather went to great lengths to argue that “Negroes” could become Christians without receiving the rights that European Christians enjoyed in the Colonies. He explicitly uses Colossians 3 to prove that believers of every race can be one in Christ, sharing in the same spiritual blessings, while in no wise changing their temporal status of forced bondage. To those who worried manumission would follow baptism (as it should have), Mather writes,
What Law is it, that Sets the Baptised Slave at Liberty? Not the Law of Christianity: that allows of Slavery; Only it wonderfully Dulcifies, and Mollifies, and Moderates the Circumstances of it. Christianity directs a Slave, upon his embracing the Law of the Redeemer, to satisfy himself, That he is the Lords Free-man, tho’ he continues a Slave. It supposes, (Col 3. 11.) That there are Bond as well as Free, among those that have been Renewed in the Knowledge and Image of Jesus Christ. […] The Baptised then are not thereby entitled unto their Liberty. Howbeit, if they have arrived unto such a measure of Christianity, that none can forbid Water for the Baptising of them, it is fit, that they should enjoy those comfortable circumstances with us, which are due to them, not only as the Children of Adam, but also as our Brethren, on the same level with us in the expectations of a blessed Immortality, thro’ the Second Adam.
Tho’ they remain your Servants, yet they are become the Children of God. Tho’ they are to enjoy no Earthly Goods, but the small Allowance that your Justice and Bounty shall see proper for them, yet they are become Heirs of God, and Joint-Heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ. (“The Negro Christianized,” pp. 12-13, 16-17)
Much later, Presbyterian minister and slavery apologist J. H. Thornwell also defended race-based chattel slavery by appeal to Colossians 3:11:
[…] Slavery is implicated in every fibre of Southern society; it is with us a vital question, and it is because we know that interference with it cannot and will not be much longer endured we raise our warning voice. We would save the country if we could. We would save the Constitution which our fathers framed, and we would have our children and our children’s children, for countless generations, worship in the temple which our fathers reared. But this cannot be, unless our whole people shall be brought to feel that Slavery is no ground of discord, and that in Christ Jesus there is neither bond nor free. (“The Church and Slavery,” 1851)
That is, the Church ought not divide over the issue of slavery, for in Christ there is neither bond nor free anyhow. The South could continue their barbaric institution and the North was in the wrong for causing division.
Further, Presbyterian professor, minister, and Confederate chaplain R. L Dabney used these passages to much the same end. In his extended defense of Virginia’s slave society, written in 1867, Dabney used Galatians 3 and Colossians 3 to prove that both slave and free—in America, black and white—are one in Christ, but this spiritual unity has little to do with man’s “class or condition in secular life,” and therefore these passages show that Virginian slavery was Biblically justified.
The Apostle Paul teaches that the condition of a slave, although not desirable for its own sake, has no essential bearing on the Christian life and progress; and therefore, when speaking as a Christian minister, and with exclusive reference to man’s religious interests, he treats it as unimportant. The proof of this statement may be found in such passages as the following: 1 Cor. xii. 13, “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free: and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” Galat. iii. 28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female; for we are all one in Jesus Christ.” So, substantially, says Colos. iii. 11. […]
The drift of all these passages is to teach that a man’s reception by Christ and by the Church does not depend in any manner on his class or condition in secular life; because Christianity places all classes on the same footing as to the things of the soul, and offers to all the same salvation. When, therefore, men come to the throne of grace, the baptismal water, the communion table, distinctions of class are left behind them for the time. Hence, these distinctions are not essential, as to the soul’s salvation. (A Defense of Virginia)
Why divide over race-based chattel slavery when we are all one in Christ and the outward condition of a man is irrelevant?
Even Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott majority opinion, believed that we are all equal in Christ, though he nevertheless concluded that blacks were no more than property in America, afforded none of the rights and privileges of the Constitution, and in no wise included in the declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is reported that he quipped,
Thank God that at least in one place all men are equal, in the church of God. I do not consider it any degradation to kneel side by side with a negro in the house of our Heavenly Father. (Roger B. Taney: Jacksonian Jurists, p. 142)
Just as with “Christian” advocates of slavery, we could fill many pages with segregationists in the Church employing Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 to similarly oppressive ends; but a couple will have to suffice here. First, Bob Jones Sr., the first president of Bob Jones University, said the following in an extended defense of segregation in 1960:
We have three classes in the Bible. We have the Jew (a segregated race), the Gentile (and this includes everybody else), and the Church of God (meaning the Body of Christ, as it is used here). In the Church of God there are no Jews, no Gentiles, no white folks, no black folks. We are one in Christ. There is no trouble between a colored Christian and a white Christian. They operate as individuals and deal with each other as Christians who have their citizenship in Heaven. Up in Heaven there will be no boundaries. We will be one forever with Christ. But we are not one down here, as far as race is concerned and as far as nations are concerned. God said so, and Paul made it clear when he preached at Athens in the midst of Athenian culture. He said that God “…hath made of one blood all nations of men…” But God has also done something else. He has fixed the bounds of their habitations. (“Is Segregation Scriptural? A Radio Address from Bob Jones on Easter of 1960”)
In 1964, co-founder and first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Rev. Morton H. Smith, wrote a hearty defense of segregation in The Presbyterian Guardian during the height of the Civil Rights movement. He also fully acknowledges the truth of the passages under discussion, but likewise argued that they said little to dissolving social distinctions—in fact, they further supported such segregation and disenfranchisement.
Paul is very clear about this unity of all in the gospel. The Gentiles have been brought into the same body as the Jews (cp. Eph. 2:11-22; Gal. 3 :28; Col. 3: 11). Galatians 3:28 reads: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye are all one man in Christ Jesus.” Paul is speaking of the essential spiritual unity that we all have in Christ Jesus, and yet it can hardly be maintained that he meant to imply that there were no longer any distinctions or differences within the church. The Christian faith does not demand the erasure of all diversity between men. Rather, it teaches a unity in diversity and a diversity in unity. […] Paul’s doctrine of the unity of the church should not be construed as teaching that the church should forget or erase the God-given distinctions. Rather, she should recognize them and develop them in their particular gifts.
For Smith, segregation should be continued as it is simply a continuation of the Biblical pattern. All that unity in Christ means is that we ought to love our black brothers as individuals and seek their individual, yet separate, good:
No court or church can legislate our feelings toward our fellow man. Only as we receive the gift of love planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will we be able to love our neighbor as we ought, whatever the cultural pattern. May God grant us each a growth in grace and love, so that we each may manifest this love to our fellowman, unto the glory of our God. (“The Racial Problem Facing America,” pp. 126-127, 128)
The fact of the matter is, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 have been true of the Church in every generation from the moment of their writing. They are not only true of the Church in 2019, but were true of the Church when the first African slaves were purchased in Virginia in 1619; they were true when chattel slavery was defined, legally included only those of African descent, was made generational by condition of the mother, and baptism was determined to not grant freedom, all by 1719; they were true of the Church in 1819 when hundreds of thousands of African Americans were baptized believers, yet were nevertheless chained as brutes by Christian masters, bought and sold like cattle, beaten and abused, and barred from the benefits of the Communion of Saints; they were true when Jim Crow reigned in the South in 1919 and de facto Jim Crow reigned in the North, both systems defended by the majority of the Church who also believed there was “not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
I ask then, did African slaves have the right to agitate for justice in the Church, to seek the God-given rights withheld based on skin color? Did the disenfranchised, lynched, and marginalized black Americans during Jim Crow have the right to agitate for justice in the Church when they were forced into ghettos and segregated in the Body? Was it Biblical to simply tell them, “Quit complaining, we are all one in Christ and we love you as brothers; don’t you know there is no difference in Christ between white and black?” To be sure, both master and slave, oppressor and oppressed, were one in Christ if they were both believers, right? Did this then rightly preclude black Christians from seeking racial and ethnic justice? I sure hope we can agree it did not.
So, I conclude, if these passages were true of the Church in the slave societies of the Antebellum and the segregated societies of North and South, yet we nevertheless all agree that advocacy for racial justice was fully legitimate at the time, then the real question is not whether we are spiritually one in Christ according to the passages, but what has changed to cause many to think there is no longer righteous justification for such advocacy? Why is it now divisive to do what was then righteous?
What I am getting at is that these passages really have nothing to do with opposing the current movement toward racial and ethnic reconciliation; that is, nothing to do with opposing the “woke movement” that James White and others speak of. The truth is these opponents simply believe, based upon their own interpretation of sociological and economic data, personal experience, and political commitments, that there are no widespread current racial injustices to be addressed. These passages are just being exploited to grant a veneer of Biblicism to their own sociological views on the state of American society and churches.
For example, if race-based chattel slavery was still widespread in America, would these same men say to African Americans, “Quit playing the victim and causing division in the Church; there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all”? If black and white Americans were still barred from sharing the same sanctuary in the local church, would these same men say, “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, so quit bringing your complaints about race into the Church.”
I pray they would not. So why say that now? The passages are not more or less true of the Church in 2019 then they were for the last 400 years, though countless racial evils were rightly addressed. It can only be that these opponents of racial justice simply believe, for non-Biblical reasons, that there is little racial injustice to oppose.
So, I ask, please just make the sociological case, if you can, and quit pretending that these passages can be used to preemptively shut down the conversation, grant “exegetical” authority to your sociological opinions, or claim justice advocates are the source of these hundreds of years of racial division.
For a Biblical application of Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11, please see “What Does ‘Jew & Gentile’ Have to do With ‘Black & White’? : A Clarification” and “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 5. ‘Color-Blind Theology’.” Please do take a look at these articles before commenting that I have not considered the passages in their historical context, as James White and others have recently suggested. I have, at length.