Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 do NOT Preclude Justice Advocacy

Dude reading Bible

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.

8 thoughts on “Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 do NOT Preclude Justice Advocacy

  1. stephen matlock February 25, 2019 / 1:46 pm

    I read a few blogs here and there, and various resources. These verses are used liberally (no pun intended) to support the idea that there is no such thing as racism and that the church has no business talking about racism. These verses are used to support the idea that chattel slavery of black Africans is right and good in the eyes of God, and to support race freedom is to go against God. These verses are used to support the idea that because Christians are one in Christ and equal in Christ, that we should unite in fighting racism and race-related class or social distinctions…

    What I see is that “biblical scholars” (they all say they are just scholars of the Bible”) bring into the text what they want to see, and then exegete, as you say, a theology to fit their pre-determined views.

    This makes it hard to discern wheat from chaff. But it doesn’t mean I just don’t even try.

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  2. timbushong February 27, 2019 / 7:02 am

    I read your response, and you’re arguing against something that Dr. White is not proposing. He is saying that race distinctions shouldn’t be definitional for Christians; that they should and can be recognized and even celebrated, but not at the point of dividing along ethnic lines within the one body of Christ.

    The opposition isn’t to reconciliation per se; it is to the “woke” version that employs sub-and extra-biblical categories of adjudication.

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    • Brad Mason February 27, 2019 / 10:28 am

      Hello brother, thank you for responding. I first want to point out that the target of this piece is much wider than James White; he just often serves as a good example.

      The point of my argument is very simple. Would James White have opposed the abolitionist movement during the Antebellum based upon these passages? Would he have opposed the integrationist movement during Jim Crow based upon these passages? If not, then what has changed? The passages were true of the Church, of both master and slave in the Church, then as much as they are now. So what made the abolition movement and integration movement justifiable yet the “woke movement” divisive and unjustifiable? It can’t be a change in the truth of the passages, so it must be based upon the view that society has changed and does not now justify the movement. But that is clearly a sociological claim, not a Biblical claim. So, if you want to oppose the so-called “woke movement,” then make the sociological case. Don’t use Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11 to claim the modern movement is “divisive” (precisely how enslavers and segregationists of the past used the passages).

      Thank you again!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Remus February 27, 2019 / 7:10 am

    I do fear you greatly miss the point, sir. (I am tempted to say “points”, for there are several you miss, but I’ll limit myself to one.)

    African American slaves or those segregated under unrighteous law would not have the right or moral high ground to rebel against the establishment *based on critical theory and modern SJ rhetoric*. (This is sort of the whole point of the SSJ, White’s Col. 3 comments, and the G3 pre-conference.) They would have all the grounds in the world to protest against abuses (1) on Biblical grounds, rooted firmly in God’s law and gospel, and (2) in a manner adorning the gospel with grace and truth.

    To say that White and others “exploit” passages like Col. 3 to “grant a veneer of Biblicism to their own sociological views”, and then to assert that there is no consistent reason for them not to agree with past defenders of slavery/segregation, is to miss their point utterly and completely.

    For are there Biblical reasons to reject slavery/segregation? Of course, but doesn’t that mean White can point to Col. 3, offer his above interpretation, and then also turn to these anti-slavery/segregation passages to rebut those who would agree on Col. 3 yet promote slavery/segregation? In no way, shape or form does this mean that a slaveholder’s interpretation of Col. 3 is necessarily *false*—rather, their application of it and connection to other passages is incorrect.

    The proper thing to do would be to add an updated section explaining in greater detail why this is not the case, or else to retract the article. : )

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    • Brad Mason February 27, 2019 / 10:29 am

      Hello brother, thank you for responding. I first want to point out that the target of this piece is much wider than James White; he just often serves as a good example.
      The point of my argument is very simple. Would James White have opposed the abolitionist movement during the Antebellum based upon these passages? Would he have opposed the integrationist movement during Jim Crow based upon these passages? If not, then what has changed? The passages were true of the Church, of both master and slave in the Church, then as much as they are now. So what made the abolition movement and integration movement justifiable yet the “woke movement” divisive and unjustifiable? It can’t be a change in the truth of the passages, so it must be based upon the view that society has changed and does not now justify the movement. But that is clearly a sociological claim, not a Biblical claim. So, if you want to oppose the so-called “woke movement,” then make the sociological case. Don’t use Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11 to claim the modern movement is “divisive” (precisely how enslavers and segregationists of the past used the passages).

      Also, there are links at the end of the article that address the interpretation of the passages directly, which was not my point in this piece.

      Thank you for reading and responding!

      Like

      • Michael Remus February 27, 2019 / 6:41 pm

        Thanks for responding. However, your comment does not address my concerns raised above. Furthermore, you’ve arrived at the conclusion you have because you’ve unfortunately reduced the argument to too simple a dichotomy.

        “So what made the abolition movement and integration movement justifiable yet the ‘woke movement’ divisive and unjustifiable? It can’t be a change in the truth of the passages, so it must be based upon the view that society has changed and does not now justify the movement.” But a third option presents itself—that the Woke are using un-Scriptural lenses through which to filter life’s asymmetricalities and end up with un-Scriptural conclusions. The Woke Movement is divisive and unjustifiable, not because of biblical/societal evolution, but because the Woke Movement insists on defining things precisely the wrong way (i.e. departing from sound Scriptural categories). And what’s astounding is that the only way of determining if this third option is correct—weighing the Woke’s categories of thought against Scripture—is being eschewed by the Woke in favour of sociological analysis.

        “But that is clearly a sociological claim, not a Biblical claim. So, if you want to oppose the so-called ‘woke movement,’ then make the sociological case. Don’t use Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11 to claim the modern movement is ‘divisive’…” It is a sad day when we are actively encouraged *not* to use Scripture to determine the bounds and proper categories of divisiveness! What authority should we use, then? How should we ground political activism? In “sociological claims”?—based on what method of interpretation of the facts?

        If methods can be divisive contra Col. 3, then wouldn’t any sociological claim (apart from a simple reporting of brute facts) necessarily be at its core theological? If the Woke have arrived at certain conclusions based on a particular ethical calculus, and Scripture points to such conclusions as divisive—namely, categories of thought that turn Col. 3 on its head—then it is entirely reasonable to reject the calculus, categories and all. “Sociology vs theology” is a false dichotomy.

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      • Brad Mason February 27, 2019 / 8:13 pm

        To be clear, I don’t make such a distinction. It is James White and others who claim that folks like myself are using sociology while they are using “exegesis.” My point is that his claim is an application of his exegesis based upon his sociological opinion that there is a difference between the needs for justice in the past vs. the need now. The whole point of the piece is to show that his position is as much a sociological opinion as anyone else’s. He cannot claim he is just doing exegesis while his opponents are using secular sociology.

        Col. 3:11 was true during slavery and Jim Crow, the abolitionist movement and the integrationist movement were justified while Col. 3:11 was true of the Church, so whet has changed? The proper exegesis hasn’t, nor the truth of the passages.

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  4. stephen matlock February 28, 2019 / 4:58 am

    For me, a key part of my understanding this infidelity to the Scriptures while maintaining a belief that it is Biblical is to read more widely from scholars who do not come from the white protestant tradition. It is eye-opening to turn the Bible upside down, from a book that’s designed for obedience to the Empire (the state of white superiority, which does exist) to a book that’s designed to be a road map for freedom and revolution. (I’ll leave it to the humors of the reader to decide if ‘revolution’ is a scary word or if it is an inspiring word. We always bring our baggage on our journeys.)

    Perhaps the Bible is interpreted wrongly when it is used to bless and explain unjust social systems as being “of God’s will.”

    My reading of my own faith tradition’s fathers (I’m largely shaped by the Reformed tradition) is to see obvious and blatant and *Christian* explanations on why the enslavement *of my black brothers and sisters* and their current exploitation and dehumanization is blessed by our common God. “This isn’t injustice or amorality. This is the Bible bringing true freedom by blessing existing stratified power systems.” It was true in the scholars of the 1700s and 1800s (and some 1900s), and it is true in the scholars of today who see the threat of social justice as upturning the favored status of compliant Christianity to a superior state.

    Reading more widely has helped me to see that this is not the only theological grid to define the nature and work of God by. A “social justice gospel” isn’t a gospel with extra parts on it, like a Christmas tree decorated with ornamental glass bulbs and lights. Perhaps the gospel *is* revolutionary not just for the invisible, unseen spiritual nature of a man but also the seen, felt, and experienced world that man lives in.

    I dunno. I’m only a layman. I just read and listen and try to understand.

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