by Dale Waters

The Bible presents a wonderful picture of Jesus saving people from every tribe, tongue, and nation and bringing them into union with Him. This reality has been obscured throughout history by men who have used false or irrelevant categories to enforce divisions between Christ’s people. Inevitably, this leads to crass prooftexting, both on the part of the schismatics and well-meaning reactionaries. The result is pitting scripture against scripture, as though one verse or passage can challenge or undo another.

In this way, Galatians 3:28 is often put contra Colossians 3:11 in modern discussions on race in the church. When one Christian notes that Colossians seems to be saying that racial, ethnic, and cultural distinctions are done away with in Christ, another believer retorts that this cannot be, since Galatians 3 says that there is no male and female, which is obviously and rightfully not true. This response is a textbook example of terrible hermeneutics and abuse of scripture. On the surface, we cannot say that a passage can’t mean what it seems to because another seems to say otherwise; all this asserts is an apparent contradiction, and there is no reason why either passage must come out on top. We must let God speak as He actually has, allowing each passage to express its own point in context and trusting that God won’t contradict Himself.

For these particular passages, the lack of tension is clear when each is allowed to speak freely in its context. While both texts use similar words and imagery, their points are profoundly separate. Colossians is dealing with the superiority of Christ and His work in the believer. The Christian is exhorted to cease from sin because it is no longer in his nature; he is a new man renewed to the image of Christ. No longer one of the sons of disobedience, the elect of God find themselves having cast off the old man and put on the new, in which there is no distinction between Greek, Jew, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free. The point here is clear: the Christian is now identified with Christ, not the ethnic, political, and spiritual categories of the day—he is a new kind of man in Christ, and he is part of one body who is at peace with Christ and with itself, regardless of what the members once were. Just as an American values freedom and lives in a certain way in light of that, a Christian values Christ and lives in light of Him. Just as Indian, British, and Japanese people have unique social norms and interactions, Christian husbands, wives, children, parents, slaves, and masters live differently in light of their new identity in Christ.

Conversely, Galatians 3 is dealing with a different issue. Here, Paul is explaining the different paths that Jews and Gentiles have taken to Christ, with Jews being enslaved by the law and Gentiles enslaved by false gods. Despite these historical differences, all who put their faith in Jesus are heirs of Abraham, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, or male or female. The fact that Paul pairs these categories helps to emphasize his point: if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise. Normally, Gentiles aren’t the seed of Abraham. Normally, slaves and females aren’t heirs. However, in Christ, these norms don’t apply. Just as God didn’t care whether Isaac or Jacob were the firstborn, He doesn’t care whether Christians are in the traditional categories to be heirs; they are all one in Christ Jesus.

Contextually, it is evident that Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28 are not making the same point, or even the same kind of point, even though some of the words are similar. Colossians is talking about the Christian’s newness in Christ over and against their sinful past and old identifiers, while Galatians is allowing all who have faith to qualify as heirs. The categories in Colossians are declared either arbitrary or fluid in light of Christ, totally irrelevant beyond practical effects (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24). The categories in Galatians are contrasted with their opposites to make a point.

Christian, Christ’s people are your people. Your height, weight, age, class, education, race, ethnicity, culture, intelligence, past sins, handedness, hobbies, and many other characteristics do play a part in, constrain, and guide how you can live for Jesus. These things affect how others will see and treat you and will produce a set of opportunities unique to you. However, we cannot let any of these things, whether gifts from God or effects of sin, define us in any way that detracts from our sole source of identity and unity in Christ. We have nothing to do with unbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:14-18, Romans 5:17-19); they are not our people, no matter what arbitrary category we may share with them.

Paul lamented his brethren the Jews, but ultimately, he grieved because they were not his people, but merely his kinsmen according to the flesh, as not all Israel is Israel (Romans 9:1-9+). Paul loved his kinsmen according to the flesh even though they hated him and his Messiah Jesus, but he knew his people were the people of the promise. Paul knew he was a Christian, not a Jew or Gentile (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Galatians 1:13-14). He was aware of his personal history and shared history with others, but his references to this were ultimately for the purpose of declaring such things over and past (Philippians 3:2-21, Galatians 2:15+).

I am deeply saddened by the racial, ethnic, and cultural divides among Christ’s people. I am too jaded at this point to believe the driving force is just well-intentioned yet poor quality exegesis. However, sometimes, that’s exactly the issue. So, for those who love Jesus and desire to take every thought captive to Him, I want to encourage (and hopefully exemplify) careful and honest interaction with the scriptures the Holy Spirit has inspired. Where God gives clarity, we should find clarity and rejoice in it. Where God does not give clarity, He gives us His Spirit and wisdom, and we should rejoice there as well. Jesus brings treasures that are worth searching for. Growing in the knowledge of Him and what He has done for us, whatever that may be, is always worth it. May our hearts be encouraged, held together in love unto the wealth of assurance and understanding of our savior, Lord, and brother Jesus Christ.