Equal Opportunity in Ancient Galatia

In our day, almost every organization formally prohibits harassment and discrimination against people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, economic status, or gender. We can acknowledge "protected category" statements like this as either good news or bad news. At first, protection from harassment and discrimination sounds like a good and noble thing. Yet, there is an implication that someone somewhere has actually harassed or discriminated against another person based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, economic status, or gender. The problem is frequent enough to warrant a sociopolitical solution. In this post, I evaluate whether protected categories are for victims of harassment and discrimination, or the perpetrators of it. In the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, this evaluation coincides with the theme of legalism. In other words, God lifted the curse of the Mosaic Law because he only intended to make people aware of the consequences of sin; it was never a fail-safe to keep evil deeds from happening (Gal. 3:10-14).

The "protected category" clause is not a new idea, but a contemporary solution to a very ancient problem. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul of Tarsus wrote, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This verse is comparable to the anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies we are accustomed to hearing in our time. Paul informed his first-century audience that God does not exclude anyone from salvation through Christ Jesus based on ethnicity, national origin, religion, socioeconomic status, or gender. As Paul wrote elsewhere, there is no favoritism with God (Rom. 2:11) because he made all human beings in his image (Gen. 1:27). So if God does not harass or discriminate against individuals, then whom was Paul addressing? Unfortunately, many people think they can justly harass or discriminate against others—even some who make God a mascot for their injustice. This was his audience.

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Equal Opportunity "in Christ"

As a Jewish man, Paul often heard a prayer common among Jews to this day: "Blessed are you for not having made me a gentile, a slave, or a woman." In fact, this invocation is present in the synagogue liturgy, in which the women respond to it by saying, "Thank you for making me what I am." While the Jewish tradition prioritized separation and distinction, Paul was promoting God’s new covenant based on unity and mutual respect. Jesus himself responded to a similar type of prayer he identified with the Pharisees, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . ." (Luke 18:11). Harassment and discrimination are not unique failures among the Jewish people, but common to all human beings anywhere and everywhere. The gospel message that Jesus and his servant Paul taught includes all humankind. It flies in the face of the conventional human desire to make oneself distinguished and superior. In the context of the supplication Paul originally meant to correct, Jewish rabbis historically believed God only presented the Law to Jewish men. In other words, they viewed their prayer not as discriminatory arrogance, but as grateful praise to God; he simply did not assign the Law to gentiles, slaves, or women. However, Paul scolded these Jewish men for assuming the Law to be a blessing when it was, in fact, a curse. In Galatians 3, the apostle expressed how Jesus removed the curse of the Law from all people—not just Jewish men—by accepting it on the cross. The shame of political execution symbolized the curse laid upon all of humankind.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote how no human being is righteous in God’s sight, that all have fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:10). Nonetheless, he was neither the first nor the only biblical author to proclaim humanity’s dreadfulness before God. Psalms 14 and 53 as well as Ecclesiastes all testify to this unfortunate reality (Pss. 14:3; 53:3; Ecc. 7:20, 28). In fact, the psalmist and the author of Ecclesiastes were Israelites, the predecessors to the Jewish people. They spoke of fellow Israelites as much as they did their pagan neighbors. Simply put, not even an Israelite/Jew under God's original covenant stood blameless in God’s sight. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul made it clear how God’s purpose behind the old covenant was his own, not something the Jewish people actually deserved. No human being that ever existed deserves God’s favor, but must seek absolution while admitting their unworthiness to receive it. The reason Paul addressed the "protected categories" to the Galatian church was because the Jews and their Judaizing companions believed mere mortals could impress God according to their own merits. God is not astonished whether someone is Jewish or Greek, slave or free, or male and female; he created or permitted those categories in the first place. If they excited God, it would because he approves of his own handiwork, not the self-righteous attitudes of a fallen humanity.

The main reason Paul composed his letter to the Galatians was to correct Judaizing, or the requirement for Christian gentiles to follow Jewish rites. However, his message applied to all Christians. To be sure, the Council of Jerusalem resolved the Judaizing schism that alienated pagan converts from the original Jewish followers of Christ around AD 50 (Acts 15:1-29). Paul had attended this meeting before writing Galatians and successfully debated in favor of the gentiles before James, brother to Jesus himself. Judaizers assumed that gentiles had to follow Jewish customs in the same way proselytes did. However, they incorrectly believed Jesus had come to vindicate Judaism in the eyes of the world, especially the Roman Empire. Instead, he came not to exonerate any religion, but to establish a divine kingdom in which all people could worship God in spirit and in truth. That does not mean Judaism was intrinsically wrong, but a mere vehicle of God’s will for a limited number of people for a specific duration. Even in the context of Paul’s letters, the Jewish followers of Jesus were still permitted to observe their ancient customs, but without requiring gentile converts to do so.

The context of Galatians 3:28 includes a number of immediate concerns for all Christians regardless of time or place. If the Judaizers wanted to maintain the status quo of ancient Israel, they had to emphasize the roles of Jewish men versus those of gentiles, slaves, and women. Paul opposed this view because he understood God's redemption as a gift for all people. However, this problem of harassment and discrimination based on a claim of divine favor persists. In many churches today, pastors claim that God either speaks only to/through men. Everyone else, to include unordained men and all women and children, must approach God through a male clergyman acting as mediator. Conversely, Paul's message to Galatia and to the church overall is that God's salvation is not just a spiritual reality, but a socioeconomic one as well. How can we, as Christians, invite all people to seek Jesus if we then follow up our invitation by categorizing them? Paul railed against the Galatians for their serious, double-minded attempts to do just that! I am sure if he were writing this same letter today as an email message, the whole thing would be in all caps—especially the "you foolish Galatians" part! It is utter foolishness to promise equal opportunity and then to delineate boundaries of the same. If anyone has supremacy in the teaching of Paul, it is Jesus alone.

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Acknowledging Differences "in Christ"

To be fair, even Christians cannot ignore differences between people. It is just as unfair to pretend cultural, ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic divisions do not exist as to prioritize them with ignorance. That is just another form of discrimination, mainly because it diminishes the actual hardships and struggles an individual may have experienced. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul never decried the existence of Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. In fact, these separations play a key role in his letters to other Mediterranean churches. In the first century, the Romans initially permitted their Judean subjects to practice their traditions. Even they understood how erasing someone's identity affects their psyche. Yes, there is such a thing as false equality. This happens when one attempts to dismiss actual differences between human beings with their own criteria. This person assumes their criteria are objective, but they really base them on their subjective values. This problem occurs frequently in missionary activities, in which even well-intentioned Christians impose cultural values on foreign proselytes. Likewise, Paul forbid his Jewish companions from imposing Jewish traditions on gentiles. He understood that much of Israel's customs were cultural expressions based on the interpretation of scripture rather than divine ruling.

When we read Galatians 3:28, we have the duty to understand Paul's message in the original context he intended. Sometimes, modern readers assume the "in Christ" clause allows for the removal of all ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and gender categories. What Paul meant is that God does not favor any of them, but each still plays a role within the church. As for ethnic, national, or religious differences, each can prove destructive as they are complementary. Christians from around the globe worship God in spirit and truth, each in their own musical and artistic offerings. Black churches remind us about God’s deliverance from slavery and oppression, as they have long adopted the Exodus narrative as their own history. The underground churches in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan give us a feel for how the early believers survived Roman persecution. Even religious differences allow us to reflect on common truths, whether God manifests himself to people outside of Christendom. Theologians have long perceived how Jewish tradition, Roman jurisprudence, and Greek philosophy have influenced the way Christians formulate doctrine. Even socioeconomic differences benefit Christians, as wealthy patrons can fund the existence of churches while those who survive with less demonstrate that happiness and success do not require material abundance. Gender reflects both the economic and social models of the God's tri-unity. Male and female expressions of God reflect the balance of authority, justice, love, compassion, freedom, and restraint. In summary, the church cannot abolish any of these human categories without limiting a revelation of God himself. This was what Paul intended by the "in Christ" clause in his letter to the Galatians.


Baptism into Equality "in Christ"

Biblical scholars generally consider Galatians 3:28 a first-century baptismal formula that Paul incorporated to make a point. If so, the notion that Jesus does not bar anyone from him based on human categories was required of the newly baptized. Right from the start, these believers learned how God's salvation is available to everyone. If baptism is a covenant, then Galatians 3:28 conveys how individual Christians accept God’s condition of equality and opportunity in order to receive salvation. Paul's "in Christ" clause implies that all believers have union with Jesus. To be one with Jesus is to transcend the material world with its arbitrary categories of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender. In fact, the baptismal covenant of Galatians 3:28 symbolizes a return to paradisal creation. Prior to the fateful decision of Adam and Eve to disobey God, there were no such barriers among humankind. They are truly a result of the curse, in which God sentenced Adam to hard labor and Eve to painful childbirth and subjugation. Because the resurrection of Jesus makes all things new, he reverses the curse of Adam and Eve in baptism. As a result, Christians identify themselves with Christ foremost, not by their race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, or gender.

Galatians is consistent with the message Paul sent to other churches, especially Rome. Thus, the baptismal formula of Galatians 3:28 derived from Paul’s view of justification. God does not consider anyone righteous according to his or her own merits, and definitely not his or her race, status, or gender. Justification happens through Jesus, whose righteousness covers the unrighteousness of humankind. Although race and ethnicity, race, and gender are natural categories, the unequal values that human beings attach make them sinful. Other categories such as nationality and socioeconomic status are arbitrary burdens that God never intended. Whether natural or unnatural, God loves all people and does not see them for their status, shameful or otherwise. The righteous are justified by faith through Jesus (Rom. 5:1), symbolized in baptism. Moreover, baptism is not a work on the part of human beings, but a covenant between God and his people.

In the whole of Galatians, Paul emphasized how God saves people by blessing them with faith. The Israelites and their Jewish successors trusted in the Law of Moses to save them from peril. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul indicated how the Jews disbelieved God because they assumed they could earn his favor through mere obedience. Oftentimes, we take Paul's words to mean the Law itself was insufficient in saving those God held to it. However, his argument in Romans is not about the Law's efficacy, but Israel's failure to accept God on his terms rather than their own (Rom. 9:30-32). This background encouraged Jewish men to thank God for not making them gentiles, slaves, or women. They assumed God issued his Law to them based on their own works, an entitlement by which to rule over gentiles, slaves, and women. Conversely, all human beings are capable of trusting God and do not require an intercessor or representative to do so. The baptismal covenant of Galatians 3:28 reflected this reality, that all people stand equal in God's sight.

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For some churches, it is convenient to restrict Galatians 3:28 to salvation only. There are simply no this-worldly implications on nationality, socioeconomic status, or gender. However, this interpretation relates to contemporary debates about gender roles that some churchgoers read anachronistically into the verse. Paul was not responding to the cultural effects of the women's liberation movement of the twentieth century, but to demographic schisms in the early church. Yes, the context of Galatians 3:28 really does relate to problems in this world that find resolution in that of God. While Paul wrote this verse with the idea of complementary groups within the church, he never mandated a hierarchy in Galatians. Modern complementarians—those who require strict male-female roles—make the same error as the Jewish men of whom Paul addressed. What an irony! In reality, no one can have equal access to salvation under an oppressor. God had to lead the Israelites from Egypt in order to save them. Likewise, he must lead people out from the bondage of sin, to include sins committed against them as much as their own. If someone is facing starvation, their hunger must be satisfied before abstract concepts like salvation merit discussion. Furthermore, the usage of terms like "cannot" and "now allowed" imply second-class citizenship. For example, the complementarian position that women must obey their husbands requires two different definitions of salvation and baptism. If God does not base salvation on works, but faith, then what are gender roles? Are they not works? Yet, Paul wrote that all are one in Christ Jesus. God expects the same faith from men and women, Jews and gentiles, free and oppressed.

The common thread between our world and that of Paul is a human one. From the beginning of time, there has always been a faction of people who declared themselves "more equal" than others. In the first-century church, the Jewish followers of Jesus believed they had the authority to enforce their customs on the gentile converts. In our time, Western missionaries require foreign converts and established Christians to accommodate their cultural traditions aside from religious ones. There are church leaders who enforce a very secular view of gender roles as an actual Christian doctrine, even to the point of dismissing the salvation of those who object. The missionaries emphasize ethnic, national, and racial boundaries with a colonial mindset, that Western Christianity is somehow superior to that of other parts of the world. The solution to all of these injustices is to say that all are one in Christ Jesus, the statement Paul made in the first place. The main reason so much ink is spilled over this one verse is because there still too many people among its target audience that try to dismiss it. To say that men have one set of requirements for salvation—headship—and for women to have another—submission—is to identify two paths of salvation. If God does not favor anyone, then one’s gender plays no role in how he or she relates to him.

Once someone asked Jesus to summarize the Law of Moses, he responded by saying the love of God and neighbor fulfill every commandment (Mark 12:29-31). The reason Paul had to write the letter to Galatia in the first place was that they refused to love. It is a default behavior among human beings to discriminate and harass in order to gain material benefits. In fact, the entire Bible includes stories of conquest, pride, and subjugation all claiming to have divine favor in doing so. To love God is to have union with him, which is only possible by also loving one’s neighbor. Galatians 3:28 does not include an exception clause or a loophole to determine the degree of humanity someone may have.


Beck, James R. Two Views on Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. The Epistle to the Galatians. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. London: Continuum, 1997.

New Revised Standard Version. New York: Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

Pate, C. Marvin. The End of the Age Has Come: The Theology of Paul. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Payne, Philip Barton. Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

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