For the Apostle Paul, the believer’s the status as “in Christ” makes all the previous social distinctions meaningless, including ethnic and social distinctions.After arguing the Gentile who has come to Christ in faith is not under the Law, he states they are all children of God and are “clothed in Christ” (Gal 3:26-27). He then makes the stunning proclamation that “all are one in Christ,” so there are no Jew or Gentile, no slave not free, no male nor female. Karin Neutel examined these three pairs in detail and concludes Paul is describing “ideal ways to live and to organize society” (16).
The first of the three pairs of relationships Paul mentions is ethnic (Jew nor Gentile), but most appropriate for the main theme of Galatians. If one is “in Christ,” it does not matter if one is born a Jew or a Gentile.
The reason these social distinctions no longer matter is that the one who is “in Christ” by faith is now the offspring Abraham. We are the same family, therefore ethnic and social distinctions no longer matter. The idea of family is important in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. The bonds between brothers were more important than the bonds of marriage – family always came first.
This means there is no point to conversion to Judaism, since there is no difference in Christ. This is potentially the most radical thing Paul has said so far in Galatians. For the agitators, and probably for James, the Gentiles are becoming part of Israel, so they are Jews, no longer Gentiles. Paul claims here that when one has “put on Christ” ethnic distinctions no longer matter. There is no longer an advantage to being Jewish, or a disadvantage to being Gentile (or, form a Gentile’s perspective, no disadvantage to being a Jew or advantage being a Roman). The only status which is significant in the age of the Spirit is being “in Christ.”
The second pair (slave nor free) breaks down one of the most important social distinctions in the ancient word, the distinction between between a free person and a slave. Sociologically, there would be no way a person who a free citizen of Rome (like Paul) would recognize a slave as an equal. In fact, a Roman who had a high status would not recognize a lowly servant at all. Yet here Paul declares that all who are “in Christ” are equal. This means at a shared meal, a free person would share food with their slave as equals. This should be extended by analogy to “rich and poor” (as it is in James), or Roman citizen or non-citizen. Whatever a society considers to be elite or utterly untouchable are now equal in the Body of Christ.
The third pair is perhaps the more surprising since virtually every culture would have made a distinction between male and female. It is possible women were considered second class in the Body of Christ since they could not fully keep the Law (the could not submit to circumcision as a sign of he covenant). Ben Witherington suggested the Galatian agitators may have required that a woman be married to a man who was properly keeping the Law in order to be considered a Christian (Witherington, Galatians, 279). Imagine a shared meal where a young gentile slave woman sat at the same table as a Roman freedman slave owner and shared food. These two people on the opposite ends of the social ladder are equal because their status of “in Christ” trumps any earthly status.
Like Jesus before him, Paul is creating a new family which transcends human family. The members of the churches at Galatia are part of a family now, the family of Abraham, and that new relationship in Christ is more important that earthly family distinction. That the body of Christ is a family is foundation for the argument Paul is making here. If we are in Christ we are a new creation, but we are also part of a new family, adopted by God and therefore responsible to that new family. The old family is left behind and only the new matters.
This is perhaps one of the most applicable passages in Galatians since so much of the American church is separated into social and racial groups.There are not many multi-racial churches, this is a oft-observed problem. But there are not very many churches which mix the wealthy and the poor either. Part of the problem is that wealthy Christians tend to build big churches where they live, not where the poor live. Perhaps the poor would be welcome, but we are not going out of our way to welcome them!
What are other implications for Paul’s vision of equality in the Body of Christ? Does this have something to say about who leads the church? Is this statement a “cosmopolitan ideal” (to use Neutel’s phrase) intended to reform all of society, or is it limited to the church itself?
Bibliography: Karin B. Neutel, A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul’s Declaration “Neither Jew nor Greek, Neither Slave nor Free, nor Male and Female” in the Context of First-Century Thought (LNTS 513; London; Bloomsbury, 2015), 16.