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Published Date: September 28, 2022

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The Egalitarian Basis of Galatians 3:28: Unity Over Idolatrous Distinctions

We have long recognized the egalitarianism of Galatians. Paul was concerned that requiring Jewish ethnic practices (like circumcision) for full membership in the church would divide Christians, assert Jewish privilege over Gentiles, and enslave both under spiritual powers. While we may understand the place of Galatians 3:28 in Paul’s argument, it’s harder to recognize its scriptural basis and the underlying theological framework. In short, Paul bases his egalitarianism on Christ’s death and resurrection, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the nature of God. Let’s take a closer look.

Understanding the Spiritual Powers

Biblically, inequality begins in idolatry. We worship aspects of creation—particularly those that order our world and mark distinctions in creation’s diversity. God creates sun, moon, and stars to order the days, seasons, and years (Gen. 1:1618), and we worship them (Deut. 4:19). God creates animals (Gen. 1:20–26); we worship them (Rom. 1:23). In the process, we become less like God and more like idols (Ps. 115:8).

Simultaneously, idolators view others in terms of idolatry. People who idolize the wealth from crops of the ordered seasons enslave other races for work. The idolators objectify them, treating them as less than God’s image. Men who idolize sex or masculinity objectify women in those terms, treating them as subordinate and less than God’s image. The result is privileged-oppressed behavior patterns that objectify, exploit, and diminish God’s image. Both the privileged and oppressed are imprisoned by the spiritual forces behind idolatry. Paul identifies these forces, in part, as “powers” (Rom. 8:38; Eph. 6:12). Like the “demons” behind idols (1 Cor. 10:19–21), spiritual powers were closely connected to nations (Dan. 10:20–21), governments (1 Cor. 2:8; Col. 1:16), and even churches (Rev. 1:20).

One term Paul uses for these ordering powers is stoicheia or “elements.” In Colossians 2:8–18 Paul warns the church to not be taken captive by traditions and “elements,” but be aligned with Christ who defeated the powers in his death. As in Galatians Paul dissuades the Colossians against circumcision and Jewish ritual practices such as food and sabbaths. In Galatians 4:3–10 he mentions the “elements,” identifying them as aspects of pagan idolatry that held Gentiles in bondage, and from which Christ has freed them. In doing so Paul again identifies aspects of Jewish law as “elements,” citing the observance of dates and seasons. This follows his connecting angels and the Law (Gal. 3:19; see also Deut. 33:2; Acts 7:53), saying the law confined Jews under bondage (3:19–25).

So in both Galatians and Colossians Paul likens religious practice under the law to pagan idolatry: both were characterized by bondage to spiritual powers.

No Longer Ruled by Law, Sin, and Spiritual Powers

The problem was sin, not the law (Rom. 7:5–7). The same corruption was at work with other aspects of God’s creation. In biblical teaching sin corrupts humanity, establishing solidarities or allegiances along creation’s orders and distinctions. Paul uses the term “flesh” to denote this corruption-solidarity. In neutral terms “flesh” can signify solidarities like marriage (1 Cor. 6:16), kin-groups (Rom. 9:3), and humanity (Gen. 6:12), and it’s often synonymous with “body” (1 Cor. 6:15–19). Paul says participation in Christ’s death strips believers of “fleshly” solidarities—essentially dying to them and the ordered distinctions on which they are based. For example, Paul says marriage’s “one flesh” ends at death (Rom. 7:2–3). Similarly, the Law’s jurisdiction ends at death (Gal. 2:19–20; Rom. 7:1–9).

In Colossians 2:20 Paul tells Gentiles they’ve died with Christ to the “elements.” He expresses this idea in terms of being baptized into Christ or his death (Rom. 6:3–5; Col. 2:12), stripping off the “old self” (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), and removing the “flesh” (Col. 2:11). But while death in Christ breaks old solidarities, participation in Christ’s resurrection creates a new solidarity in him, energized by the Spirit. Paul refers to this as putting on Christ (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 13:14) or putting on the “new self” (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:10).

Distinctions and solidarities aren’t eliminated in Christ; they’re just no longer bases for inequality. Believers are one in Christ.

Dying to Divisions and Solidarities

Some in the Galatian church were mandating circumcision for full church membership. Paul responds by noting the law’s intent to confine until God fulfilled his promise to bless Gentiles. Paul argues such mandates divide the church along ethnic lines and assert Jewish privilege over Gentiles, bringing them back under powers. “Promise” appears nine times in Galatians 3, starting with verse 14, which identifies “the promised Spirit.” In Acts 2 the promised Spirit poured out on Jesus’s Jewish disciples, fulfilling Joel 2:28–29:

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people [literally “flesh”]. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Then in Acts 10:44–47 the Spirit comes upon Gentiles. In Galatians 3:27–28 Paul reminds Gentiles that they received the promised Spirit, noting,

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul is referencing Joel 2:28–29. Both passages concern receiving the Spirit. Instead of “all flesh” (which includes both Jew and Gentile), Paul makes the distinction explicit. Why didn’t Paul include “all flesh” (pasa sarx) with Galatians 3:28? There are two reasons:

  1. “All flesh” is a boarder designation than just “Jew and Greek,” the latter of which is his primary focus.
  2. Paul has already noted “all flesh” in Galatians 2:16. There, Paul references Psalm 143:2, but it is a free quotation, not exactly conforming to either the Hebrew or the Greek translation. Instead of pas zon (“living being”), he writes pasa sarx (cf. Rom. 3:9, 20 for the same quotation in similar context). Again, the equal justification of Jew and Greek is Paul’s focus.

He similarly includes the references to men and women, slave and free—the free being implicit in Joel. Note Paul’s language: “baptized into Christ” and “clothed . . . with Christ.” It’s the language of dying to solidarities of the “flesh” and living in the solidarity of Christ, energized by the Spirit (Gal. 3:3). Jew, Gentile, slave, free, man, and woman are one in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul writes,

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Paul noted the varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, Lord, and God, as many members but one body with one Spirit, in which there should be no division. He says all are baptized into one body with one Spirit, whether Jew, Gentile, slave, or free. It’s the same argument in Galatians; again, Paul’s thinking of Joel 2:28–29. We can see the pattern emerging: participation in Christ’s death and resurrection takes off old solidarities of “flesh” and puts on the new solidarity of Christ, energized by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11–13). The pattern appears in Colossians:

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (3:9–11)

Again, Paul says they’ve died to solidarities. He’s already noted their death and resurrection in Christ (Col. 2:12–20; 3:1–3). They’ve stripped off the old and put on the new (2:11). As in Galatians, there are now no distinctions. They’re bound in unity with Christ’s one body (2:19; 3:14–15). The pattern is the same even if some particulars are stressed more and distinctions vary: death and resurrection in Christ followed by new unified solidarity, including victory over the powers, which consist of “elements” and ethnic rituals (2:8, 11–23). References to male and female are absent here in Colossians, but barbarian and Scythian are included. Since Paul was an apostle to Gentiles (Rom. 11:13) his variations on the “all flesh” of Joel 2:28 make sense. Still, the pattern reveals the principle whose parts varied depending upon the situation.

Additionally, in Romans 13:14 Paul tells the church to put on Christ and make no provision for the flesh. He then reprimands their disunity over kosher diets, noting no food is truly unclean. He makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 and 10:23–26, arguing that because there’s one Lord God who created everything, all foods are clean. Peter’s vision of “unclean” animals proved God’s impartiality (Acts 10:34). Deuteronomy 10:17 bases justice on God’s impartiality; therefore, his image-bearers should be impartial (Deut. 1:17). Paul’s point about one Lord God references Deuteronomy 6:4 that the Lord God is one, in which Paul now includes Jesus, with one Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9.

In these focused passages, Christian unity is based on God’s unity: one Lord, one body, one Christ, one Spirit, one God. God is one and the God of all races, classes, and sexes. Impartiality, unity, and equality flow from the oneness of God; so should it be for us as God’s image-bearers.

Conclusion

From all of this, we see how Paul conceptualized his egalitarianism. He understood the source of inequality: worshipping distinctions as idols and creating solidarities that privilege and oppress. His solution is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to idols and powers, shedding old solidarities, and putting on the new solidarity of Christ. We become part of one unified body, for one crucified-resurrected Lord, by one poured out Spirit, all accomplished by one creator God. This is the thinking that undergirds Galatians 3:28. Properly understood, it is a fundamental principle of biblical egalitarianism.

Photo by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash.


Related Reading

What Does Galatians 3:28 Actually Teach?
Hanging Onto Galatians 3:28
Galatians 3:28

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