In Gal. 3:28, Paul states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[1] Christians often use this verse to support color-blindness in the church. As I’ve argued elsewhere, color-blindness basically claims that we should be racially neutral and look beyond one’s skin color. Advocates of Christian color-blindness espouse vague pities about why Christians should stop talking about race, move beyond race, and stop emphasizing the need for multi-ethnic churches and reconciliation, because (they say) race does not matter since Gal. 3:28 teaches that Christians are all one in Christ. They conclude because of this verse: “we’re just Christians, not black Christians or white Christians or Latino Christians or Asian Christians, etc., but just Christians.” In my view, however, to conclude that Gal. 3:28 affirms Christian color-blindness is a gross misinterpretation of this verse.

Galatians 3:28 in Context

Paul wrote Galatians to command the Christian (Gentile) assemblies of Galatia not to turn away from his law-free gospel in response to Jewish opponents who taught Gentile Christians in Galatia that they needed to get circumcised to become part of Abraham’s spiritual family (Gal. 1:1-6:18). After all, Paul’s Jewish opponents in Galatia had Gen. 17:1-14 on their side. It asserts those who want to be part of Abraham’s family had to become circumcised.

In light of God’s invasion of the present evil age in Christ (Gal. 1:4, 14-16), Paul, however, argues that observance of the Jewish law instead of faith alone in Jesus Christ and instead of Spirit-empowered obedience to the law of Jesus Christ (the law of love) would result in a curse and a failure to inherit the kingdom of God for all who reject Jesus and embrace the Jewish mark of circumcision (Gal. 1:8-9; 3:10-12; 5:2-6:10). Although the opponents were teaching that the Galatians only had to embrace circumcision to be granted access to God’s promises to Abraham (compare Gen. 17:1-14 with Gal. 2:3; 5:2-3), Paul suggested that the Galatians had to keep perfectly the entire law if they were trusting in the law instead of Christ (Gal. 5:2-3). However, he already argued in Gal. 3:10-12 that the law brings a curse to all because (an implicit point) no one can obey it to the fullest. But Jesus delivered Jews and Gentiles with faith in him from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). He distributes to all Jews and Gentiles with faith in him the Abrahamic blessing of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14).

In Gal. 3:15-4:7, Paul argues that the giving of the law did not break God’s original promise to Abraham. But God appointed the law “because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19). And it was a temporary guardian until the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, would come to fulfill the promise (see Gal. 3:16, 19). In Gal. 3:28, Paul clarifies that in Christ, neither social identities nor the social statuses deriving from them open up for the Galatians the pathway to the Abrahamic blessing by either excluding or including those with certain social identities, for Jewish and Gentile Christians are “all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). This oneness does not entail the obliteration of either social identities or social statuses in the assemblies of God, but rather their transformation in Christ. That is, Jesus by distributing the Spirit to Jews and Gentiles transforms the social identities and social statuses of those in Christ.

This point is evident by the Jewish and Gentile distinctions in Gal. 2:11-14 and by Paul’s argument throughout the letter that Gentile Galatians do not need to embrace Jewish Torah-works to become part of Abraham’s family (e.g. Gal. 2:1-5:12). Christ’s liberation of Jews and Gentiles from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13) and his universal distribution of the Spirit to Jews and Gentiles in Christ incorporate distinct social groups into the family of Abraham as they place faith in Christ and put him on via baptism (Gal. 3:26-27). There were still social distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, and male and female in first century Christian assemblies of Christ. Otherwise, Paul’s acknowledgment of these distinct groups in Gal. 3:28 would have had no rhetorical effect in a letter written to dissuade Gentiles from embracing the opponents’ gospel that focused on Gentile conversion to some form of Jewish identity.

Distinction But Not Status

Paul’s remarks are shocking in Gal. 3:28, not because he asserts ethnic and social distinctions no longer exist, but because he contends that they do not determine one’s status within the Abrahamic family (=kingdom of God). Paul’s re-calibration of the Hebrew Scriptures in Gal. 3:28 in light of the Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus affirms the opposite of what those Scriptures themselves say and of what Paul’s Jewish contemporaries would have said about Jewish and Gentile relations. Jews and Gentiles would have been socially alienated in certain ancient Jewish contexts because of idolatry (Wisdom of Solomon 14:11-29), a point that Paul affirms in Gal. 4:8-9. This does not mean, however, Jews and Gentiles avoided all social interaction because of the idolatry of the latter group. Those who espouse the latter point perpetuate erroneous myths about Jewish and Gentile relations in the ancient world.

In Jewish literature that either pre-dates or is contemporary with the New Testament, there are numerous examples of good Jew and Gentile relations in the ancient world. There are examples of Jews being granted special permission from Gentile civic leaders to practice Judaism in accordance with the law instead of continuing to serve in the military as Roman citizens because the Jews were friends and allies with the Roman empire (Josephus,  Antiquities. 14.223-67 [1st century AD]), examples of Jews serving as ambassadors on behalf of Jews to Rome and establishing an alliance with the empire (1 Maccabees 8:17-32 [2nd century BC]), examples of Jews offering sacrifices at the temple in honor of a Gentile emperor (Philo, Gaius 1.232 [1st century BC]), stories of Jews (Joseph of Tobias) rising to power within Gentile society (Josephus Antiquities 12.160-82), examples of Jews enjoying the best of Hellenistic education reserved for wealthy Gentiles (Philo), novels about Jews marrying Gentiles who convert to Judaism (Joseph and Aseneth [1st century BC or AD]), and examples of Gentiles serving as benefactors to Jews by sponsoring and overseeing a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for Greek speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt (Letter of Aristeas [2nd or 1st century BC]).[2] But Paul’s point in Gal 3:28 is that social distinctions neither include nor exclude one from Abraham’s spiritual family, but their acceptance or rejection of Abraham’s seed determines one’s status within Abraham’s family (Gal 3:28-29).

Paul conspicuously makes the above point in Gal. 3:29: “now if you are in Christ, then you are the seed of Abraham, namely, heirs according to the promise.” He again returns to the concept of promise (Gal. 3:14, 16, 18). Gentiles in Christ (and Jews in Christ) are part of the family of Abraham apart from circumcision and apart from Torah-works, because they put on Christ, the true seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), who (Jesus) delivered Jews and Gentiles from the present evil age and from the curse of the law (Gal. 1:4; 3:13-14). And Jesus endowed Jews and Gentiles with the promise of the Spirit, who is an emblem that all the promises to Abraham are realized in the fulfillment of the life giving promise of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14; 5:16-26). This point is sustained by Paul’s link of “promise” and “heirs” side-by-side, language from the Abrahamic narrative (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:16; 17:2-23; 18:18).

Conclusion

Gal. 3:28 does not support color-blind Christianity. Instead, it promises that regardless of what our social, ethnic, or racial identities are, if we are Christians, we are incorporated within the family of God; we will inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21), and we become part of the church of God. We’ve been freshly and newly created in Christ into a new Israel of God (Gal. 6:15-16), and the new Israel (=people of God) in Christ is filled with many distinct social and racial identities in Christ (Gal. 3:28). In Christ Jesus, our natural social identities are transformed by the Spirit and do not serve as the basis of our standing within God’s family. And they should not stand as the basis of division within the body of Christ, because the one God who unites us (Father, Son, and Spirit) is greater than our greatest social and racial distinctions. Christians, don’t be color-blind, but be transformed in Christ and pursue unity in Christ both with those who are like you and who are distinct from you. If you affirm Christian color-blindness, you will fail to live in in light of Gal. 3:28: “you are all one in Christ!”

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all translations of ancient texts are my own.
[2]For Jew and Gentiles relations in Diasporic Judaism, see Martin Hengel 1975; John Barclay 1995.

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams (PhD) is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is the author of numerous books and articles, Christ Died For Our Sins (Pickwick, 2015).
He regularly preaches and lectures throughout the country.