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A Time When Christian Baptism Undermined Racism

Posted February 26, 2021
Ethics and CultureRacism
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As part of his daily prayers, a typical first-century Jewish man began by thanking God for not making him a Gentile, a slave–and finally–for not making him a woman. In a fallen world, we are socially conditioned by messages about who’s important and who’s not, who’s precious and who’s expendable, who should be in and who should be out. Race, class, and gender are the fault lines of sinful disparity and division that pass from the world right into the church.

When the Judaizers infiltrated the churches of Galatia, they brought these attitudes with them. Looking to their Jewish ethnicity, cultural, and ceremonial trappings to guarantee their acceptance with God, they treated Gentile Christians as culturally inferior and pressured them to assimilate in order to really belong among God’s people. It was against this backdrop that Paul penned Galatians 3:27—29:

For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

1. All Christians have equal status, access, and inheritance.

We know from 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Colossians 3:11 that when he wrote Galatians 3:28, Paul was almost certainly quoting an ancient baptismal formula. As believers prepared to enter life in the community of faith, the Lord gave them a reorientation that challenged their previous thinking. Jews, who were used to being preeminent among the people of God, confessed that there is “neither Jew nor Greek”–in other words, “It is Christ alone, not my race or culture, that affords my place in God’s house.”

Men who were used to having greater access and status in every other place in society confessed that “there is neither male nor female”–“It is Christ alone, not my gender, that affords my place in God’s house.” The wealthy who were accustomed to social and economic prominence confessed that “there is neither slave nor free”–“It is Christ alone, not my wealth, earthly citizenship, or political affiliation that affords my place in God’s house.”

We all need the same blood and the same empty tomb. In Christ, we all (regardless of race, class, or gender) have equal status, equal access, and an equal inheritance as coheirs in the household of God. As Martin Luther explained in his commentary on Galatians 3:28, “There is much disparity among men in the world, but there is no such disparity before God.”

2. Christian Baptism challenges the racist ideologies that have plagued American Christianity.

This liberating truth challenges the powerful and longstanding racial ideologies that have plagued American Christianity since the early seventeenth century. In her helpful book, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), Rebecca Goetz highlights the practical threat that Christian baptism posed to the racial caste system in colonial Virginia. Southern planters knew that if they baptized enslaved African and Native Americans, it would mean they had an equal standing with Anglo-Virginians as coheirs in Christ, a spiritual reality that undermined the ideology of black inferiority.

In response, the planters engineered the doctrine of hereditary heathenism, the idea that Africans and Native Americans could never really become Christians and so were not to be baptized. This was really a not-so-subtle form of legalism–in this instance, the belief that whiteness (rather than union with Christ) was what afforded special access to God’s household.

The planters who did baptize enslaved Africans worked hard to reformulate baptism (and the doctrine of adoption and union with Christ) in a way that could maintain the social disparities of the slave system. This began a long and tragic history of interpreting these doctrines in such a way that they could peacefully coexist with the entrenched racial, class, and gender disparities in America (Goetz, 170—73). Even today, our theologies of baptism and adoption in Christ have precious little to say about practical ways in which Christians across the race, class, and gender divides relate to one another.

But what would happen if we understood our baptism through the lens of Galatians 3:28 and applied it to race, class, and gender disparities in America? It could be a powerful force for dignity, liberation, and gospel witness. The Civil Rights icon Mary McLeod Bethune recalled the impact that Galatians 3:28 had on her sense of dignity and self-worth:

With these words the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in. My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps, dropped away: “Whosoever,” it said. No Jew nor Gentile… no black nor white; just “whosoever.” It meant that I, a humble Negro girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God.

(Quoted in J. K. Riches, Galatians through the Centuries, Blackwell Bible Commentaries [Malden: Blackwell, 2008], 209.)

In a society that historically asserted black inferiority, Galatians 3:28 told Mary Bethune that as a poor, black girl before God she had equal access, equal standing, and an equal inheritance as a coheir in Christ. Although the world treated her as a nobody, in Christ she saw herself as a somebody, a first-class citizen, an insider, equally accepted, equally beloved, equally received, and equally blessed. That gospel-grounded understanding of her place before God informed her perspective on all of life. Out of that gospel-grounded sense of dignity, Bethune went on to become a renowned educator, states-woman, humanitarian, and civil rights activist.

Adapted from Mika Edmondson, “One in Christ Jesus: An Exposition of Galatians 3:28,” Modern Reformation, Jul/Aug 2017. Used by permission.

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Mika Edmondson

Mika Edmondson serves as the lead teaching pastor of Koinonia, a cross-cultural church plant in the Bordeaux community of Northwest Nashville.