Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 has been cited to support sundry erroneous positions, but it is typically misinterpreted in one of two ways. The first is to misread Paul as if he’s saying all human distinctions are obliterated. The second is to underrealize the significance of what Paul is saying.
First, some people appeal to Galatians 3:28 to defend egalitarianism, transgenderism, comprehensive cultural assimilation, ethnic indifference, classless societies, and more. But those ideas are irrelevant to Paul’s point. The parity he’s advocating is with respect to salvation; it’s not a wholesale blurring of all human distinctions. In fact, certain distinctions were established at creation—such as between the Sabbath and ordinary days (Gen. 2:2–3; Ex. 16:22–26; Mark 7:19), between labor and rest (Gen. 2:15; 2 Thess. 3:10; James 5:4), and in gender roles (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:3–16). This reality informs the general abiding validity of the three categories Paul mentions: gender roles (male-female), socio-labor distinctions (slave-free), and ethnicity (Jew-Greek).
By virtue of our union with Christ, we are joint partakers of Christ’s benefits—no distinction, no superiority, no advantage over another.
Male-Female. The work of Christ doesn’t abrogate gender roles. There’s no contradiction, for example, between Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 5:22, since one concerns salvation while the other concerns gender roles in the home. Certain distinctions also endure in the church, such as the distinction that permits only qualified males to fulfill church offices (1 Tim. 2:12–15).
Slave-Free. Paul’s entreaty to Philemon assumes social and labor distinctions, yet he brings the gospel to bear on these differences, reminding Philemon that he and Onesimus were in a superior-inferior relationship, but they were first and foremost brothers united in a Savior (see also 1 Cor. 12:13).
Jew-Greek. Ethnicity and culture, though not creational institutions per se, are providentially ordered (see Acts 17:26). None of us chose our ethnicity or the culture into which we were born, yet Christ’s redemption doesn’t quash God’s providential wisdom.
From context and the analogy of Scripture, we know that Paul is not saying that all distinctions become naught. Nevertheless, there is an equal and opposite error, that of accentuating fleshly distinctions at the expense of Christian unity. In Galatians, Paul is less concerned with retaining differences than with expunging differences that disturb what Christ has accomplished (see 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). This is where redemptive history is important.
Before the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), there was a wall between Jews and gentiles (Eph. 2:14). Israel was chosen “above all peoples” (Deut. 10:15) as a “treasured possession” (7:6). The nations, however, were left to “walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). Christ inaugurated a kingdom that fulfilled the prophecies that God would make the nations His heritage (Ps. 2:8; 1 Kings 8:41–43). Even in His ministry, Christ delayed the full inclusion of the nations until His work was complete (Matt. 10:5; 15:24). Although it was foretold, this inclusion was shocking; hence the confusion in Acts regarding gentiles and circumcision (Acts 10–11; 15). This confusion permeated the churches in Galatia, where the Judaizers espoused circumcision as an additional instrument by which one is made a child of Abraham. But circumcision has been replaced by baptism—the sign and seal of union with Christ (Gal. 3:27). What, then, does it take to be united to Christ? What makes us a child of Abraham? It’s not ethnicity (Jew or gentile), circumcision (male or female), or social status (free or slave). Faith alone unites us to Abraham’s Seed (vv. 16, 22) and makes us sons (v. 26). By virtue of our union with Christ, we are joint partakers of Christ’s benefits—no distinction, no superiority, no advantage over another. If one believes in Christ, regardless of his sex, class, race, or age, he is—together with all other saints—in Christ Jesus and thus entitled to all the benefits that that union confers.
Union with Christ is of first importance, though certain distinctions persist. Faith is primary because it alone unites people—regardless of how different they may be externally—as joint “heirs according to promise” (v. 29). Any other human distinction in this life is comparatively negligible. Yes, even cultural distinctives, as beautiful as they might be, are trivial in comparison to the union God’s people share. It must follow, then, that Christians who hardly share any similarities in external relations enjoy a unity that infinitely surpasses any supposed unity based on such characteristics.
Distinctions in the church, so long as they aren’t divisive, are permitted, while partiality of any kind is not. To allow distinctions to disrupt fellowship among Christians is to rebuild the barrier that Christ tore down. When we regard Christians according to externals, when we regard one another according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16), we rebuild the barrier. May this never be said of us.
Aaron L. Garriott (@AaronGarriott) is production manager of Tabletalk magazine and a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla.