There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (ESV)

Photo by  Jesse757. Used in accordance with Creative Commons.
Photo by Jesse757. Used in accordance with Creative Commons.

I’ve personally had conversations with believers who are proponents of multi-ethnic churches. I’ve also read a number of church growth books whose authors come from multi-ethnic churches. They provide good and sound reasons for the existence of churches that are multi-ethnic. I applaud and support them. Multi-ethnic churches are a great expression of God’s kingdom and I’m so encouraged when I see that churches like this are growing and having an impact.

However, my encouragement turns into angst when I hear many of the same people start to condemn ethnic-specific ministries. I hear words like unbiblical, idolatry, and even disobedient (perhaps I will respond to each of these accusations in future posts) when they claim, explicitly or implicitly, that the multi-ethnic model is superior to the ethnic-specific model.

One of the Bible passages that these well-meaning folks usually cite is Galatians 3:28. The aim of this post is to respond to the usage of this verse in condemning ethnic-specific ministries.

Here are three reasons that Galatians 3:28 is a poor reason to put down the ethnic-specific model:

This verse cannot be divorced from the context that Paul is writing in. The Galatian believers were in a crisis. There were Jewish believers who were coming in and demanding that the Gentile believers undergo circumcision in order to be saved. In other words, they wanted them to become Jewish first. Paul addresses this in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. One shouldn’t have to become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus. (see D.A. Carson’s blog on Galatians)As the Jews looked down on the Gentiles, Galatians 3:28 addresses the issue of superiority/inferiority. What Paul is writing is that there is no distinction of class or status in God’s eyes–all have the same offer of salvation.
Furthermore, some Jews often prayed a daily blessing: “Blessed be God that He did not make me a Gentile; blessed be God that He did not make me ignorant [or a slave]; blessed be God that He did not make me a woman.” (Tosefta Berakoth 7:18, Scott McKnight, NIV Application Commentary, Galatians, p.200) Paul seems to write this verse to fittingly reverse this understanding of demeaning certain groups of people.
Here, what Paul is writing about is salvation, not churches. This passage informs soteriology, not ecclesiology. Paul is making sure that the Jewish believers recognize that the Gentile believers were indeed one with them in Christ. While I can’t speak for everyone in ethnic-specific ministries, I suspect that most believers in these contexts would never say that others would have to become [insert ethnicity] in order to become saved. In the same way, I hope that I do not have to become white American in order to be saved and to worship Jesus Christ.

Gender-specific ministries.
Why is an ethnic-specific ministry looked down upon, yet there doesn’t seem to have the same finger-wagging with gender-specific ministries? After all, Galatians 3:28 says “there is no male and female” right
If we are going to be consistent, we have to condemn gender-specific groups too. We’d have to say things like “Your men’s accountability group is sheer disobedience.  Your women’s prayer meeting is absolutely unbiblical.”
But that would be absurd. We recognize that there is a place for gender-specific ministries. We already know that shared experiences bring fellowship, contextualization, and accountability. That’s why ethnic-specific ministries exist too.

The distinction between The Church and a church.
When Paul writes, “you are all one in Christ Jesus,” this is a message about the entire Body of Christ, the Church at large. Paul is saying that in God’s eyes, all have the same opportunity to become part of this Body. You don’t have to become Jewish, or become male, or become a freed man in order to be saved.
I think we often take what is meant for The Body, The Church, and we try to apply it to a small, local, body. Aside from this being impractical and impossible for a local body to reflect, that’s not the purpose of what Paul is writing. Paul is writing that all are one together.  There is no command for every local body to be multi-ethnic, multi-gender, or multi-class. In fact, there is no command in Galatians 3:28 at all. It is simply a statement of who is offered salvation.

I’m so grateful for Galatians 3:28. As a Gentile, I am confident that I do not have to change my ethnicity in order to become an heir to God’s kingdom. As I look at this verse in its context, I thank God that I am included in this promise.

What about you? How have you seen Galatians 3:28? Any thoughts about the use of this passage in discussing church models?

Related Posts:
“Your Church Isn’t Biblical”
Why ethnic-specific ministries exist in America, Part 1.
MEMA: “Multi-Ethnic, Mostly Asian.”