When I was a young Christian, I was led to believe that “worldly” identity and attachments were sinful and all that mattered was worshipping Jesus Christ “in spirit.” Taken to an extreme, the idea meant to me that cultural aspects of this earthly life were temporary and, therefore, obstacles in the way of our eternal and spiritual identity. Perhaps the most memorable example of this came with the push in our youth group to destroy all of our “secular” music and the expectation we would only listen to Christian music. Perhaps another tacit assumption was that the “strong” believers would limit their participation in “secular” clubs and sports, and would devote more time to church activities (student leader board, church choir, youth group, etc.).
One could easily have appealed to Galatians 3:28 to reinforce this idea: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” (Gal 3:28a). I could hear the preachers: get rid of your cultural traditions and habits that are worldly! All that matters now is your church family, your Christian devotional practices, and evangelism!
But is that what Paul was trying to say? Was Paul intending to deny Jewish cultural identity? Someone who has read all of Galatians carefully would never come to this conclusion. Remember Galatians 2:15-16, where Paul reminds Peter that they as Jews by birth ought to know that a person is justified by faith in Christ and not works of the law. He doesn’t say he was a Jew, but he is one. I also think of Colossians 4:11, where Paul (in prison) makes mention of a few co-workers in ministry who are fellow Jews in Christ and have been a special comfort to him. It is very important to note that Paul, even as apostle to the Gentiles, maintains a special connection to his kinspeople (see Rom 9:1-5).
So what does Gal 3:28 mean after all? Two clues are very important to getting this verse’s interpretation correct. First, we must finish out the verse—“for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The statement about “no longer this nor that” is less about leaving something behind (ethnicity, gender, status, etc.) than it is about unity as a community in Christ. Second, we can learn a lot about what Paul means from the pairing “neither male nor female.” It is obvious enough that Paul does not endorse the elimination of gendered identity (see 1 Cor 11). So however we interpret Gal 3:28, we must keep this in mind.
The best interpretation of Gal 3:28 I have heard comes from a lecture by one of my doctoral supervisors, John M.G. Barclay. He explained the “no longer this nor that” language here in this way: you are Jew, freeman, or male, but “in Christ” this label cannot be the most important thing that defines you. It cannot be the identity marker that establishes your value and worth. For some, this statement would be a great reassurance (i.e., for slaves), but for others it would be a challenge to set aside boasting and being puffed up about being a man or Roman or non-slave.
Once we have contextualized Gal 3:28 properly, we return to the matter of cultural identity. Does this verse support the rejection of cultural identity? Given the evidence of Paul’s letters as a whole, this can hardly be the case. At worst, such notions support a detachment from the world that Paul would never endorse (1 Cor 5:10). Given Paul’s vivid metaphors relating to sports, drama, warfare, and politics, he was a remarkably “cultured” man, someone who did not reject local culture, but was very careful to study it and show circumspection in all things.
Paul was not the kind of person to believe that saying “Yes” to Jesus meant saying “No” to culture and cultural identity (see Rom 14-15). Rather, the real apostle Paul maintained his Jewish identity, but was also able to adapt to other cultures (1 Cor 9:13). While he did not talk much about the earthly ministry of Jesus, we know a Paul who lived out the spirit of the incarnation, a ministry and lifestyle that was devoted to seeing the power and grace of the gospel planted, growing, and blossoming within and through the daily lives of all kinds of people in a way that redeemed, not denied, their cultural particularities.
Dr. Nijay Gupta is assistant professor of biblical theology and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. In spring 2014 he is teaching a class on cultural intelligence and multicultural ministry in the doctor of ministry program.